4-H gives a lease on livestock A 4-H animal-care program gives young suburbanites a feel for farms

Posted: July 15, 2003

For Danielle Spahn, it's all about cows.

While other 19-year-olds are doing the things 19-year-olds do, this willowy woman from Burlington County is milking the herd or mucking out a barn, and happily so. Her bedroom is bovine - cow knickknacks, cow Beanie Babies, cow art. A former county Dairy Princess, the 4-Her has accumulated ribbons at local and state fairs. Over the years, Spahn has had six cows, including the late Miss Lou. She gets misty thinking about her.

But Spahn is no farm kid. Home is a split-level on a half-acre in Florence Township. Her father is a sheet-metal fabricator, and her mother registers patients at a hospital. Still, development life has not stopped her.

She is a cow commuter. She leases, and loves them as if they were her own.

"I love them all," Spahn said. "There's just something about cows."

And sheep and hogs and goats, depending on your preference. Even as suburbia continues its spread across a landscape once dominated by farms, youngsters with livestock longings but not enough land have turned to 4-H Clubs and their animal lease/loan programs or, in some cases, 4-H-friendly farmers who let them board their critters at little or no cost.

"Most of my kids come from developments," said Kathy Wainwright, a Burlington County 4-H dairy club leader who leases calves and cows at her family's Clover Valley Farm in Florence. "I've only had a couple say, 'Oh, my grandfather had a farm.' "

As in most of these types of programs, the youths leasing in Wainwright's club - the Cool Calico Cows - pay their way in chores, not cash.

There are 4-H leasing programs around the nation, including Pennsylvania. Last year, Emily Yeiser, an Annapolis-area teenager who got involved in Maryland's 4-H dairy-leasing program, and her cow took top honors at national competitions.

Leasing is not new, but with the area's increasing suburbanization, "we're seeing more of it now," said Gerry Leonarski, a 4-H program assistant in Gloucester County, where there have been lease-a-calf and loan-a-goat programs.

And while today's 4-H is about much more than farm animal clubs, programs such as leasing help keep a part of its heritage alive, said Gloria Kraft, 4-H agent for Burlington County.

"It's part of our traditional image, and we're proud of it," she said. "We're going to continue doing it as long as we have volunteers and family farms."

Horse clubs have long been big in 4-H. But for some youngsters, the barnyard has its charms.

How else to explain Jessica Greenwood, 12, and her twice-daily trek to tend to her hog, Porkchop, even when she could be lazing with friends at a lake? She keeps Porkchop at her aunt and uncle's farm in Barnsboro.

"It's a big responsibility and it's a lot of fun," Jessica said.

This is the first year for Jessica and sister Amanda, 10, in the Gloucester County 4-H's swine club. Their mother, a secretary, grew up on her family's farm, but she and the girls now live in an apartment in Sewell.

Even though Porkchop is a market hog, meaning she will be auctioned for meat after Jessica shows her in the forthcoming county fair, they have grown attached.

"When I get in the pen, she always comes up and rubs against me," Jessica said.

Jennifer Lynch, 19, does not eat lamb. Ditto for red meat. Blame it on Grace, a ewe with an attitude that has her heart.

Five years ago, Lynch had never laid hands on a sheep when a friend talked her into joining the Burlington County 4-H's We Love Ewes club. She and her family were living in military housing at McGuire Air Force Base - they now have a house in Springfield Township - when she was assigned the already infamous Grace.

"Here was this gorgeous sheep that no one could handle, and Jen was one of the older 4-Hers," club leader Susan Lohmann said.

"Nobody else can show her because she's so ornery," Lynch said. "She's even pushy with the other sheep. She's a pig. I love showing her. She's a challenge."

Right before the judging in last year's county fair, Grace mowed over Lynch. "She pinned me up against the fence the other day."

But Grace also will walk over and nuzzle Lynch, as she did one recent day.

"You pig," Lynch said.

Grace let fly a big, wet snort.

"Ooh, Grace!" Lynch said, wiping off the ewe goo.

As much as a sheep can, Grace looked happy.

But then sheep slime, like cow patties, is part of the territory with livestock.

Abby and Ross Derham, ages 10 and 11 and freshmen in the Gloucester County 4-H Dairy Club, did not seem to mind much as they led around their leased calves, Lucky Seven and Pyramid, at Wellacrest Farm in Mullica Hill. The children of a former teacher and an engineer, the South Harrison siblings took Polaroids of their calves the day they got them. They compare notes on them at home.

"Cows are like dogs. They have totally different personalities," said Marianne Eachus, a club leader whose Wellacrest Farm leases the calves.

Better than dogs, said Brittany Lawyer, 12, who leases from the Wainwrights' farm in Burlington County. Her parents, a school counselor and a construction project manager, moved from Camden to Springfield Township for a more tranquil lifestyle.

She got her friend Kristine Buffa, 14, into cows.

"I was into acting and singing and dancing. I was your typical fourth grader," said Buffa, whose mother is a teacher's aide and father is a captain in the state's correctional system. "I was into Britney Spears and 'N Sync, but this is different. It's nice to be different."

Spahn, a self-described cowgirl, would agree.

When she turned Sweet 16, her present was Miss Lou, who, sadly, died last year.

Now she is a student at Burlington County College. She wants to be an educator and teach children about agriculture. She wants, someday, to own land.

"I want an Old MacDonald's farm," she said. "I want everything. I want a horse. I want chickens. I want little pigs."

The cows go without saying.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

New Jersey 4-H

Department of 4-H Youth Development

Rutgers Cooperative Extension

88 Lipman Dr.

New Brunswick, N.J. 08901-8525

Phone: 732-932-5000, Ext. 596

Web: www.nj4h.rutgers.edu E-mail: nj4h@rce.rutgers.edu

Pennsylvania 4-H

Pennsylvania State University

323 Ag Administration Building

University Park, Pa. 16802

Phone: 814-865-1688

Web: pa4h.cas.psu.edu E-mail: pa4h@email.cas.psu.edu

National 4-H Council

7100 Connecticut Ave.

Chevy Chase, Md. 20815

Phone: 301-961-2800

Web: www.fourhcouncil.edu E-mail: info@fourhcouncil.edu

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