Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Underwriter Message

As Agriculture Modernizes, County 4-H Fairs Work To Keep Pace

Annie Ropeik
Indiana Public Broadcasting

It's fair season in Indiana. This means lots of 4-H activities happening around the state -- but they might not be the ones you're picturing.


Maddie Gearld and Haylee Drake are two stars of the Clay County 4-H robotics team. At this year's county fair, they showed a 3-D balsa wood frame they built from scratch.

It uses water and air pumped through syringes to make a wooden clamp lift a block onto a platform.

"The water gives it more stability whenever it's raised up," Drake said as she gave a demonstration in a room off the exhibit hall.

She and Gearld lined up syringes to grab the block with the wood clamp, but it fell from their grip before they could put it down.

"Oops," Gearld said. "Let me set it up."

Credit Summer Long / Purdue University Extension
Purdue University Extension
Haylee Drake, left, and Maddie Gearld show off their Clay County 4-H fluid dynamics project.

  The team was worn out from their afternoon at the fair, which they said has changed a lot since they were younger.

"A lot more other things besides animals," Drake said.

"Yeah," Gearld agreed. "Before it was all about showing animals. Now it's kinda ventured out," into more activities focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Renee McKee heads up the statewide 4-H program at Purdue University Extension. She said they've has come a long way from their agricultural roots.

"The 4-H program actually started because the universities wanted to teach corn production in new and different ways," McKee said. "When you can't get the adults to pay attention, you give the grains of corn to their children, and let's see who can grow the best corn.

"So we'll never move away from ag," she said. "But what that looks like in the future is far different."

Four-H enrollment increased last year, after a dip McKee said was caused by a small new annual fee. She said she hopes more STEM projects will keep that number going up.

And no matter the activity, she said they'll always have a home at the fair.

"I would suggest the fair is more about fabric of community than it is solely about agriculture," McKee said. "Those people live and breathe for those fairs. Families travel home in the summer to go back to the fair that they experienced as a young person."

Fifty miles away at the much larger Hendricks County Fair, Brad Goodwin and his wife and kids were doing just that -- checking out the 4-H cows, across from food carts and a big carnival. Goodwin grew up raising 4-H sheep and cattle. Now, he works in advertising and lives in Avon.

"But it's always been important to bring the kids out to see the animals," he said. "They love animals, so we definitely want them to see that, and we talk about what I did as a kid."

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Indiana Public Broadcasting
Three 4-H show cows rest under handmade signs proclaiming their names at the Hendricks County Fair.

 Nearby, grain farmer David Brock was showing two sleepy Angus cattle with his son, Andy, who's helped his father out as technology has gotten more important on the farm.

These days, Brock said, his son couldn't afford to become a traditional farmer even if he wanted to. But:

"There's plenty of opportunities for them to be in the agricultural sector and make an awful good living -- y'know, learn the science and things, and then turn around and help us do what we're trying to do with new technology," Brock said.

For other 4-H alumni, like 20-year-old Mady Hayden, agriculture isn't in the cards. She used to drive into the country from suburban Plainfield to raise 4-H pigs. Now, she's studying speech therapy at Purdue, and calls 4-H the best thing she's ever done.

"Coming to the fair and learning about agriculture, or even being involved in it, really teaches you another side of things," Hayden said.

She was back at the Hendricks County Fair for the celebrity goat-milking contest. Hayden was the fair queen last year, and Hendricks' first to claim the state crown.

Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting
Indiana Public Broadcasting
2015 State Fair Queen Mady Hayden, 20, fires up her hometown crowd at the Hendricks County Fair's celebrity goat-milking contest.

 She does her best milking the patient mama goat, while a big crowd cheers here on and chants her name. But one wrong move, and the goat literally kicks the bucket, sending milk flying everywhere.

As for the robots -- 4-H has those programs in 70 of 92 Indiana counties now. Though it won't replace the goats, they expect that number to rise.