4-H Programs Leave Lasting Impact on Youth

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Among the attendants to the annual Athens County Fair, there are more children than adults in the crowd: it’s Children’s day at the fair. There are festival rides and snack vendors that attract the children, but there are also children with numbers on their backs who are holding a rope for their show animals – hoping all their hard work will pay off.

One of the young contestants at the goat showing competition is 13-year-old Ashley Lockhart, who attends Federal Hocking Secondary School. Her reddish-brown hair is twisted into two braids that come down on both sides of her pale, white face. Wearing a blue-and-white plaid shirt tucked under dark blue jeans, Ashley is joined by her mother and family in preparing her goat before going in front of the crowd and judges.

“My goat that I have is Andy and I have another one in the pen and his name is Pen,” Lockhart says. “Andy is six months old. Right now I’m entering the Market Goat competition; it’s where the judge looks for the meat on the goat more than the showmanship, and it’s mostly about the goat and what I have been training the goat for all year long.”

Ashley’s mother and family members are keeping an eye on the spot inside the barn where Ashley’s goat was resting, and so are other family members of other contestants. There is no sense that the competition is a solo affair, but rather, a family affair.

“My great-grandpa used to have a really big farm; he used to have cows and sheep, and that’s where I got my barn from,” Lockhart says. “And my dad was really happy when he realized that I was able to fix up the old barn to turn it into a goat barn and he thought it would make my great-grandpa very, very proud.

“I showed chickens for three years before this, and last year was the first time showing goats. And before showing, I did come to the fair a lot, and I got super excited and really sad when I had to leave. So, my mom thought it would be perfect to start 4-H.”

4-H is America’s largest youth development organization that partners with public universities to help get children across the nation hands-on experiences. Out of the six million participants, 2.6 million of them are from rural farming areas like Athens. And here in Athens, an educator from Ohio State University assists children like Ashley to get an early start in participating in events like the county fair.

The county fair partners with 4-H for the development of children through taking responsibility of raising livestock and reaping the fruits of labor.

“It’s up to them to take care of everything, and if they are determined to succeed in that, they will succeed in life, says Ranson Calaway, one of the directors of the fair. “To get the kid more confidence and grounded in a better lifestyle – both in a community and personal way. A cleaner or more docile lifestyle.”

He’s talking about the side of the community that wants to instill real-life lessons to growing children and, at the same time, emphasize the role of agriculture in the community to these young minds. But, at the same time, Ranson believes current times are radically different from the past.

“In this day-in-age, we have Facebook and all other types of media, but it used to be where you came to see your neighbors and folks from the neighboring county, Calaway says. “So, fairs are having a harder time with finance. Still, you can’t beat face-to-face, one-on-one interaction.

“Yeah, encourage agriculture, but we’re also realists. In reality, you need a good income in our area to be a farmer. There is a saying… If you want to make a million dollars in agriculture, start with two.”

Paisley Russell, who is a little bit older and taller than Ashely, is an example of a veteran participant of the county fair who believes that her professional career outside of her local farm does not necessarily indicate the end of her involvement in the local county fair.

“I have been showing since I was four years old,” Russell says. “I used to be in cheerleading in middle school and I guess I wasn’t getting enough of the experience. People in agriculture are willing to help out, they’re so active with the youth and I think that’s really important. I want to go to college for Ag communications and maybe serve as a feed representative and then expand my knowledge in how to feed animals and what kind of nutrition they need to be the best they can be for the show.”

Like Paisley, Ashely’s work around animals since a young age has shaped what she wants to do in the future.

“I also want to save for college, and that’s a lot of money for veterinary science at OSU,” Lockhart says. “I love the personality of the goats because each goat is different, they’re like humans – they have awesome personalities.

“Farming is too expensive or, professional jobs are outside of farming.” There are many voices that point to the declining popularity of agriculture in the youth of the country. However, the continuing tradition of county fairs across the county and the continuing passion for agricultural awareness by a 17-year-old high schooler tells that there is a community effort to place farming in the spotlight of the town.”

For Paisley and Ashley, all that hard work raising their animals has paid off, not just in the lessons and skills they’ve learned, but also in shaping the direction of their lives.