In the summer of 2012, teenager Lauren Dallas of Clarksburg, bought a chicken at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg.
Now, two years later, she is entering 10 of her hens into the 4-H poultry categories.
“This is my first year,” said the rising sophomore at Clarksburgh High School. “It’s more of a fun thing, just to see my chickens in the fair.”
Dallas, 15, is one of more than 300 4-H club members in the county who are entering animals into the nine-day event, which starts Friday and runs through Aug. 16.
Another 365 4-H members are entering cakes, jams, crafts and other projects, which Dallas is also doing.
In addition to the Poultry Club, Dallas is also a member of the Clarksburg Helping Hands, Damascus Community and Kids ‘N Dogs clubs.
Dallas raises her hens in a coop in the backyard of her family’s house.
“I like to let them out and watch them pecking at the grass,” she said. “They usually stay close by, but they also like to so see new things.”
In the chicken coop are some American breeds and silkies, and a hen named Tiny, a bantum frizzle cochin, so named for the somewhat disheveled feather pattern typical of the breed.
Judges check to see if a chicken is “a healthy bird, with nice feather patterns and if they have the characteristics of the breed,” Dallas said.
Checking the chickens is part of her daily routine, as she needs to make sure they have enough water and pellet food. Every two weeks, she also clears the bottom of the coop and puts in new pine shavings.
“You’ve got to make sure the coop is clean, so they don’t pick up diseases,” she said.
Dallas also keeps careful track of the money she spends on preventive medicines, food and other expenses, which is required by 4-H.
“I think 4-H teaches you skills that you might need in the real world, like record-keeping,” she said about one of the benefits of the ongoing project.
Another is the steady supply of fresh eggs, which help offset the costs, she said. In the summer, when there is an abundance of light, a hen usually lays one egg a day.
“The whole family eats them,” said Dallas, who is looking forward to her first fair show.
Meanwhile, 4-H member Nick Bohrer, 17, of Damascus, is also getting ready for what for him has become an annual event. A rising senior at Damascus High School, he has been in 4-H for eight years.
This year he’s entering two steers and a pig that he is raising for meat.
“It’s pretty hard not to get attached, but you know at the end of the year, they’re going to get slaughtered,” he said. “You get used to it.”
Bohrer said one reason he enters the fair in Gaithersburg every year is because he likes the competition.
“To me it means a lot,” he said. “I may be overly competitive, but I always want to win.”
Bohrer said he’s up at 6 a.m., taking care of the beef cattle, dairy cows and pigs on his family’s farm in Damascus.
“It’s a great program,” he said about 4-H. “It teaches you to work hard ... and it teaches you responsibility.”
Being in 4-H has also given him the chance to go to cattle sales and talk to livestock growers from all over the country.
“It’s nice to meet them, they’re people like you all doing the same thing,” he said.
Bohrer said his hands-on work and fair experience will also bolster his application to college, which he hopes will be Kansas State University to study animal science and agribusiness.
More than 600 of the county’s approximately 1,000 4-H club members are entering their projects n the fair, according to Cathy Shepard, the fair’s office manager and bookkeeper.
As of last Friday, the 4-H entries and the open class livestock entries alone totaled 3,312, she wrote in an email. Organizers are expecting another 7,000-plus entries this week in the honey, farm and garden, arts and crafts and home arts categories, she wrote.
Christina Hernandez, 15, also of Damascus, will be one of them. A rising sophomore at Damascus High School, she is entering a quilt she made, along with bread, pies, chocolates and a shell collection.
She doesn’t live on a farm but she still learns about animals by leasing a black-and-white Alpine dairy goat named Angel from the Lyons family in Olney.
Her younger sister Olivia Hernandez, 13, a rising 8th grader at Baker Middle School, also leases a dairy goat, a mouse-colored Toggenburg named Liesl.
“They’re smaller animals – they’re more like dogs,” said Christina Hernandez.
Dairy goats are judged on confirmation and breeding potential, said Christina Hernandez, who visits the Olney barn once or twice a week to groom Angel and practice handling her in a ring. The sisters also pitch in help do barn chores.
The sisters’ mother, Carolyn Harrison, said 4-H has become a fun year ‘round pastime for the family.
“My husband and I wanted them to get involved in an activity that everyone can participate in,” Harrison said. “4-H has a wonderful variety of clubs [such as] horticulture and the Adventures in Science program.”
Christina Hernandez said she’s thinking of studying medicine or law after high school but that she will continue to maintain a connection to agriculture.
“It’s been a huge part of my life,” she said. “I’ve had so many opportunities to meet people and make life-long friends all over the country.”