4H should change the way it does business

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My mother never wanted me to join 4-H. When my father suggested signing me up, she argued that 4-H was “too political,” and she wasn’t interested in camping out at the county fair for a week. But my father prevailed by promising to take sole responsibility for my 4-H education, and dutifully deposited me at least 15 minutes early to the monthly meetings of the Wingina Chapter.

It’s not in my mother’s nature to completely ignore my activities, however, and at 11 years of age, I ended up demonstrating how to make her buttermilk ranch dressing to a room full of people whose sole reason for being there was to watch a relative give a similar demonstration. This experience taught me that family bonding often occurs during moments of slow torture.

Part of my mother’s hesitancy stemmed from her experiences with my older sister, who spent endless hours sewing and baking and filling our freezer so that she could win the “high-point” award at the county fair.

Since my mother didn’t care whether I won any ribbons, I drifted along, picking up photography and cooking projects and pleasing my father, who urged me to make money on a swine project.

We made a deal that if he purchased a piglet, and its feed, I would then use the money I made selling it at the 4-H auction to buy my school clothes that fall. Reflecting back, my willingness to agree to this probably foreshadowed bad financial deals to come, but at the time, I wasn’t given much of an option, and I didn’t realize that pigs could be such cash cows, pardon the pun.

For several months prior to the fair, I dutifully fed and watered my pigs, ironically dubbed Wilbur I and Wilbur II, and trained them to “show” by directing them down a long alleyway with a cane to a concrete paddock where they enjoyed a daily 15-minute shower and scrub.

Now, if you haven’t seen a pig show at the county fair, you’re really missing out on quality entertainment. Pigs are not like cattle. You can’t lead them around docilely by a halter. Instead, pigs are herded with canes and the occasional knee to the side to try and convince them to turn their good side towards the judge. Really, the pig goes where it wants to and you just try to keep it from either a) charging the judge and bowling him over or b) starting a fight with the other pigs in the arena. The likelihood of both of these things happening is actually quite high, which is why the pig shows are one of the most wellattended events at the fair.

But my daily wash and scrub treatment made my pigs gentle and hesitant to fight and ultimately led to my winning the coveted title of “Reserved Jr. Grand Champion Pig Showman.” After winning such a dubious title I scandalized my mother by broadcasting the word “castrated” across four counties when asked by the local radio station whether my pig was a boy or a girl.

When my pigs were loaded into the stock trailer and hauled off to the slaughterhouse I didn’t cry, but I knew kids who did. I was reminded of them when I spotted a picture of a boy with a steer in a tire shop in Dillon, Mont., last year. A handwritten note posted next to the picture read, “Dear Tire Shop, thank you for buying my steer at the 4-H auction. He was a good steer. I could sleep with him. I still miss him. I hope he is good eating.”

I remembered writing similar notes to my buyers, and it dawned on me why my mother thought 4-H was “too political.” Despite 4-H’s sanctified status, and the county fair its most sacred ritual, it’s not as apple-pie as most people think. Like many c o m p e t i t i v e activities for children, 4-H is often more about winning than learning. And with a significant amount of money involved, the stakes are much higher.

For instance, the price of a steer, or a pig, at the 4-H auction often reflects more about the family’s status in the community than it does the actual value of the animal. At 4-H auctions without fixed prices, you might see two blue-ribbon animals sold for vastly different prices depending on which family does business with the local tractor dealership. One might argue that local businesses pay two to four times the market value for these animals as a sort of charity, to help rural kids build their college funds, but this simply places more emphasis on the prize than the experience.

You may brush this off as trivial corruption that evolves in any organization, but I see it as a key reason why healthy landscapes are eroding nationwide and food quality has greatly diminished. Although there is no denying the value in learning how to care for an animal, 4-H should be teaching children the greater rewards of an agricultural lifestyle, not how to perfectly trim the hair on a steer’s ear. Let’s face it. We aren’t enticing kids to farming or ranching with outdated models of agriculture that emphasize the cronyism of small towns. We need to give children a larger vision of the challenges of owning land and livestock in the West, and important landstewardship practices.

So, instead of teaching kids the sorrow of parting with a favorite pet for a high price, let’s teach them the joy of eradicating noxious weeds with goats and fattening their steers on carefully grazed grass. Only then will 4-H take on any permanent meaning.

Janelle Holden, who comes from a longtime ranching family, writes from Livingston, Mont.

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From August 2005, janelle holden.