GTPulse: What about the 4-H kids?

I must be the last person on the planet to know about 4-H. Before coming here I had never heard of the youth development organization. While event cancellations are still rolling in, the Northwestern Michigan Fair is still happening as of right now. The annual fair has always been rooted in the celebration of the region’s agriculture, horticulture, education, mechanical arts, fine arts, fruit and grain products, stock raising and dairy products, domestic science and kindred interests, and the local 4-H program is very much a part of that.

Sometimes a friend or my mom will ask what kind of upcoming stories I have. When explaining this story I started with, “There’s this program called 4-H and -” only to be promptly cut off with, “I know what 4-H is.” So, if you’re unlike me then you know the program is geared towards helping youth develop skills, “needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy.” Although the program is international, in the United States it’s directly handled through public university programs. Michigan State University Extension is the keeper of the 4-H program in Michigan and with the pandemic, this year they have decided on no 4-H Youth Livestock shows or auction at the Northwestern Michigan Fair.

A big focus of the over 100-year-old program is mentoring kids on how to raise livestock. For roughly a year, youth will be mentored in caring for a farm animal. The local kids participating in the program here take their animal to the fair when it’s held in August where they will show their animal and then sell it.

“We raise them to sell them for meat, most of them.”

Lillia Brookshire is a Williamsburg resident and has been participating in the Grand Traverse County chapter of 4-H since she was 13 years old.

“I thought it was a really cool program, to be able to raise animals and make money off of them. You also send your buyer letters, so you have to communicate with whoever is buying your animal. It teaches you to write professional letters and talking to people face-to-face. It’s a lot of work so it teaches you a lot of responsibility.”

The 18-year-old has to care for a livestock animal every year to make sure it is healthy and ready to sell. It’s her responsibility to bathe and feed the animal, as well as clean up its stall.

Physical factors go into how well an animal does at the Youth Livestock show and auction. Judges will consider things like weight, physical defects and how well the youth has trained their animal to walk on a halter, another part of the responsibility that 4-H kids take on.

“Showmanship is how well you work with your animal. How well he sets up and how fast. You walk around with a halter. Then there’s market. Market is the way they look, showmanship is how you interact with them.”

A year is plenty of time to form an attachment to something, especially something you’re taking care of. But that heartbreak is a part of the learning process. Programs like 4-H exist to usher in a new generation of commercial agricultural farmers. Most farmers are not in a position to get attached to every livestock animal that crosses their path.

“The first year I had a pig. It’s hard to give them away. I ball my eyes out every time. They’re my pets for a whole year.”

Why put yourself through it? For Lillia, it’s about more than how much she loves the animal she raises.

“We give those animals such a good life. I love taking care of them. Other animals don’t get that kind of love and care.”

Where will all of that love go this year without the livestock show?

“We can still show, it’s just not 4-H affiliation. There’s a fair board, and they’re taking care of everything.”

For Lillia, she has had a buyer from the beginning so she knows where her steer is going this year. But others rely on the auction every year to sell their livestock. This year’s auction will be held virtually, with buyers being able to bid on the livestock online.

Things might look different for 4-H kids at the end of their year-long journey raising an animal, but the experience is still the same.

“I’ve learned so much about taking care of animals through this. Having to take care of something else just makes you more responsible.”

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Categories: GTPulse