4-H not just for ‘farm kids’ at Delaware State Fair

4-H member Alyson Melson, 16, of New Castle judges photography at the Delaware State Fair. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

4-H member Alyson Melson, 16, of New Castle judges photography at the Delaware State Fair. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

HARRINGTON — A teenage judge squeezed a strawberry, then turned it slowly, seemingly examining every little seed.

Nearby, another 4-H member stared intently at three photographs before him, occasionally taking notes.

While hundreds walked the fairgrounds in oppressive heat early Saturday afternoon, a few dozen entrants in an air conditioned room at the Centre worked quietly as if taking a school examination.

Actually, the kids were being judged on how they judge.

The contest involved evaluating the quality and makeup of items such as fruits, wildlife habitat and photographs, and being scored for the written determination.

4-H members Noah Gardner-Bowler,, 14, right, and Eason Li, 11, judge photographs at the Delaware State Fair. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

4-H members Noah Gardner-Bowler,, 14, right, and Eason Li, 11, judge photographs at the Delaware State Fair. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The afternoon session, limited to two hours, included some of the 10 judging contests overall during the fair’s two-week run.

Leslie Webb, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Lake Forest High, said a friend described competitions and exhibits at the state fair as the “4-H Super Bowl.”

Speaking of her personal experience, the 10-year 4-H member likened time at the state fair to “a whirlwind. It’s 10 days but feels like less.

“There’s no down time, and you’re constantly doing something. It’s all good though because of the rewards that come from having success with what you’ve worked so hard on.”

For 4-H Blue Ribbon winners, a $4.50 prize comes in addition to the pride of a job well done. Lena Berry, 16, president of the Harrington Sunshine Club, said she brought a truck by saving her winnings over the years.

Like so many contestants, Berry said she joined 4-H early in life — age 6 in her case.

“My advice is start young, buy trucks,” she said with a smile.

Really, the quest for blue (excellent product), red (good), and yellow (fair) ribbons is a shared experience.

“We’re all trying to work and rise together,” said Dover home-schooler Chris Wood, who jokingly described himself as “the arts and crafts master. I want that to be known.”

Earning a yellow ribbon can be “devastating” Mr. Wood said with a good natured, light tone and “it means you really have to re-evaluate what you’re doing.”

Jenna Anger, a 14-year-old home-schooler from Bridgeville, has used her role as Miss Sussex County Outstanding Teen to spread the word about the benefits of 4-H when it comes to “communication, leadership and public speaking.”

“I teach youth around Delaware about how great 4-H is,” she said, noting she’s made a host of friends throughout the state through her participation.

Knowledge and skills

According to state 4-H program leader Doug Crouse, who rated evaluations on Saturday, “The fair is considered the showcase, the culmination of the year’s work.

“Taking part has allowed the kids to gain knowledge, increase skills and take a look at what they might be interested in doing later in life.”

Approximately 9,300 exhibits were displayed this year, down from the typical 10,000 or so.

“Our vegetables and plants are down,” Mr. Crouse said. “A lot of people said they couldn’t get their gardens in due to the weather.’

Also, Mr. Crouse said, “It’s a fun competition when all three counties come together. The kids know each other [and are interested in seeing what everyone else has done and how they stack up] … it’s a big-time event.”

On Friday, 4-H and Future Farmers of America members donated 650 pounds of competition produce to the Food

Karen Williams of Felton looks at judged photographs in the 4-H room (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Karen Williams of Felton looks at judged photographs in the 4-H room (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Bank in Milford.

“We’re not going to let it rot and the Food Bank is a great place to donate to,” Mr. Crouse said.

There are 33,931 official 4-H members statewide in 123 clubs guided by 528 active leaders. Programs reach approximately 60,000 Delaware youths annually, officials said, including outreach programs such as in-school visits, tours and more.

Approximately 25 monthly clubs are within Kent County, 150 to 200 volunteer leaders and approximately 600 youth members; Sussex County has 20 clubs, a little over 400 youth members and 110 volunteer leaders.

Converted to 4-H

Raised in the suburbs of Wilmington, Michele Walfred believed 4-H was for “farm kids” only, but a career move changed her perception.

Ms. Walfred joined the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Office, and spent her first seven of 15 years involved with the 4-H program.

As her understanding of what 4-H offered developed, she eventually became a volunteer leader. She described herself as “amazed” and “sad” upon learning the variety of activities available, wishing her daughter could have joined in.

Spectators view exhibits in the 4-H room at the Delaware State Fair.

Spectators view exhibits in the 4-H room at the Delaware State Fair.

“Why hadn’t I heard more about 4-H?” she asked rhetorically. “Sewing, gardening, demonstrations, public speaking, photography, computers, cooking, theater arts. My daughter would have loved it.”

Friday night’s public speaking contest was a favorite of Ms. Walfred’s, with children 8 and older delivering a speech before a large audience. All contestants had won earlier county-level competitions to earn a spot behind the podium at the state fair.

“The poise of these young speakers is quite admirable,” she said. “Speaking before a large crowd and giving a concise, yet compelling speech is a life skill I wish I had, but I didn’t go through 4-H.

“I am in awe of these kids.”

The results of a year’s worth of “hard work” are displayed at the fair, and Ms. Walfred said “I wish more people would see it.”

Ms. Walfred has worked for the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Office for 15 years, including the first seven involved with the 4-H program.

“What standouts out with [the youths] and their involvement is their self confidence, their ability to communicate effectively on many levels and on many topics, exercise critical thinking skills, and a strong commitment to giving back to the community,” she said.

“I am not surprised to hear that as they age out of the program, they do extremely well in college and in the business world. The life skills they learn in the program prepare them very well for the real world.”

Ms. Walfred described the 4-H “farm brand” as “a solid and wholesome one, but the program is so much more and it will change the life of your child.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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