When Jennifer Brigante was 9 years old, she won the Little Miss Howard County Farm Bureau contest.
She remembers being in the show ring, watching the older girls give speeches during the Miss Howard County Farm Bureau contest and thinking, "I'm never going to be able to do that."
She was too terrified of public speaking.
Nine years later in August 2016, Brigante was crowned Miss Howard County Farm Bureau at the Howard County Fair after vying for the title against four friends. It was the culmination of 13 years of work— three years as a Clover in the youth program and 10 as a 4-H member — and a lifetime of loving animals.
"I was so proud of myself," Brigante, 19, said. "I had wanted it for so long. I was so proud of myself for it."
Now, as Brigante prepares to age-out of the 4-H program, she said she'll never forget that moment. The rising college sophomore spent the past year studying civil engineering at Clemson University — more than 500 miles from her family farm in Woodbine.
It was the first time in ages she didn't have to wake up at 6 a.m. to do chores and care for her dozens of animals before school. She was completely focused on academics, spending time with friends and enjoying her freedom.
Still, at the mention of her life without 4-H and her last show, tears pool in Brigante's eyes.
"I know I'm gonna go in [the show ring], I'm probably going to cry," she said. "This is it. I'm definitely going to miss it, and this is the last time I'm bringing animals to the fair and my rabbits and everything."
Brigante has had "just about every animal" for as long as she can remember. Her family breeds rabbits, and she started with showing sheep and pigs when she was a kid. Although she loved her new-found freedom at college, she missed her farm so much she joined the Dairy Science Club at Clemson.
Right now, she said, her family's farm doesn't have a lot of animals. Just three lambs, four pigs, eight rabbits, 10 bison, two cows and lots of chickens and hens.
"And of course dogs," Brigante added.
Although Brigante's parents didn't participate as children in 4-H or grow up on farms, they moved to a farm in Woodbine shortly after they were married. Her three older siblings were 4-H members, and it was the perfect opportunity for Brigante to showcase her love for agriculture, animals and the outdoors. She even met her two best friends through showing cattle in the program.
As for her friends who weren't 4-H members, Brigante had a daily routine that wasn't even a "concept in their imagination," her mom, Cindy, said.
"It's unique for her friends, but it's a way of life for us," her mother said. While Brigante's friends who weren't 4-H members got to sleep in Saturday mornings, Brigante had to wake up at 8 a.m. when the food truck came to feed the animals.
"When she did bring her friends over for farm tours they were always in awe, like 'Oh my god, this is where eggs come from?'" Cindy Brigante said.
Jennifer Brigante's farm chores varied with the season. There were less in the winter, but in the hotter months she'd have to wake up early, feed the animals and give them water before it became too hot — or they wouldn't eat — or hose down the pigs before she could leave for school. Brigante said she'd wake up at 6 a.m. to fit in all her chores before classes started.
Brigante's responsibilities grew as she got older — she started working with kids and volunteering more, and soon she was giving her own speeches. That fear of public speaking faded, and it became one of her favorite parts of the job.
The program exposed her to leadership, and enabled her to travel to places like Oregon, Texas and Atlanta for rabbit judging contests and national conferences. She had a built-in community of people who would help her with anything.
That comfort was why leaving for college was so hard, even though she knew she wanted to leave Maryland and get something different from "the farm feel."
She had to leave for South Carolina the day after the fair, and had to fly home after a week and a half of school for the state contest, where she was third runner up.
"It was hard because there were dinners and things that I couldn't fly home for," Brigante said.
Brigante used to want to be a veterinarian, and though she still loves animals, she plans to use her engineering degree to protect the environment. Her time in 4-H helped fuel her love for the outdoors, and she wants to hold onto that feeling.
"The whole program is, it's back to basics," Cindy Brigante said. "She understands where food comes from, how much hard work it does take to raise the food that we get so she appreciates everything I think a little bit more."
And although Jennifer Brigante will age-out of the program after this summer, she feels confident that she's accomplished all her goals. She showed all her animals, and knows there are younger members who look up to her.
She'll still go to the fair every year, volunteer with kids and enjoy the rest of her summer. She's not quite ready to let go yet.
"I try not to think about it," she said. "This is it. This is the last time I'm going to be in the show ring."