4-H teaches valuable life lessons.

August 26, 2021

Laura VanderZanden with her cow, Panther.

4-H teaches valuable life lessons.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — 4-H stands for Head, Heart, Hands and Health, and kids who are involved in the agricultural program learn many life lessons in those four important areas.

Local 4-H clubs are spending this week at the Oceana County Fairgrounds during the 150th Annual Oceana County Fair to show their animals that they’ve worked so hard taking care of over the year. Tuesday, Aug. 24, was Entry Day when the children brought their animals to the barns for the annual event. 

One of many 4-H clubs on site is the Four Star Beef Club, which has existed for about 50 years. Michelle Holladay has been the club’s leader for the last 11 years, and her sister Sandy Payne led it for 17 years prior.

“Our job is to teach kids to raise them ethically; to respect them; teach them responsibility, dedication, hard work, and how to deal with costs,” said Michelle.

Nicole Rockwell, 18, has been in 4-H since she was 5 years old. “Time management is a big thing,” said Nicole. “You have to spend a lot of time with your animal — especially a big animal. My steer weighs 1,152 pounds, I have to make $1.98 (per pound) to break even, so about four grand ($4,000). It’s a pricey product, but it’s worth it.”

“You’re with them for a whole year, especially our project. Other projects they’re not with them for a whole year,” she said. Inevitably, the kids become attached to their animals, but they know going into it, that they will have to let them go when the fair is over.

“It’s just the way life goes,” said Nicole. “Sunday is pretty sad. You just look forward to the next one.”

“What you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it,” said Ayden Beachum, who has been in the 4-H club for five years. 

Makayla Rockwell, 16, is Nicole’s sister, and has also been involved in 4-H since the age of 5. “You have to have fun with it. This is like a sport to me,” said the three-sport athlete.

Many of the kids involved in the program are also in sports, said 4-H mom Kendra Walker.

“It taught me how to speak up for myself and be confident in myself,” said Rylee Noggle, 18. “Before I was here I was always kind of shy and scared.”

Leah Walker, 13, said 4-H has taught her how to “be your best and learn to bond with your animal.” Leah also finds it hard to part with her animal when it’s sold at the auction. “Our animals are born on our farm, so I watch them from Day 1, so it’s hard.”

“I enjoy spending time with the animals,” said Eva Walker, 10, who is Leah’s niece.

“I learned a lot of responsibility,” said Tori Walker, Leah’s sister, who is a former member due to “aging out”  of the program. “I learned how to interact with others.”

Local 4-H rules are that if you graduate or turn 19, you’re done. But with the COVID last year, the “aging out” kids are able to stay in the program one year longer.

Several former members come back to the fair each year volunteering their time to help, most arriving at the barn at 5 a.m.

“We own our own beef cattle, and they’ve learned a lot about how to present themselves in public and not be afraid or shy,” said Kendra Walker. “Friendships and spending time together is probably their favorite part about 4-H.”

Some kids as young as 3 years old push a broom and shovel, said Michelle, but they’re not old enough to show an animal until age 5.

“The team aspect is really important,” said Michelle.

4-H dad and local farmer Robert VanAgtmael has been involved in the club most of his life, and now his 12-year-old twin daughters and 16-year-old daughter are in the club.

There are 22 Four Star Club members and 19 steers. There are 35 kids showing steers this year, said Michelle. They can show “open,” which means they are not affiliated with a club. There are usually about 40 steers, which each can weigh up to 1,600 pounds, in the building each year.

In recent years, Four Star has included some kids from Detroit who have family members living in the area. 

Jade McCulley, 9, of Detroit is enjoying her first year in the club. Her aunt was a former Four Star member. Jade said she enjoys practicing with her cow and being outside.

Willow Hoffman, 7, is enjoying her first year in the club, too. “I like getting ribbons,” she said.

For what had traditionally been a more male-dominated project, more girls are showing steers now. “In the past, we had a lot more guys showing steers, but the girls — in the last five years — have been slowly overtaking the guys,” said the club leader.

Aaron VanSickle, 22, is a former member. “I showed cattle for 10 or 12 years. I learned so many life skills, and I learned responsibility at a young age by being able to take care of an animal. Aaron said he appreciates the leadership skills he has gained and the bonds he has formed with club members. “Everybody helps.”

Aaron now owns a local car detailing business, and the skills he’s learned in 4-H have helped him with his career. 

“4-H taught me a lot of responsibility,” said McKenna Holladay, who is Michelle’s niece. “A lot of my work ethic comes from doing 4-H. Being with an animal and having to work with it every day of the year while you have it makes you understand the importance of taking care of yourself and something else. It just helps you mature and makes you realize, ‘Hey there are other things out there besides me.’”

“It’s your animal — you have to take care of it,” said Rece Schlukebir. “You have to put in all the hard work to get the reward. It’s a lot of dedication and hard work, but it’s going to pay off in the end.” Rece said the 4-H experience has taught him a lot about finances. “To get into it, you’re looking at $800 to upwards of $2,500. That’s a lot of money to put into an animal all at once. You learn how to budget your money. Last year, with COVID, we really took a big hit with the profits of our animals.”

“Kids are developing their own herds and developing breeding stock,” said Michelle.

“It’s a big responsibility to show a steer,” said Payton VanSickle. “I made a lot of friends and had a great time.”

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