It is that time of year when across Michigan thousands of 4-H youth are taking their livestock projects to county fairs. This year feels particularly special after the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to fairs in 2020. The MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H Club has had a challenging 16 months like so many other youth programs. COVID-19 restrictions meant a stop to in-person club activities until June 2021 and no access to MSU Tollgate Farm. Unlike many youth living on farms in rural areas, the MSU Tollgate Club’s 25 members from metro-Detroit communities, depend on access to MSU Tollgate Farm to work with their animals. However, due to strong youth and adult leadership, the Club members came prepared to the fair and exceeded expectations with a record year.
Michigan 4-H, administered by MSU Extension, is the largest youth serving organization in Michigan with over 200,000 members. The vast majority of these youth participate in project specific “Clubs” that are led by adult volunteers. Entrepreneurship, youth driven activities, and project-based learning are the cornerstones of 4-H. The MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H Club is unique for the metro-Detroit area because it supports youth in raising goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, and cattle. Mary Hutka, the MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H Club volunteer leader, said, “during the fall and winter months, the kids worked hard to complete the education requirements related to their livestock projects, taking advantage of Zoom to do these activities virtually.” The virtual meetings allowed the Club members to focus on animal care and showmanship so they were prepared for the return of in-person activities.
The hard work paid off in 2021 with a record year at the Oakland County Fair. At the fair, the club members participate in two types of contests that test their knowledge and ability to present their chosen species of livestock. The first is “showmanship”. This is a test of a contestant’s ability to present the animal in the best manner so that its important features, such as the udders for a dairy goat, and overall healthy appearance are visible to the judge. The youth are also asked questions testing their knowledge of raising livestock. Fairs bring in livestock judges, often industry experts, that assess the exhibitors abilities and knowledge. The second is a “breed class”. In these classes the judge focuses on judging the overall quality of the animal based on whether it fits the breed standards designed to maximize the production of quality meat, eggs or dairy. The MSU Tollgate Farm Club members were able to demonstrate their skills and knowledge, receiving many ribbons and trophies in both showmanship and breed classes. The Club continued its excellence in showing dairy goats and for the first time club members showed ducks. Other livestock presented by the club included cattle and sheep.
While livestock shows are often a main attraction for fairs, there are many other ways for 4-H youth to showcase the knowledge and skills that they learn with their Club. The Oakland County Fair has whole Club competitions where the kids work together on a project. The MSU Tollgate members participated in the Club Banner and Club Decorated Straw Bale projects. Both required a presentation before a judge in addition to the entry. The Club was successful, receiving 1st place for both the Banner and Straw Bale. Beyond these projects, members submitted projects and received ribbons/trophies for art, jewelry, table setting, creative writing and more. These projects will be available for viewing at the MSU Tollgate Farm Re-Opening Celebration on July 31st. You can also meet some of the prize winning animals that the Club raised.
Engaging in these fair projects requires the youth to become subject matter experts in their species of interest. They also learn to follow through on commitments, solve problems, overcome obstacles, and learn responsibility. For the MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H Club members, animal projects are a year long journey. The kids must routinely care for the animals at MSU Tollgate Farm in addition to completing educational activities and learning how to groom and show their animals. The most unique feature of this program is that it allows kids, with no connection to a family farm, the opportunity to show livestock. Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, the Club will continue caring for and learning about livestock and poultry, sell farm products made by youth at their farmstand (goat milk soap, granola, fruit leather, herb vinegars, etc), fundraise for Club activities, and lead community service projects.
Learn more about the MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H Club and MSU Tollgate Farm at their respective websites. The farm also accepts donations to support educational programs with livestock and agriculture here.