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For the many young people involved in 4-H and FFA, the next few months are typically when it all pays off. Fair season is in full swing, and that means contests, shows and exhibits.

It’s been 10 years since my last year in 4-H. I showed beef steers from the time I was nine, up through my first year of college. The thing I always looked forward to most was the auction, because that’s when I got rewarded for all my hard work — or hoped that I would.

Making money

Looking back, I don’t think I experienced a single year when I didn’t make a profit on my beef project, but that’s not to say I made a killing. I counted it a success just to make a couple hundred bucks in a year, and an even greater success to top $500.

The reality is, it’s not easy to be profitable with 4-H projects. The cost for the exhibitor to purchase the animals when they’re young has increased, and so have the feed and veterinary costs. Throw in the cost of show and grooming equipment and you’re talking about a pretty hefty hobby.

Some would say a 4-H project is meant to be a learning experience and not a money-maker. And I think that’s a fair enough opinion.

But there are others, like myself, who not only treated the project as a learning experience, but also as a source of revenue for college and life after high school.

Costly college

However, the cost of college has exponentially outpaced the profits most exhibitors will ever see from their 4-H projects.

My dad always reminded me how my 4-H steers were going to pay my college some day, and the older I got, I reminded him I’d be lucky if my profits were enough to buy my books — let alone put a dent in my tuition.

I later met a college instructor who said her Hereford beef project paid a significant portion of her college, but that was at least 20 years before my time, when tuition was at least a third of what it is today.

I sometimes felt if my dad just gave my brother and I the money he spent on our show equipment and all the hassle, we would have had more money and could have done something else. Or, if I would have just gotten a job bagging groceries or bussing tables, like my non 4-H friends, I would have been better off.

However, the greatest value I got from 4-H was the values, and some of those I think would have been hard to get any other way — things like hard work, being consistent and taking risks. My 4-H project also inspired me to raise some extra beef for a few years, and sell those to relatives and friends as freezer beef. The sale of those animals combined usually outweighed my 4-H profits pretty heavily.

And, I suppose you could say 4-H helped keep me out of trouble. I don’t know that it’s been officially confirmed, but what I’ve heard over the years seems true: Kids who are dedicated to 4-H keep their nose clean, and that means fewer issues with the law, crime, etc.

You usually won’t see a 4-H kid on the ten o’clock news, unless it’s for an award he won, something he did for his community or a contest he’s going to be featured in.

Lessons learned

To me, the worst thing is when exhibitors put so much into their projects, the only way they can break even is to win. It’s everyone’s choice to decide how much they want to risk, and some can afford to lose money. Sometimes the animal dies and you can’t help losing money.

As much as possible, I always tried to end each year in the black — because that was best for my savings, and the way real life works.

When you add it up, 4-H is still a great program. The lessons learned last a lifetime. And the cost of feed and everything else goes up, exhibitors need as much support today as they ever have.

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties.
Chris Kick
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