4-H parents tend livestock after children leave


When they go away to college, some children leave behind their old baseball gloves, comic book collections or handprints in clay.

Peggy Howell's son and daughter left two dozen sheep on the family's 5-acre lot in Glenelg.

Now, with 24-year-old Michael a translator in Japan, and Jeanne Marie, 22, away at graduate school, the Howells have taken over the care of their children's former 4-H projects.

"It keeps me in touch with real life," says Mrs. Howell of the sheep she wound up keeping when her children left home. "I go out and talk to them."

The Howells are part of what 4-H leaders say is a common scenario: families that came to western Howard County looking for a home surrounded by quiet countryside and wound up running a miniature livestock ranch.

For the Howells, it all started with BB, which is short for "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," the black ewe that was Michael's first 4-H project when he was 8.

The sheep was one of Michael's two original market lambs. The Howells thought their son would enjoy the project and would learn responsibility in the process.

"He decided he really liked sheep," Mrs. Howell recalls.

A local 4-H leader took the family to a livestock show and sale in Pennsylvania. When they returned, there were three Shropshire lambs in the back of their Volkswagen square-back.

It's a situation that occurs over and over as people move from the city or more crowded suburbs to Howard County's rural west.

For many of those families, that peace and quiet eventually is punctuated by the lowing, grunting and bleating of the family's own animals, says Martin Hamilton, an extension agent for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and 4-H leader.

"They they get there, and somebody says, 'You ought to get your kids involved in 4-H,' and the kids say, 'So-and-so's doing this, why can't we do this?' and all of a sudden they're doing something they had no intention of doing," he says.

Annette Fleishell, a nurse, and her husband, John, an accountant, bought their peaceful acre in Woodbine 18 years ago. But once their daughter Karen got involved in 4-H projects, that 1 acre proved a bit small.

Karen Fleishell recalls that when she was 10, "the girl across the road had some lambs, and I thought they were kind of cute, so I got one market lamb. . . . He was real kind of fluffy and friendly. He was called Leroy."

By the time Ms. Fleishell was ready to start college, the Fleishells were leasing 6 acres of pasture from their neighbors to provide grazing for their small flock.

Ms. Fleishell, now 27, still lives at home, working full time tending about 50 Suffolk and Dorset sheep.

She sells newborn lambs to 4-H members and older lambs to customers for meat. She also hires out her services as a sheep-shearer and custom fitter, which involves preparing animals for showing.

And Mrs. Fleishell is president of the Howard County Sheep Breeders Association.

Why take on such work?

Economics and pride, say some who keep animals as an avocation.

"The investment is the result of years of improving the kids' projects and the breeding associated with that," says Sam Seymour, a business manager at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel and a 4-H leader in West Friendship. "You end up having a significant improvement in quality that you just don't want to throw away or take to the stockyard."

There's also a certain animal attraction.

"I find it very relaxing," says Mr. Hamilton, who keeps cattle in his Lisbon back yard. "When I go home, that's my way to relax. I guess it's something between you and the soil."

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