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4-H, Farm-to-School Meet at County Fair

Club’s tradition matches ‘subdivision kids’ interest in local food

August 11, 2008 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  11-year-old Harley Butler, who raises and sells prize-winning rabbits, is part of a new wave of young people who want to be farmers.

TRAVERSE CITY—It’s county fair time, when the scent of cotton candy, smoked pork sandwiches, hay, and manure mix in the air.

And at the Northwest Michigan Fair just south of here, time-honored traditions like 4-H kids nuzzling their prize lambs at the annual 4-H auction are mixing it up with a new-wave trend—budding interest in locally produced food.

These teens aren’t just traditional farm kids, and the people they are selling to are not all typical 4-H livestock auction bidders, either.

At this fair, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary last week, 4-H "subdivision kids" joined farm kids in auctioning off carefully raised rabbits, hens, pigs, and steers. And one of the bidders was a bit untraditional, too—a chef from a private school and camp that plans to serve locally raised meat in its cafeteria.

In this day and age when new youth programs are cropping up around the country to connect kids to good food and entrepreneurial skills, old-fashioned 4-H is a reminder that traditional programs provide a solid link to local food, too. Meanwhile, The Leelanau School, located in beautiful farm country 20 miles west of here, on the Lake Michigan coast, has dedicated itself to fresh-food cooking because it believes flavor and quality nutrition are important.

The school serves its students natural and local farm products whenever possible. And, with the average age of farmers approaching 55, it recognizes that these 4-H kids—whether they’re from farms or subdivisions—could become a much-needed next generation of farmers, and help keep local food sources alive.

"We need more small farms in this country," said Jim Bristol, the school’s food service director and chef, a few days before heading to the auction. "If the younger generation doesn’t get in on it, we will lose it."

Smitten with Farming
Justin Rice, 15, is one of those subdivision kids who, thanks to 4-H, is smitten with farming. The youngster was thrilled that The Leelanau School purchased the pig he raised on abandoned farmland down the road from his house, loaned to him by a neighbor whose family owns the property.

"I was happy about it because kids there can know that kids can raise their own food," he said. "And kids can know that it came from a good home and everything."

Justin and his sister, Katelyn, raised rabbits last year. This year she’s raising chickens.

"I’m trying to convince my mom to do a big steer next year," she said with a smile.

Katelyn and Justin’s parents aren’t farmers. Dad is a machinist. Mom is a receptionist in a medical office. But the teens got invited to a 4-H Club by a friend, and their mom, Ann, couldn’t be more pleased. Her kids are learning to be responsible and entrepreneurial, whether it’s humanely caring for animals—fellow club member Cameron Thoreson mentors with a local rabbit farmer—or learning how to run a business. The kids, for example, pay their parents back for any costs after they sell their animal at the auction.

"You learn that when you borrow money—whether it’s from your parents or a bank—you pay it back," said Brian Brezeszak, another club member, whose grandfather owns a farm.

‘Those Kids Will Eat Well!’
Last year, Chef Bristol and his school’s business manager, Patrick Begg, had so much fun at the auction that they had to remind themselves of a key business principle—stick to your budget.

"We only went to buy two lambs and a steer," Mr. Bristol recalled. "We ended up with five pigs, five lambs, and a steer. We just kept on buying. We finally looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t have freezer room for all of this!’ So, Pat got online the next day and got a chest freezer for us. We had the time of our lives."

The school’s purchase caused a buzz at the auction. Usually it’s civic clubs and locally owned family businesses—grocery stores, dentist offices, insurance agencies—that buy the animals as a way to give back to the community. Sometimes they keep the meat, and sometimes they donate it to local food pantries. They receive recognition in a big thank you ad in the local newspaper.

Last year, when The Leelanau School purchased its first animal from a young 4-H member, the child’s family alerted the auctioneer to who the unusual bidder was. After that, the auctioneer kept his eye on Mr. Bristol whenever he bid.

"‘Oh, it’s The Leelanau School,’" Mr. Bristol recalls the auctioneer exclaiming. "‘Boy, those kids are going to eat well!’"

Rudy Neumann, president of the Northwest Michigan 4-H Livestock Council, remembers that day, too.

"It was a surprise," Mr. Neumann said. "It is unusual for a school to do this. I think once word gets out that they are doing this, maybe it will bring other private schools and camps out to do it. I know public schools aren’t able to do this. But it’s a good model for private schools."

No Discount for Quality
In fact, both public and private schools across the country are increasingly interested in buying local farm food, fueled by concerns over skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and good nutrition for learning. More than 30 schools in the Traverse City region now serve local farm products, and nationwide nearly 2,000 school districts representing 9,000 schools are buying local.

Nonetheless, public schools face budget and bidding constraints that Chef Bristol said his private boarding school and camp do not. He prepares about 100,000 meals a year on a budget of about $200,000. In season, he spends about $1,500 a month with northwest Michigan farmers for produce—everything from a half-acre of spinach grown especially for the school by one farmer each summer to fresh apples in the fall.

Last year the school spent about $7,000 at the 4-H auction. It spent a similar amount this year. That’s probably 50 percent more than the school would have paid for locally raised, hormone-free meat from a small family farm, and a lot more than it would pay for mass produced, industrially raised meat, according to Mr. Begg, the school business manager.

But the school recognizes that the prices are higher at the auction because the money students raise goes largely to funds that the kids set up for college. And the school wants to support kids who might, someday, want to become small-scale family farmers themselves.

"This isn’t the discount way to buy food," Mr. Begg said. "If we were shopping just for price, we wouldn’t go this route. It is about a life and a lifestyle that we at The Leelanau School hope we can help preserve. We hope the kids feel they have accomplished something when they get a good price for the animals they’ve raised."

Laura Kirby, the parent leader of Justin Rice’s 4-H Club, appreciates that sentiment.

"Buying local food keeps people healthier," she said. "It helps our economy. It helps our community. It helps our kids."

And it might preserve a tradition, if another of Justin’s 4-H friends is any measure.

"I would love to be a farmer," said Harley Butler, 11, who is showing and winning awards nationally for her high quality rabbits. "I want my children and grandchildren to do this. It is awesome. It is a lot of hard work, but it is fun."

Diane Conners, a former farmers market master and veteran journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farm-to-school program. Reach her at Diane@mlui.org.

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