They could be from another generation, these apple-cheeked kids with their yes ma'am politeness and passion for blue ribbons. They are up at 6 a.m. to feed horses and clean chicken coops, before heading to suburban classrooms where they stoically put up with the jokes about taking baths in cow water.
Horse lover Sheila McLaughlin of Vienna, for one, used to arrive at her exclusive Washington girls' school with hay in her hair and straw in her sweater.
"When I came in with manure on my shoes," she said, "most of the other girls held their noses and walked in the other direction."
For Sheila, and the handful of other kids raising farm animals on the outskirts of Fairfax County, the 4-H Club is their salvation.
Once a month 35 kids from places like Dranesville and Centreville get together at meetings of the 4-H Livestock Club to share their fascination with animals. Recently, they took over the Frying Pan Park Model Farm in Herndon for their annual field day, showing off Molly the sheet, May the goat, Miss Victoria the cow, Boots the bunny and Chiquita the Peruvian chicken (who, believe it or not, lays green eggs).
Their members range from sophisticated, 18-year-old Sheila McLaughlin, who stood ankle-deep in hay as she groomed a tawny mare last Sunday to pigtailed Kate Copeland, a 10-year-old from Clifton, who confided that she personally prefers animals to humans because "you can tell secrets to them and they won't tell anyone."
But 4-H officials agree that such traditional livestock enthusiasts are a vanishing breed in suburbia -- at the same time 4-H itself is thriving.
Defying the conception that 4-H is for hog and cow lovers only, 4-H in suburbia entices youngsters 9 to 19 with classes in woodworking, sewing, cooking, photography, dog care, electronics, gardening -- you name the hobby, 4-H probably offers classes in it.
In Northern Virginia alone, 10,000 youngsters belong to 4-H, which is run by county extension offices. About 90 percent of the children are involved in school-sponsored 4-H activities, such as egg-hatching projects or Arbor Day tree plantings, with only a small minority engaged in after-school groups such as the livestock club.
Nationwide, the 67-year-old organization is booming, although only 3 percent of the U.S. population still lives on farms. 4-H has doubled from 2.5 million in 1965 to about 5 million members today, according to Margot Tyler, assistant director of communications for the Washington-based National 4-H Council.
About one-quarter of the 4-H members live in suburbs or cities, Tyler said, so 4-H had adapted its hands-on learning experiences to suit the restrictions of urban life. In the suburbs, 4-H'ers tinker with lawn mowers instead of tractors, and as they do in Arlington, cultivate tomatoes and radishes in tin cans on their window sills.
"It doesn't make any difference if it's a thousand acre farm or a window box, you still need the same skills," Tyler said.
Basically, whether the kids live on farms, in the suburbs or the inner city, the head-heart-hands-health theme of 4-H still applies.
"Our purpose is not necessarily to raise cows and chickens, but to give real life experiences to kids that will help their growth," Tyler said. "We're not trying to pin blue ribbons on cows. We're trying to pin blue ribbons on people."
Animals, though, are still a 4-H mainstay.
"Kids and animals go together," said George Towery, a 4-H adult volunteer and a Fairfax County elementary school principal, who started a rabbit club for his students at Cameron Elementary School and a goat club at Lorton Elementary.
Animals and Fairfax County do not go together quite as well. Zoning restrictions in the county prohibit landowners from raising livestock on less than two acres, which confines most 4-H animal activities to cats, dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs.
Most members of the livestock club live with their menagerie on farms of about five acres or more. Farming is generally a part-time occupation for their families, with many of their parents commuting to jobs at the Pentagon or in the District.
The livestock club members, in their plaid flannel shirts and smudged blue jeans, may be cut from the traditional 4-H mold, but they have no plans to make careers out of farming. A few say they would like to become veterinarians, but most of the teenagers are pragmatic about rural lie.
"Farming isn't too awfully profitable," said Ricky Cockrill, 16, of Vienna, whose family has watched industrial development swallow its 72 acres of farmland in Fairfax County.
Ricky says he wants to be an accountant. His friend William Leigh, 16, of Centreville, wants to be a lawyer, and Wally Covington, 17, also of Centreville, is opting for law or business.
All say they want to raise animals on the side but, as Wally put it, "there's no real money in farming."