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We should help incubate ag optimism

July 30, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

There isn't much traffic on my road. In fact, there is hardly any at night. On a clear evening, there are plenty of stars, because there aren't hundreds of houses with security lights to block the sky's natural wonders.

And when my boys were young, one of the things that amazed them most was walking up to a farm fence and feeding a handful of grass to a cow, the touch of its big tongue making them giggle every time.

All this was possible not because we lived in some exclusive, restricted development, but because there were farms all around us. I try not to ever take that for granted and so this past week, I spent a few hours visiting with members of the farm community at the 2006 edition of Ag Expo, which ended on Friday.

It was hot, with just a hint of a breeze, the sort of day during which I would normally stay inside, unless, of course, my job was being a farmer.

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Nevalen Uzelac, 4-H home arts superintendent, took me to the rabbit exhibit, where Katie Frey of Smithsburg showed me her rabbits, including the Meat Pan and Mini-Rex breeds. Meat Pan, as you might expect, is raised for the dinner table, and, as she explained to me, it begins life with almost all black fur which becomes mixed with silver as it gets older.

Some rabbits seemed to be suffering more from the heat than others and when I asked why, Katie told me it was because some are kept indoors, while others stay in pens outside. I guess it's like my father-in-law once told me - if you don't let yourself get accustomed to air-conditioning, you won't miss it.

Charles Frey, Katie's father, said that rabbits are a good project because they don't require getting up before dawn.

"They get up and tend to them before school and check on them in the evening," he said.

In the beef area, I talked to Brenda Griffith, whose 9-year-old daughter, McCall, is in the 4-H Livestock Club. This year, she said, McCall showed heifers, steers and capons.

When I said I had never heard of a beef variety called a capon, she said that they are chickens. The nice thing about the Livestock Club is that 4-H members who show more than one type of animal only have to go to one club meeting, she said.

"They were really good this year," she said of the teams, whose members range from 8 to 18.

"It's a good thing for all these kids, because they learn how to work together. They were really working as team this year," she said.

"And after this they may not see each other for a long time, but when they do, it's like they're lifelong friends," she said.

Bob Beckley told me his 10-year-old daughter shows goats and dairy steers, but gets some help from her little brother, who is just a bit too young to show an animal this year.

"He'll be here next year," Beckley said.

Mark Forsythe of Pinesburg said his son and daughter were at the expo. The big winner so far has been his son, Paul, who won the tractor-driving contest for the second straight year and will go to the state finals.

At the Farm Bureau refreshment stand, retired farmer Charles Wiles said the hot weather had been good for business because people buy ice cream to cool off.

When I ask Wiles how local farmers are faring, he hesitates, then says if I want optimism, I should talk to the young people in agriculture.

It's the old story - a good harvest means an abundant supply, which drops prices. Wiles said that this year, wheat had been expected to bring $4 a bushel, but "a lot of us got paid only $3."

Then, he said, the rains came and a lot of the wheat sprouted, and the price dropped to $2 a bushel.

But if I really wanted to know something about farming, Wiles said, I should go to the Ag Ventures and Birthing Center and ask for Besty Herbst.

"It's the heart of Ag Expo," he said.

When I found Herbst, I asked her what Wiles meant by that.

Gesturing at the pens filled with baby animals, she said that it's because the exhibit is designed to teach.

"This way the kids learn something. They have a chance to touch the animals, ask question and have a little fun," she said.

She said the most frequently asked questions are about the chicks hatching in incubators and about the pig feeding.

As if on cue, a big sow begins grunting and Herbst tells the children that, "She's calling them for supper."

Even though I wasn't invited, I strolled over for a look. The sow is one her side, and six piglets, each no bigger than a Chihuahua, are bumping up against her teats. I had assumed they would just begin sucking, like a baby with a bottle, but I was told that rubbing the nipples with their noses stimulates a milk flow.

A few minutes later, she grunts again, the piglets scurry off and she turns on her stomach. For now, the bar is closed.

Timmy Martin, the sow's owner, says that she doesn't have a name, because "I don't want to get too attached to her."

Now 16, he's been showing animals since he was 8, so he must know what's involved.

Martin and others like him, many of whom live on local farms, will one day be in a position to decide whether to continue farming or sell the land and do something else. Is there anyone out there who thinks we're doing enough to help make staying on the land something they want to do?

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