CANTON — Every morning, all summer long, Kaicey Conant is outside hosing off cows.
The reigning Maine Dairy Princess, Conant’s responsible for eight black-and-white Holsteins that she plucked for their good looks from the herd on the family farm. In two hours of daily chores, she feeds them, walks them, talks to them and, once or twice a week, gives a good scrub with cow soap.
She points to their backs, nice upward slopes. And their builds, big but not too big.
She’d put her cows up against anyone’s.
“When I was 9, I joined 4-H, which was probably the best day of my life,” said Conant, 16. “I couldn’t wait to show.”
Thousands of kids all over Maine spend thousands of hours each year feeding, mucking, soaping and trimming to prep for fair season.
Right now, it’s showtime.
Months of hard work in 4-H is capped by educational displays, accolades and last-minute flourishes.
Think lip balm on a chicken for beak sheen. A dab of paint on a horse for persnickety stains.
Conant, who recited the poem “Just a Cow” as her pageant talent, showed how to walk while subtly, gently pulling on a cow’s wattle so the side facing the judge has a smooth, clean jawline.
“You’ll see sheep that look really nice and prepped up, and then you’ll see the sheep that just showed up,” said Kaylin Beck, 15, of Livermore Falls, who’s shown sheep and poultry.
She starts working with her meat and fleece lambs as soon as their heads are big enough that the littlest halters don’t fall off.
With chickens, it’s when they’re still fluff balls.
“You can’t tell which ones you’re going to show, so you have to love them all, which isn’t very hard,” Beck said.
Last year, Maine counted 19,230 4-H participants. Oxford County is the state’s 4-H epicenter. About one in three come from there.
The statewide figure, though, is slowly on the decline. Twenty years ago, nearly 32,000 tweens and teens were involved.
“Our big area where there’s been a lot of growth in the (past) five to 10 years is in the STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) programs. Kids actively doing an animal component, that’s decreased,” said Jessica Brainerd, administrative assistant for the 4-H program at the University of Maine. “It makes sense. We’re moving toward a more urban society.”
Robin Beck, Kaylin’s mother and a 4-H leader, would like to see the ranks grow again, starting with allowing those involved in the 4-H after-school programs to take part in agricultural shows.
Fill the fair barns. Give more kids a chance to shine.
Out West where Robin Beck grew up, 4-H championship stock is sold off at televised events for big money.
“We want more clubs,” she said. “My hope is to bring a little of that here.”
‘Not the easiest thing’
It’s hardly your mother and father’s 4-H anymore. These days it includes activities like robotics, rocketry, botany, creative writing, archery and cooking, in addition to all things ag.
There are after-school programs, year-round clubs and camps, like UMaine’s 4-H Camp & Learning Center at Bryant Pond.
Last year, 2,500 Maine 4-H participants worked on animal projects, raising cows, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and rabbits.
Now is when livestock and kids go toe to toe, hoof to hoof, for ribbons and “premiums,” small cash prizes.
Maine’s agricultural fair season started last month in Houlton and ends in Fryeburg in October with the state’s largest 4-H show, where last year 200-plus kids ages 9 to 18 showed 589 animals.
Ten-year-old P.J. Gushee will be there.
Gushee raises market lamb, steer and swine (“market” is farm jargon for raising an animal for food), as well as dairy cows. He showed three cows at the Junior National Hereford Expo in Nebraska this summer.
“It’s bred right into him, to be honest with you,” said P.J.’s mother, Barbara Gushee, secretary of the Fryeburg Fair. “I grew up in 4-H. We’ve all worked with the cattle all of our life.”
The family has a small farm, Gushee Livestock, in Fryeburg. P.J., away this week showing at the Union Fair, pitches in by cleaning barns after school.
“He has to halter-break them and he has to do all those good treasures,” said Barbara Gushee. “He misses a lot of school to do his animals (during fair season), and as I tell (school officials), you can follow him for a day of getting up at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning and working all day and doing all this. It’s not the easiest thing in the world.”
Among the many requirements of 4-H (including community service, volunteering and one public speaking presentation a year): meticulous record-keeping.
Lauren Charron’s records show she logged 1,400 hours last year at the barn working with her horse, Twister. The 15-year-old from Topsham travels most nights with her sister, Brynn, 11, to Lisbon Falls, where they board their horses, for two to three hours of riding and chores.
