EVERGREEN — Morgan Baker walked up to the barn and knew, without seeing the four hogs in their pens inside, which one was trying escape.
“That’s Bolt,” she said as she walked to the door and grunts and scuffles filled the air. “He’s always trying to escape.”
And indeed it was Bolt, a white, 230-to-240-pound pig that Baker has been raising along with other hogs as part of her 4-H program. Bolt’s the freezer pig for the Baker family, Morgan explained, and he’s walking a razor-thin line of meeting his fate sooner rather than later with his escape shenanigans.
Morgan let out Bolt as well as her show hog, Thunder, a darker pig that will strut his stuff at the Northwest Montana Fair before the auction on Aug. 19 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. She watched the pigs play together in a puddle, laughing at their antics.
She knows their personalities and their quirks; about 7 or 8 months old, these pigs have been with her since May when they arrived at 30 to 50 pounds. Morgan, 15, has raised at least 15 hogs and treated them well, but their ultimate purpose as livestock remains in her mind at all times.
It’s all part of 4-H, her mother Michelle Baker said, including this important life lesson. And in Flathead County, 4-H has spent a century teaching such lessons to the valley’s future leaders and residents.
“It’s an amazing program where they can learn commitment and serving the community,” Michelle Baker said as she watched her daughter scratch the hogs.
The 4-H program is a familiar backbone of many agricultural communities, its four-leafed clover bearing the Hs of head, heart, hands, and health on jackets, doorways and grange halls around the country.
In Flathead County, 4-H celebrates its centennial this year to mark the 1917 founding of the Creston Go-Getters, a club that Reu Carr started with his six daughters in mind.
Now, his great-granddaughter Susan Schmidt (née Witty) is still very involved with 4-H, taking leadership roles as needed and currently overseeing the Loon Lake 4-H Camp Committee.
She traces her history back through the Grandview Supreme, a 4-H club still in existence in Columbia Falls. Both of her kids went through the program, which Schmidt said was a way to develop their character and skillsets outside of school.
“I believe in the program as an alternative; specifically for me, it was an alternative for my kids for school activities, to have a different group of peers,” Schmidt said. “My boys were in sports and band and choir, and this was a different group of people.”
Kids can start in 4-H at age 8 and in the Clover Buds program at 6. The goal is to build good leaders, with heads for clearer thinking, hearts for greater loyalty, hands for service, and health for better living, all for their clubs, their communities, their country, and the world.
“They’ve learned a lot of respect,” Schmidt said about 4-H kids in general. “I believe that those kids will grow up and have different skillsets.”
Dana Higgins is also part of a legacy 4-H family, with four generations participating in the Flathead County program. Her mother got involved in high school in 1942, and her oldest sister started in the early 1960s.
“And then all three of us, all the kids, were in 4-H, and my mom and dad started the Country Cousins with other leaders,” Higgins said.
The Country Cousins, an active club in the county celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was named that way because it was largely a family affair, Higgins said with a laugh.
“One of the leaders was my mom’s first cousin, and there were other cousins,” she said. “It’s amazing that through the years we’ve had quite a few cousins involved in the club. And still to this day there are cousins involved.”
Higgins echoed many of the multi-generational 4-H families in her admiration for the program’s ability to get kids involved in serving their community.
“I just think it has so many good things,” she said. “It teaches life skills, you grow better leaders, you grow better citizens, community members. Our club is very active in community service. It just makes good adults. And good leaders, you have to learn to speak, you learn to compete, but you learn that you always try and make the best better.”
The animal projects often take the limelight in 4-H, but there are dozens of other possibilities, including technology, robotics, shooting sports, cooking, sewing, raising guinea pigs, or defining your own project. The clubs aim to teach responsibility and the importance of following through.
“Any kid, no matter where they live, they don’t have to have an animal, they just have to have an interest,” Higgins said. “And there is more than likely a project to fulfill that interest.”
Currently, county 4-H clubs are celebrating the centennial by pledging to clean up 100 miles of highway roadsides. As of last week, they’d completed 88 miles.
Ben Frentsos, an extension agent with Flathead County who oversees the 4-H program, said STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) projects are a focus for the future, and discussions among local 4-H leadership have centered on getting the message out that anyone can participate and acreage for animals is not required.
“As happy as people are with how things have been and the successes that the program has had, there’s a lot of momentum moving forward,” Frentsos said. “To borrow the motto, they want to make the best better, and they’re always looking for things that are new.”
Morgan Baker knew she would have to say goodbye to Thunder soon, that it’s part of the circle of life. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t be sad, though.
“You tell the pigs you love them, and sale night comes and everybody is laying in their pens with their animals,” she said.
“You think you have it down, then they’re marking them for trailers,” her mother Michelle added.
Michelle raised pigs to support her horse habit, as she likes to say, in a 4-H program in Ravalli County. The money Morgan earns from the pigs goes partly toward college savings, partly toward recouping the cost of raising the pigs, and then the rest goes to her cell phone bill and car insurance.
The other nine months of the year, Morgan is busy with ice hockey, but from May to August, the pigs are her main focus, needing two visits per day no matter what. She also works on a council that hosts barn dances for other 4-H kids, and worked as a camp counselor at Loon Lake.
Her younger sister, Kenzie, is also involved with the pigs, though her show isn’t coming up until October in Billings. For now, the project is Thunder, who loves belly scratches and running around with sticks in his mouth.
“He is one of the sweetest pigs we’ve ever had,” Morgan said.
For more information on 4-H, visit www.flathead4h.com, or call Ben Frentsos at 406-758-5553.
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