4-H agriculture programs persevere during pandemic

Ashley Shafer
Midland Daily News
Isabelle Diehl, 14, shows her steer Tuesday morning, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Midland County Fairgrounds in Midland, Mich. Isabelle took first place in the Intermediate Showmanship category.

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) – Whether your kids are in the Future Farmers of America or 4-H, the skills they learn will follow them all throughout life and can be applied outside the farm.

Tammi Meyers, 4-H leader, Midland Fair Board member and auction president for livestock, said 4-H raises forward-thinking students.

"These kids, whether animals or crafts, sewing, canning, baking, shooting sports – there's so many avenues of 4-H – but the program instills a work ethic and a respect," she told the Midland Daily News. "Respect for your leaders, respect for your fellow 4-H members that follows these kids all the way through school."

The commitment that all 4-H members take is: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking; my heart to greater loyalty; my hands to larger service; and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country and my world."

In addition, Meyers explained that FFA is a learning program that goes beyond livestock to cover topics such as forestry, genetics, fishery and more. And, because the agriculture industry is heavily mixed with technology now, FFA could be beneficial to a wide range of students, including those interested in computer science and robotics. 

"We talk about getting kids involved in FFA and people need to think out of the box because anymore, tractors are being produced where you don't need a driver – it's all robotic or it's all GPS," she said. "So, robotics kids in high school could join FFA and implement some of their robotic and technical skills in that field, without even having to touch a piece of farm equipment." 

And though you may not live on a farm or ever work with animals, Meyers said agriculture touches us all. Not only is agribusiness Michigan's second largest industry, but it's woven into everyday life – from the food we eat to the textiles we wear.

Meyers said some opponents criticize raising cows for feed, but as she pointed out many of them live pampered lives and if they're castrated, their only use is for human consumption. Students who raise feed cattle are very precise and aware of everything they feed the cows, and often are concerned with producing the best product in the end.

Gayle Tomlinson, 12, holds on to her show comb while waiting for her turn to compete Tuesday morning, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Midland County Fairgrounds in Midland, Mich.

"My daughter – going into beef genetics – she's looking at, how can we make that beef better?" Meyers said. "... Can we breed to make these cattle leaner? Can we breed to make them healthier – those kind of things are on the leading edge."

And Meyers said the students in programs like 4-H and FFA are the ones who are leading the future of the industry.

Isabelle Diehl, a 14-year-old Coleman resident and freshman at Dow High School, has been a member of 4-H since she was 5 years old. Participating in the livestock program, she is the president of a group called the Geneva Livestock. In addition, Diehl said she plans to join FFA as sophomore.

At home, Diehl and her family raise boer goats and Simmental cows. Typically each year, she shows a steer and a heifer, however due to the differing circumstances of the pandemic, she said she decided to just show her steer this year – a 1-year-old named Dewey.

Also in a typical year, Diehl said she would sell her cattle at the Midland County Fairgrounds, however this year, she decided just to show him on Monday and Tuesday and then sell him to a private buyer they have lined up.

Leading up to the show, caring for her steer is a part-time job for the teenager. She said some days before school it requires her to wake up at 4 a.m. to wash, groom, feed and work with him. And, it's only the best quality hair products feed for him.

"Last year, there would be days I get up at 5:30 a.m., be out there all day – you know, only come in to get something to eat, go to the bathroom – and I wouldn't come in until 11:30 at night and then it would be the same process in the morning," she said.

Diehl said often the details and amount of work that goes into raising show animals often goes unnoticed by those who don't know much about the program.

"When you really get to look into the program, you can see how well we take care of our animals," she said.

Participating in 4-H has taught Diehl a range of life skills that she can apply elsewhere in her life, from money and time management, how to set and achieve goals, public speaking and networking with other members at regional conferences and events.

"It's a great opportunity for everyone," she said. "I think the more people that are involved in 4-H, the better. Everyone can learn something."