At the Howard County Fair, it seems as though every third person is sporting a bright-green 4-H T-shirt. Teens wearing the shirts are showing off their pigs and goats. Adults are keeping an eye on their children or hovering near the animal stalls.
Though farms and farming families have declined over the decades in Howard County, the 4-H Club is alive and well. The county organization has about 650 members, a number that has stayed constant over the years, said Sheryl Burdette, the 4-H extension coordinator.
However, Howard County's 4-H has changed along with the county.
These days, fewer participants are raising cattle, and more are raising smaller animals such as goats and pigs, Burdette said. And many participants are forsaking animals altogether, to focus on such projects as sewing, baking, vegetable-growing and public speaking.
"Our numbers are staying constant," said 4-H office assistant Rick Hodiak, who has been with 4-H about 30 years, working in Howard County for 24 of them, he said. "The thing that's changing is you're seeing less kids in the agricultural side. It's more diverse now."
The Howard County 4-H, the youth development program of the Maryland Cooperative Extension, is part of a national 4-H organization that teaches children the fundamentals of farm life, from growing squash to raising swine, from planting broccoli to milking cows. The name refers to Head, Hands, Heart and Health.
The program has roots in Howard County that go back about 80 years.
When the Howard County Fair started 62 years ago, it became a highlight of the annual 4-H calendar in the county and the end point of many activities. Animals that were raised throughout the year were sold at the fair, vegetables were entered in competitions, and projects such as quilts and posters were displayed.
Those activities are as strong as ever, Burdette said. During this year's fair, 4-H participants are everywhere, showing off their animals in events such as the Open Meat Breeding Sheep Show and the Pygmy Goat Show.
Exhibition halls are crowded with plates of prize-winning 4-H-grown tomatoes, string beans and other vegetables, as well as posters crafted by 4-H members on everything from archery to recycling.
Burdette said one myth of 4-H is that it is only for farming families.
"It's very much a misconception," she said. "A lot of people think that the kids all come off farms."
These days, 4-H members might raise a goat or a pig on an acre or two, or perhaps take advantage of a relatively new program that allows them to lease an animal and keep it on someone else's property, she said.
Leasing dairy cows
Leasing has been especially popular with dairy cows because only five dairy farms remain in the county, she said. "That's sort of kept that dairy project alive and well," she said.
Other 4-H animals at the fair include about 50 goats, 110 lambs and 70 steers, Burdette said.
That seems like a lot of cattle, but it represents a decline from past years.
"Our numbers of dairy and beef have declined, but we've increased in other areas," Burdette said. "The beef has declined just because kids don't have the room to raise them. The smaller animals have really increased, because of the change of landscape of our county."
About 250 4-H pigs are being shown at the fair this year, Burdette said. Pigs are gaining popularity because they represent an initial purchase of about $150, compared with $1,000 for a steer, she said. They also require less time and less space. A 4-H'er can buy a pig in April and sell it at the fair in August, she said. Steers, on the other hand, must be purchased in November, Hodiak said.
Jim Factor of Woodbine said his daughter, Julie, 14, has been in 4-H for three years. He is not a farmer, but he likes to garden, he said. Like an increasing number of 4-H members, Julie raised a pig, he said. "It's been a great experience," he said. "They meet a lot of people. They learn a lot about livestock and agriculture."
3 children are 4-H'ers
Carol Loveless, also of Woodbine, has three children in 4-H: Billy, 14; Katie, 13, and Brian, 10. "You do not have to have animals," she noted, though her family is showing three pigs at the fair.
"It's family fun," she said. "It keeps the family together. You work on the projects together, and you have your ups and downs." 4-H also teaches life skills, such as being prepared, being organized and speaking in public, she said. "It's helped the kids tremendously in school."
Burdette predicted that 4-H would keep moving toward a focus on smaller animals as Howard County continues to replace its farms with suburban subdivisions. "I think we'll still have cattle but I think the numbers will be limited," she said.