Caring for livestock helps 4-H youth transcend a time of social isolation

Pictured are Brendan Woolsey, Jessica Amato, Meghan Tobias, Shiann Winecoff, Hanah Winecoff and Lauren Jameson with Cha Cha and Brandy, two Jersey cows from Birar Creek Farm in New Paltz.

Half the fun of a county fair is seeing the live farm animals – raised from infancy, groomed to look their handsomest and trained to be on their best public behavior by young volunteers. These hardworking kids learn practical animal husbandry skills in the 4-H Youth Development Program run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Ulster County. Besides raising livestock for market, they’re also trained in public presentation skills.

The annual Ulster County Fair is the ultimate test of what they have learned over the preceding year, as well as their ability to raise healthy animals. Those blue ribbons aren’t simply earned by the animals themselves; these youths must stand before a panel of judges and demonstrate, with clarity and poise, their knowledge of how best to handle and care for their charges.

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At the end of the fair, the 4-Hers must part with the animals they raised when they are auctioned off, knowing that they may be used for food. It’s part of the reality of being a farmer. The kids can’t get as attached to these creatures the same way they would to a pet. “If they’re for market, we don’t name them and get as involved as if they’re show-quality,” says Isabel Harcourt-Ramon, 18, of Modena. “We usually identify them by number, using their ID tags.”

Three weeks before the 2021 fair, Isabel is at the Fairgrounds along with her nephews, Michael Bishop, 14, and Tyler Goulden, 10, to get their chickens tested for pullorum, “to see if they’re healthy enough to enter the fair.” This will be her final year as a 4-Her, as she has just graduated from Wallkill High School and aged out of the program. This fall she plans to enroll in a veterinary technician program at Ulster County Community College, and later transfer to a four-year veterinary program.

When it comes to 4-H leadership, Isabel is a rock star. Born into a farm family, she’s a third-generation 4-Her, and has been involved in the program since she was five years old. She is currently “president of all the animal groups,” she says, and serves as a youth representative on the CCE Agriculture Committee. She spends a lot of her time running clinics for younger kids. In 2019 she won the 4-H Master Showmanship award for Ulster County. She has proven her expertise with raising beef cattle, dairy cattle, dogs, goats, poultry and rabbits; but she has worked with rabbits the longest. This year she’s showing New Zealand, American Chinchilla and Giant Chinchilla breeds.

It has been a strange time to wrap up her 4-H career, given the COVID-19 restrictions on people congregating. What happens when you have animals around instead of people, during a time of enforced social distancing? Did the emotional bonds between farmer and livestock become more powerful? Isabel says that she enjoyed their company, but that over the years she has gotten used to the idea that her animals will be sold off.

Meghan Tobias with Cha Cha, a Jersey cow from Briar Creek Farm in New Paltz.

“What we started doing more often was hanging out with the animals more. We’d talk to them, see how they’re doing, when we didn’t have friends over and had nothing to do,” she says. “But I’m able to desensitize myself. We don’t want kids crying in the show ring.”

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, most 4-H training activities – like meetings everywhere – used electronic technology to enable members to participate remotely. “Last year we did mainly Zoom and FaceTime video chats; people could call in or text with questions,” Isabel reports. “This year we met more in person at our houses, with masks.”

Instead of a full-scale Ulster County Fair in August 2020, the Fairgrounds hosted a socially distanced alternative event called Safarmi. Each 4-H family set up a booth along the roadways in the site; visitors could drive through, look at the animals and ask the 4-H kids about them. “They still had judging going on,” recalls Isabel’s mother, Priscilla Harcourt-Ramon, another lifelong 4-Her. “The traffic was backed up into New Paltz. The Agricultural Society was amazed.”

According to Priscilla, the necessity of meeting online actually had some positive effects on the youths in the program. “It brought them together with other counties. They were able to attend a national 4-H conference through Zoom.” More kids who were curious about 4-H were able to check out the program remotely, increasing enrollment, and members could attend more clinics and workshops than usual because, she says, “Zoom saves travel time!” The kids themselves came up with creative new ways to interact, such as by making up games and knowledge competitions.

Everyone is pleased that this year the Fair itself is back, but because of the experience of COVID-19, the long-term future for 4-H looks to be a little different, and maybe better. Even when the pandemic has been left well behind, Priscilla says, “I think the bigger network is still going to remain.”