"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in."

-- Robert Frost

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

4-H Backstory

Nearly a week after moving out to the country, a family up the dirt road from us who would soon become fast friends, came walking by our new house with sheep on a leash. They were excited to see new kids in the neighborhood and we were excited to see sheep. This was a far cry from cul-de-sac suburbia. My new friend enlightened me to the world of 4-H, an organization founded on horticulture, agriculture, domestic and homemaking projects and more. I'd found my people.

We joined our local club and attended the monthly meetings and quickly saw the value of this organization. Community service, support of America's agriculture, clean cut kids, a motto about pledging heart and hands to doing good. Not to mention, with each project, an accounting book was required full of spreadsheets, goal setting, self evaluations and money management. That hooked the CPA of our family.

Now, we aren't really interested in turning any of our children into farmers. Quite the contrary. We'd like for them to see that life is full of hard work and hard jobs, respect the land you live in, give everything your best effort, and get an education that will lend towards a career you love. After submission of the accounting books, the kids interview one-on-one with a judge. There are expectations -- a straight look in the eye, a firm handshake, a tucked in shirt. It's invaluable experience.

We'd never had pets before and our new neighbors assured us that chicken raising was simple and completely worthwhile so we gave it a try. For the most part it was and we fell in love with the varying breeds of birds. It became so much fun to get a clutch of yellow chicks in the spring and watch as each turned into something different. They were entertaining, they followed us around like pets and they supplied us with daily eggs. There's nothing like a pet that gives back and that you can eat if your kids stop taking care of it.

Then we branched out into meat poultry. Genetically bred for fast growth, they get fed a high protein diet and super grow to be ready for "processing" in about seven weeks. They have less personality than layers and really just eat like tomorrow my be their last day on earth ... which it may. This is where most ask if I "process" them myself and I have to say it's where my amazing skills end. It's a no can do for me but for a mere $1.25 a head there is a plant south of here that will take care of biz and hand them back cleaned, frozen and bagged as though they were bought at the grocery store.

This is where the 4-H poultry project comes into play. It's a very fun game and can easily make sense of gambling addictions or obsessions over baseball stats -- it's that alluring to us.

Requirements for the fair are that meat poultry not exceed 5 lbs or immediate disqualification. Also, a pen of three chickens of the same gender where females are preferred, though a pen of males won last year but folks say that was the first in eons of time. It's a 50/50 chance of males to females at hatching so we always order extra to get what we need.

The weigh-in day is full of anxiety as kids either try to funnel feed down birds for those few extra ounces or run them around the yard trying to burn that last hundredth. Either way, all factors come into play on that day -- the length of time since hatching, the protein content of the feed, the frequency of feeding, the integrated amounts of exercise, the closeness of the birds in weight to each other, the closeness to the 5 lb mark without going over. All of this coupled with the feel of the bird by the judge on judging day determines the winner. That last week before "judgement day" we're scrambling weighing birds each day and trying to match up the prefect pen by either pulling back on the feed or upping the protein percentage. It's crazy.

We have a few advantages. We have three kids which gives us three chances and they all make an agreement to split the winnings of those pens that make the top five going to sale since they all feel they've done an equal share of the work. But there can only be one Grand and one Reserve Champion winner who get to participate in all of the hoopla. AND, last year we cornered the judge and asked him to give a private tutorial on what makes a good bird which he was all too happy to do. Secret weapon -- oatmeal the last week to cut cholesterol. And this year we can only say thank heavens for good ole food storage oats.

Everyone holds their breath. The winner is determined. 1st and 2nd will be crowning glory with rides in the local parade, handshakes with the mayor, pictures in the paper, a plaque forever more in the events center, and opening bids at the auction. All top fives of every category (poultry, turkey, sheep, goat, steer) will make it to the sale.

There's a Buyer's BBQ held before the auction in which the kids selling are allowed to meet and greet potential buyers (local restaurant, business and ranch owners) and shake hands whilst selling their story in hopes of being remembered in the auction ring -- no over protective parents allowed. This is where I advise my children to avoid eating and shake the hand of every adult. This is also where, when asked last year by a potential buyer what he'd do with this fifth place winnings, Christian said "Put it in a vending machine." "Oh, a vending machine business?" asks the buyer. "No an actual vending machine to get candy" says Christian. At least he was remembered and still sold his pen for $500.00. And at least he didn't say that again this year.

Finally, there's the auction where all the hard work pays off. These same buyers put up good money to 1) promote their businesses as their name will soon be a walking advertisement listed everywhere in town and 2) to support the 4-H kids in a charity event. They bid high to support the Grand and Reserve champs and the other top five placers don't do too shabby either. The kids must write thank yous to all contributors and send copies to the main office for the release of their check and then each of mine, at least, will be $750.00 richer than they were when they started eight weeks ago. Everyone walks away a winner and I say not bad for a summer job and not bad for a learning experience -- all thanks to our agricultural community and the local 4-H.


  1. wow--I still don't understand, but that is very interesting!

  2. I'm not sure I understand it yet myself, Cindy. The bottom line is that businesses need to advertise and what would be cheaper than sponsoring a Grand Champion at the fair and taking all of the free publicity that comes for supporting. There's ads in the paper, billboards, signs on the side of buildings, fliers in restaurant windows, etc.

    It's a wash in the advertising world. Sort of like Lance Armstrong wearing a Nike shirt while winning the Tour de France. They pay a price and their name is sung from the rooftops. This cow town goes crazy for a rodeo and a buyer can really get their name out there for very little ... from an advertising perspective, that is.