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  • Jim Townsend

Local Youth Hard at Work Preparing for Fair

Pictured above, members of "Pride n Pork" participate in a community service project where they prepared meals for kids and went to Montcalm IM kids to help package over 300 meals.

As a self-described city boy growing up on the suburbs of Detroit, I personally had very little exposure to agricultural life in Michigan. While my home town of Livonia did have a bustling turkey farm, my experience was limited to driving or walking by the enclosure filled with huge white birds being prepared for holiday purchases.

In my new home town of Portland, I have met many families who households are fully or partly dependent on agriculture, and whose children are involved with 4-H. As an exercise in learning more about 4-H myself, and about the local youth who participate, I decided to write an article on a handful of these participants.

4-H is not solely focused on agriculture, but locally there certainly is a strong correlation.

According to, “4‑H is a Community for all Kids. 4‑H is delivered by Cooperative Extension—a community of more than 100 public universities across the nation that provides experiences where young people learn by doing. For more than 100 years, 4‑H has welcomed young people of all beliefs and backgrounds, giving kids a voice to express who they are and how they make their lives and communities better. Through life-changing 4‑H programs, nearly six million kids have taken on critical societal issues, such as addressing community health inequities, engaging in civil discourse and advocating for equity and inclusion for all.”

The site goes on to explain, “In 4‑H, kids complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and civic engagement in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles. Kids experience 4‑H in every county and parish in the country through in-school and after-school programs, school and community clubs and 4‑H camps.”

The official emblem 4-H is a green four-leaf clover. The clover features a white “H” on each leaf. The “H”s stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health.

For local members of Ionia County 4-H, the Ionia Free Fair which runs July 11th through 20th this year, is the culmination of months of hard work on their individual projects.

I reached out to a handful of local 4-H participants and their parents to learn more about their project and their experiences.

Brothers Ethan and Aidan Hoppes are both 4-H participants. Ethan is 11 years old and attends Westwood Elementary School. He was only 8 when he began participating. This year he is showing two Duroc mix hogs. He is also making a quilt rack for his wood craft, and is working on the 4-H concession stand as his service club project.

When asked when he started working on this year’s projects, Ethan said, the “Hogs were born in January and are kept fed and warm then we start working with them in April if the weather is good. The wood craft we started in October. As for a typical day of preparation, Ethan said that he, “Feeds animals, clean out their pens and give them fresh bedding, walk and train them.”

Pictured above (left) is Ethan Hoppes.

Ethan said, “It's a lot of hard work but it’s worth it, you need a lot of patience. You need courage to talk to buyers about buying your animal at Fair, and to go out and show your animals in front of all those people, but it's fun!”

Pictured above is AidanHoppes.

Aidan Hoppes is 15 and attends Portland High School. He was 11 when he started participating. This year Aidan is sowing two Duroc mix hogs, making a gun cleaning rack, and also working in the 4H concession stand.

Aidan said, “The hogs were born in January, then we start trying to work with them in April/May.” His typical daily preparation includes, “Feed, walk, brush and train the hogs, also you need to clean their pens daily. He added, “You need to be passionate about your project, it takes a lot of time, hard work and commitment to work with and take care of these animals.”

Ethan and Aidan’s mom never participated in the fair herself, but as for expectations from the parent perspective, she says parents can expect, “Time, money, taking them to meetings and wood shop classes weekly.”

During the actual fair, Kim said, “My boys are a little older and they do a great job taking care of their animals during the fair, we are all in the barn so I help out where I can, cleaning pens, feeding and washing them daily. We have a great group of people to work with and we all help each other out, with the animals and kids. It takes a village!”

She added, “I think this experience has taught my boys responsibility, troubleshooting, patience, to be grateful and to take ownership of not only their Fair animals but especially for our animals at our Farm, they are there taking care of them every day. It is hard work and it takes a lot of time, dedication and sacrifice but I feel like every day/year you learn something new.”

Pictured above is Erica Russman.

Erica Russman is 12 and attends St. Patrick’s School. She started participating when she was 10. This year she will be showing two dairy heifers and a dairy cow.

Pictured above Jarred Russman.

Erica’s brother Jerred Russman is 10 and also attends St. Patrick’s School. He started participating last year when he was nine.

Erica and Jerred said, “We started working on each project a few weeks after they were born.” As for the typical day, “We walk each animal every day and have them stand with their feet set up properly. We also feed, water, clean, and bed the animals. We keep a record book of our daily chores for the animals and learn the body parts of a cow.”

Erica and Jerred added, “We belong to a 4H group called Dairyland Sons, Daughters, and Friends. We have monthly meetings throughout the year. We work on our 4H dairy projects but also do fundraisers to help families in the community.”

Erica and Jerred’s dad Jeremy Russman participated in the fair as a child. Jeremy said he best remembers “The competition and friendships.”

Jeremy and wife Sara said as parents, “Our expectations are that they learn to care for their animals from the day they are born, that they learn independence, responsibility, and accountability.” They added, “4H encourages all members to interact with each other. This encourages the kids to meet and gain friends throughout the county. They look forward to their 4H group meetings and fair, not just to show their project, but to see their friends.”

Pictured above Keegan Rockey.

Keegan Rockey is 13 and attends Portland Middle School. She has participated in 4-H since was 8 and she shows swine. Their pigs are purchased in March when they are around 60-80 lbs. Keegan said, “Everyday we make sure the pigs have water and feed so we check them twice a day, the month before fair we start walking them every other day in the morning” She added, “What I like about participating in 4-h is the different learning experience I gain each year. This year we had several pigs with pneumonia so I learned how to administer medication to the pigs, the different learning experiences each year will help me throughout my life.”

Pictured above Sawyer Rockey.

Keegan’s brother Sawyer is 10 years old and attends Westwood Elementary. He has participated in 4-H since he was 7 and he also shows swine. Sawyer said, “Preparing for the fair I like to work with my pig on walking so when we show my pig knows how I want it to move and doesn't get worked-up. I also enjoy the different people I meet at fair and talking with people on how they take care their pigs.”

Keegan and Sawyer are the children of Brad and Kasie Rockey. Kasie never participated in fair as a child but says, “My expectations for the kids is help them understand the importance of taking care of an animal, profit vs loss, understanding different feeds and why ingredients are important, meeting new people and always being willing to help another club/member out. We took over Pride n Pork five years ago as group leaders so trying to make everyone feel involved and welcomed as our goal. We have made many friends and enjoyed our time at the fair. Since neither of us did 4-H as kids, it was an adjustment and commitment that takes a lot of time and hard work. My goal is to make sure the kids understand the hard work and keep at it even when things aren't going well. I also push my kids on understanding profit and loss and why its important to strategies on changing things that don't always go as planned. This has been a rough year for my kids, Lanz boys (Landon and Grady) and my niece, Gracelyn as we lost so many pigs to pneumonia. To see them so sad and frustrated has been hard and obviously not the end goal. But always looking at every situation as a learning opportunity and pushing the kids to strategies on alternative methods to make there project more successful each year.”

For someone who has no personal experience with 4-H, researching this piece has certainly shown me the great value of the organization. Membership sure seems to help youth prepare for their future, both in agriculture and in life.

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