Every morning 11-year-old Zack Hayden and brother Conner, 12, head out to the barn on the family farm in Lowell, Ind., to do chores. Among them is making sure their 4-H projects have enough feed and water. The two kids show beef and swine at the Lake County Fair, and when their projects fall into the same classes, or categories, the competition is brisk between the two.
The routine is repeated after school, rain or shine, summer or winter. The boys want to have a good showing at the county fair and keep their animals healthy. And their efforts help parents Matt and Chari keep the family farm a going concern.
Julie Jones, 4-H youth development educator at the Lake County Purdue Extension office, said 4-H, now in its 111th year, teaches its young members a wide variety of skills, including arts, crafts, aerospace, music, life skills and more. But agriculture remains at the core of its original purpose, for decades engaging primarily rural kids in learning the latest in information and technologies for better farming. These days, a larger share of the membership has shifted to suburban youngsters who enjoy the camaraderie and projects 4-H offers.
Zack and Conner belong to one of the 40 4-H clubs in Lake County. Their dad, Matt Hayden saif, “It’s a learning experience. A lot of kids don’t even know where our food comes from. I have a couple sons who are really into it."
On this fall afternoon, Matt is answering questions on a cell phone as he drives a tractor, one of his sons with him, picking field corn that will be transformed into corn syrup, ethanol and other products. The boys will help him bale the straw.
At the house, the boys’ mom, Chari, said 4-H has taught their boys “a lot of responsibility and a lot of life skills. They’ve had to start projects and finish them on time.” That can sometimes be where parents get involved. “Zack and Conner are pretty young, in their third and fourth years in 4-H, so they need some help with some projects.
“I think the most beneficial thing (about 4-H) is building relationships with other kids in the program.”
Conner agrees the best part is getting together with friends at the meetings held every third Wednesday of the month. Zack said, “I like meeting new friends a lot, and showing the beef (at the county fair),” though he admits to feeling “nervous and excited” as he waits for his steer or pig to be judged. Conner said that after a decline, there was more beef entered into 4-H judging this year, and that made for a livelier competition.
Even with all the daily chores of farm life, Conner says the hardest part of being in 4-H is “when we show our animals in the 4-H auction, because we know the animal won’t be ours anymore.” Names like Daisy, Roscoe, Pork Chop and Baconator have made the animals more personal to the boys, who’ve also put a lot of work into harvesting straw for the animals’ bedding.
For the dinner table and for the fair, blue-ribbon harvests of home-grown tomatoes, peppers, squash and more reward 4-Hers’ efforts. Jones, at the Purdue Extension office, is enthusiastic. “Our goal is to develop young people to have a positive impact on the world. One way is through agriculture, learning the technology to make harvests more productive to feed more people. We’re feeding more people with fewer farmers,” making the Hayden family farm one of the jewels dotting the Hoosier landscape.
With fewer kids living on farms, 4-H is getting creative. Programs provide for animal like goats, sheep and cows to be leased to youths, who care for them and show them at the fair, said Matt Hayden, who is on the board of directors of the Lake County Farm Bureau. “About 90 percent of dairy shown at the fair are leased,” and kids can also purchase poultry.
Conner said chores caring for the animals are “not bad,” and Zack said he’d tell other kids thinking about joining 4-H , “There are games with teams, and we have lots of fun.”
Fun seems to be one of the biggest harvests of all.