Eleven-year-old Mark Mills has been raising hogs in his Darnestown back yard since he was 9 and knows that "hogs rank ninth in intelligence in the animal kingdom, ahead of things like horses, cows, sheep."
"Some people consider them (hogs) stupid because they like to wallow in the mud. But that's because they don't have sweat glands to keep cool," said Mark, a 4-H Club member and a sixth grader who was one of dozens of young Montgomery County students explaining farm animals and displays to shoppers in Gaithersburg's Lakeforest Mall last weekend, the climax of Montgomery County's annual Ag Week
Although Montgomery is one of the wealthiest suburban counties in the United States, it also continues to be one of Maryland's richest and busiest farming areas.
While Metro has two subway lines under construction to cater to the needs of this Washington "bedroom community," there is still a lot of activity down on the farm. The county's farmers, youth clubs such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA), and new state and county agricultural and open-space preservation programs have helped keep a major portion of Montgomery green and growing.
Lakeforest Mall, the county's first "far-out" shopping center, is located at the tip of the suburban thrust into the rural upper county north of Gaithersburg. The mall last weekend permitted no tractors, cows and sheep in its indoor corridors, as malls in more rural counties have done during their agriculture weeks.
Mall representatives at first were wary of farm animals exhibited right along with the wares of posh suburban outlets. "This is our first year in this mall and they were a little nervous," says Joan Hagerty, a leader of the county's 4-H sheep and swine club that Mark Mills belongs to. "So we just brought in some lambs and piglets." The Hagerty family has four children in 4-H, each raising several of the family's 50 sheep as club projects.
Many Montgomery County farmers work the land for fun rather than profit. Most of the 50 members in Hagerty's club are the children of part-time farmers with modest acreage. Mark's father, Merle, one of 12 children of a Montgomery County dairy farmer, is a plumber. The Mills family raises about 180 pigs and 50 head of cattle on leased farmland, "because I like it," Mills says. "My wife calls it my hobby, although it's a lot of hard work. I just enjoy it."
Both 4-H, which organizes youths between 9 and 19 on after-school projects with help from state agricultural extension services, and the FFA, which has in-school projects, have played major roles in getting children interested in farming and caring for animals.
"You don't have to live on a farm to belong to 4-H," says Marcie Myers, who helps coordinate extension programs out of the University of Maryland, a land-grant university that directs programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Some of the animals are dogs and cats and some of the projects are on bicycles, photography, clothes and food and suburban things."
Of the 5 million young members of 4-H, the nation's largest youth organization, 60 percent live in urban and suburban areas, says a spokeswoman for the National 4-H Council. The council, with headquarters on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, is a nonprofit, private group that supports 4-H programs. Last year it gave leadership courses to 28,000 young people and 4-H leaders at its Chevy Chase headquarters.
One of the granddaddies of Montgomery County 4-H clubs is George Lechlider, a Laytonsville hog farmer who founded the county's beef club in 1937 and later its swine and sheep club. Lechlider has presided for almost 35 years over the county's popular August agricultural fair, one of the largest and best in the East and the climax of the growing season for all FFA and 4-Hers.
Lechlider had the best reserve champion steer in the state when he was a 15-year-old 4-H Club member, "and got 12 cents a pound for it." He grew up on a county dairy and truck farm near Potomac and now raises 700 hogs on his own 250-acre Laytonsville farm and on leased farmland.
His four children, all 4-H veterans, are grown and help run the farm that supplies hogs "to almost every nation of the world," says Lechlider. Two of his three grandchildren are 4-H members, raising steers and pigs as projects.
It is the continued family interest in farming that helps give suburban Montgomery one of Maryland's most active programs for young farmers. With 2,200 members, the county has the state's fifth largest 4-H Club program. And with 900 Future Farmers of America--high school and junior high students taking vocational agriculture courses in school--Montgomery continues to have one of the state's most active FFA programs.
"Being in 4-H sure influenced me. It was the best education I ever had," says Lechlider.
And it's already influencing Mark Mills with his display of piglets at Lakeforest Mall. "I might make a career of raising hogs or something," he said, on looking to the future beyond sixth grade. Picture 1, Which came first? Kids in 4-H learn life's lessons by hatching eggs. (By Vanessa Barnes Hillian--The Washington Post; Picture 2, Mark Mills, 11, shows off his piglet at Gaithersburg's Lakeforest Mall. By Tim Ruane for The Washington Post