In Fairfax County, 4-H members with their own cows, pigs or sheep are a dying breed.
At the county's recent 4-H fair at Frying Pan Park near Herndon, the livestock divisions had so few local entries that 4-H members from Fauquier and Prince William counties were invited to bring their animals to fill out the classes. As it was, many classes had just two or three entries, and some had only one.
"It's hard to keep livestock in Fairfax County," said Rachel Crouch, 18, president of the Fairfax County 4-H livestock club. "There's so much building going on and not much farming here now. You have to buy all your feed from the store" as opposed to growing it.
In the 1940s and '50s, when Fairfax was mostly rural, the county's 4-H club, a national education organization for children ages 6 to 19, had dairy, pig and sheep clubs. Today only the livestock club remains, and it has fewer than 10 members.
"It really has changed over the years," said Clara Leigh, 45, a lifelong Fairfax resident and former 4-H member. "I can remember classes where I thought it would be good to play sick. Some divisions had over 100 entries. The whole place was dairies back then."
Leigh's three children, Benjamin, 17; Jeremy, 11, and Emily, 7, are all 4-H members. As part of their projects, the youngest two often accompany Leigh to her mother's 100-acre dairy farm in Herndon. While Leigh milks the 37 milkers in her mother's herd of 46 Holstein cows, the children tend to several calves, feeding, cleaning and handling them. For Jeremy, going to his grandmother's farm makes him unique in his class at school.
"Some of them don't even get the chance to go out in the country and learn," he said of his classmates. "I've learned a lot about dairying from 4-H."
Benjamin and Emily had the only entries in several of the fair's classes for dairy calves. Although it was Emily's first show, her calf beat the one shown by her more experienced brother for the championship.
"It's a shame children in a metropolitan area don't have more opportunities like this," Leigh said as she watched several young children at the fair nervously approach and then pet the docile calves in their stalls.
The county agricultural extension office, which oversees the 4-H program, has tried to encourage children to show livestock, but on a different scale.
"The county's become so urban, we're deemphasizing sheep and cattle and putting more emphasis on smaller animals like chickens and rabbits," said extension agent Ann Gurney. "Times change and the nature of the county changes. You can't help that; you just have to work with it as best as possible."
But even trying to emphasize small animals has not proven a great success. Not many people think of chickens as pets, and county zoning laws require a homeowner "It's hard to keep livestock in Fairfax County."
-- Rachel Crouch
to have at least two acres even to keep chickens. This, combined with the amount of work and dedication it takes to stick with a 4-H project, has caused entries at the fair to decline in recent years.
"This year we did have some new people join our club and there's a new family that's showing interest, so I don't think we're dead yet," said Katherine Copeland, 17, of Clifton. "But we won't be as big as we once were again. You won't see any more 100-bird shows."
Even the horse program, which has long been one of the county's strongest 4-H activities, appears to be having some difficulties.
"When my daughter was in 4-H we used to have to fight for stalls at the fair, there were so many parents backing their kids in the program," said Babs Cullen, the fair's horse show secretary. "Now you find there are a lot less parents willing to work with the kids. Plus, with the development around here, a lot of people have sold their horses or moved out of the area."
But new horse clubs spring up frequently, Cullen said. She estimated there are at least eight clubs in the county with a total of 80 to 100 members. Many of these were at the fair competing in a two-day horse show.
Just getting youngsters in Fairfax to join 4-H has become difficult. Recently, Grace Byrd, the adult leader of the livestock club, passed out 150 fliers on the variety of 4-H programs to residents of the subdivision across the street from her farm in Vienna. She also offered children who had no animals of their own a chance to come to her farm and take care of a sheep or a pig for a 4-H project.
"I didn't get one response," she said.
In a metropolitan area like Fairfax, such activities as soccer and other sports compete with 4-H for children's spare time, Byrd said.
"I don't think it's so much the kids, but the parents that are to blame," Byrd said. "It's a lot of hard work having a child in 4-H. I think the parents around here want to see their kids in Little League stuff."
Part of the problem seems to be that many people think of 4-H primarily as a rural organization, Gurney said. "They assume that it doesn't exist in Fairfax," she said. 4-H also offers programs in photography, arts and crafts, woodworking and electronics, which can all be done at home, she said.
Although 4-H frequently provides information and educational programs to county schools, "we probably need to do a better job of publicizing it," Gurney said.
The county has about 35 4-H clubs -- 4-H stands for head, hand, heart and health -- with 600 to 700 members, she said. For many who have taken the time and the effort to join and stick with the program, the rewards have been worthwhile.
"I like it a lot; I'm glad I joined. I've met a lot of people and learned a lot," said Michelle Sack, 15, whose gymnastic routine recently won her first place in the state 4-H talent show. "My 4-H friends are my best friends."