“He’s kind of goofy; he just always wants to please you,” said Charron, who’s training for next month’s Big E, one of the largest agricultural fairs in the country, held in Massachusetts. “He likes showing, a lot. He gets this look in his eye and he wants to do it; you can tell some horses don’t, but he wants to.”
Before they hit the ring, she’ll clip Twister’s leg hair and trim his mane.
“It takes a long time to give him a bath because he’s a paint, so he’s brown and white,” she said. “There’s sometimes spots that you can’t get out, and those will be spray-painted white. That’s, like, a last resort.”
“Knowing all the work that I have put in, if I do get a first-place ribbon, it’s just rewarding,” Charron said.
4-H started more than 100 years ago amid concerns that young people were being drawn to the cities for jobs and worry about what that would mean for farming, according to the group’s website. Some of the earliest clubs offered prizes for the best corn yields. Children as young as 5 can join today but don’t start showing until age 9.
Kaylin Beck works with show sheep Sven and Frodo. (They’ve skipped showing chickens this year out of concerns over avian flu.)
In the summer, sheep care and maintenance is simple. Keep them watered, rotate pastures. Beck also walks with the animals, making sure they’re comfortable having their feet, head and tails handled.
“We try to keep them going so they don’t go thinking they don’t have to do it anymore,” she said.
Before a show, she’ll hand-pick their wool clean, sheer stray hairs and, in a pinch, spritz diluted Power Scour (a laundry wool wash) on grimy legs and underbellies.
“It drives me bonkers,” she said. “They lay up against the dirty wall because it’s really cool.”
Robin Beck said she likes that the club is nonpartisan, nonsectarian and equally for boys and girls. She likes the educational aspects, how it’s taught her daughter to be a leader, and the lessons she’s drawn — even the harsh ones.
The family homesteads on a 200-year-old farm.
“We’ve got a bottle-fed lamb out there (raised from birth),” Robin Beck said. “It’s going to be horrible to give that up. It’s a ‘has to.’ To feed people and make money, you have to get them to the butcher. It’s real life. These are real-life lessons that these kids learn through 4-H.”
Conant, who will give up her title next month, has spent the past year as an industry ambassador. She threw out a pitch at a Sea Dogs game, gave farm tours and talked with lots of schoolchildren.
“I feel like it’s so important to go to them and say, ‘This is where your milk is coming from and this is how we do it,'” she said.
She owns about 20 cows. She said caring for them and participating in 4-H has taught responsibility, independence and character. Members keep a “life skills” wheel in their paperwork; most of her wheel is filled in.
“It’s a lot of work, but honestly, it is so fun,” Conant said. “Finding a bond with the animals I have is amazing. It’s so cool.”
She’d like to work with cows after college. Maybe in a genetics lab. Maybe as an animal nutritionist. Maybe for a corporation like Hood or Cabot.
In first grade, Conant wrote about what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“‘I want to be a farmer like my dad,'” Dennis Conant, her father, remembers her writing. “I was like, ‘Don’t be that crazy, girl,’ but she has always liked hanging out at the farm.”
Upcoming local agricultural fairs
Aug. 30-Sept. 7 — Windsor Fair, Windsor
Sept. 11-13 — Litchfield Fair, Litchfield
Sept. 16-19 — Oxford County Fair, Oxford
Sept. 20-26 — Farmington Fair, Farmington
Sept. 25-27 — Common Ground Fair, Unity
Sept. 27-Oct. 3 — Cumberland County Fair, Cumberland Center
Oct. 4-11 — Fryeburg Fair, Fryeburg
“He misses a lot of school to do his animals (during fair season), and as I tell them (school officials), you can follow him for a day of getting up at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning and working all day and doing all this. It’s not the easiest thing in the world.”
— Barbara Gushee of Fryeburg, speaking about her 10-year-old son, P.J.
“When I was 9, I joined 4-H, which was probably the best day of my life. I couldn’t wait to show.”
— Kaicey Conant, 16, of Canton
“We’ve got a bottle-fed lamb out there (raised from birth). It’s going to be horrible to give that up. It’s a ‘has to.’ To feed people and make money, you have to get them to the butcher. It’s real life. These are real-life lessons that these kids learn through 4-H.”
— Robin Beck of Livermore Falls, mother of 15-year-old Kaylin Beck