A passion for agriculture: 4-H brings life skills, opportunities to students and instructors | TheFencePost.com

A passion for agriculture: 4-H brings life skills, opportunities to students and instructors

Laura Nelson | for Tri-State Livestock News

Marc King spent years teaching kids life skills like time management, public speaking, decision making, work ethic and responsibility, while they thought they were just having fun. Photo by Ben Coulter, courtesy The Madisonian.

Sorting a livestock class is easy.

Just put the good ones up, the bad ones down. Then, be ready to back it up; talk tough.

But sorting kids? The most experienced evaluators know that's impossible.

"You know, I used to think I could pick out a kid who was going to excel, but I can't say that's true," Sweet Grass County extension agent Marc King said. He leaned back in his office chair at the Big Timber, Mont., extension office, pointing to the seat across from his desk.

“Just to take these bright kids out and let them see the world, see their eyes and their minds open up and have an opportunity to network and make contacts and connections that will serve them down the road – that’s what it’s about.”

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"I've had kids sit right there in that seat and cry, cry, cry … heck, run out of the room, they're so nervous and scared to give their first set of reasons," he said, shaking his head and flashing through the years of adolescent growth he's seen in two decades of coaching.

"Then they turn around a few years later and judge like a champion – I mean a champ! A professional! At the Champions of Champions," he said with a smile. "Perseverance, that's it. That's all it takes. Every kid has the potential to succeed. The key is, can you keep the real objectives hidden from them for enough time for them to get it?"

Time management, public speaking, decision making, work ethic, responsibility – those are pretty hard sells to a nine-year-old starting out in 4-H. It gets even tougher with a high school student pulled to other extra-curricular activities, and it's dang-near impossible for a busy college co-ed to get fired up at that task list.

"No, I tell them we're going to travel, hang out with their friends, make new friends, and have fun. And we do," King said. "The neat thing is, underneath that cover is the true life skills. That's what it's all about."

Of course, the kids see that eventually.

Bailey Engle was on King's last Montana State University livestock judging team, completing her senior year at MSU last spring.

"Having a confidence in what I'm saying and that decisiveness – how many times did he make me defend every decision I made in a very detailed manner?" Engle said with a laugh. "Of course, you don't realize that when you're in sixth grade and trying to talk to a judge. But eventually, you realize it every time you go to do a phone interview, a job interview, talk to a professor."

King retired from his position as the MSU coach last summer after years of multi-tasking. For 15 years, he made multiple trips between Big Timber and Bozeman each week to teach intro and advanced livestock evaluation classes and work with the collegiate team, chauffeuring them across the nation to contests, practices, ranch and industry visits. That's been simultaneous with more than two decades of leading the extension office in Big Timber and coaching the youth 4-H judging team there, too. Those youngsters won their first state 4-H Congress title in 1997 and have repeated that success over and over again since then, including 15 high individual honors.

"Those kids … well, success builds success. Once they taste success, that drives them," King said. "Those older kids mature, and the more they help those younger kids, the more they help themselves."

He ran through a list of students and memories from the past two decades. Of course, he knows where they ended up going to college and the scholarships they earned. Big Timber students have accumulated more than $180,000 in livestock judging scholarships in the past 20 years. He also has fond memories from their weddings, knows where their kids are now, respects the ones he now works beside as industry peers.

Heidi Todd is one of those who now works beside her judging mentor. The county's assistant noxious weed program coordinator started her evaluation career as a sixth grader in King's program, graduated high school in 2002 with a junior college scholarship to judge, then returned to MSU to end her college career judging with him in Bozeman.

"That's where I got this passion for agriculture, and an understanding of the industry at a whole new level," Todd said. "I remember I used to dread giving reasons. But now, when I go to give a presentation at work or argue for a grant and explain why people should give you money for this program – well, it all comes back to that."

Three of the five of her collegiate judging team started in the Big Timber youth program.

"At the college level, there was a little more pressure, but not from Marc – from yourself," Todd said. "He just knew how to bring things out in you that he saw and you didn't even know were there."

Her older sister, Tami Sanders, was on King's first competitive collegiate judging team – again, after a youth spent on the road and perusing ranches and livestock across the state and nation in the back of one of the Big Timber judging vans and two years of judging scholarship-paid junior college.

"I was a really shy kid, but he was so driven and such an encouragement," Sanders recalled. "He had these expectations based on the potential he knew we had, and he was willing to drive us all over to see us be successful."

Those deeper memories and lasting impressions surface only after a few good laughs over the façade the coach recruited under: fun, adventure, travel and friends.

"Denver, Houston, San Francisco, Kansas City – without judging I wouldn't have seen half the places I've been," Todd recalled. "We hit all the big shows. The traveling, the fun – everything was new, and the people you judged with became your lifelong friends."

They learned by laughter, and boy, does that stick.

"He's a goofball, always using funny analogies to describe things so we could remember it. Like, if a steer's too fat, it looks like it has a dirty diaper on," Engle laughed. "Always a prankster, always a joke … always driving too fast."

But with a to-do list six and a half miles long, 65 mph just won't do.

"I always want to go, go, go, get stuff done. But with kids, I had to learn to be patient, roll with what's happening," King said. "Ninety percent of these kids that come through here are 10 times smarter than I am, so I just have to shut up, listen and have lots of patience."

And, don't forget – drive the van.

"Just to take these bright kids out and let them see the world, see their eyes and their minds open up and have an opportunity to network and make contacts and connections that will serve them down the road, that's what it's about."

It makes handing over the MSU van keys a lot easier, too, knowing it's a step in sustaining the next generation of livestock enthusiasts.

Last fall, Hannah DelCurto, a graduate of Texas A&M University with a master's degree in animal science, took over the MSU judging team and joined the teaching staff full time.

"So think about the huge potential for that program to help future students be even more successful, with somebody who will be there all the time," King said. "The more time you put in, the better you get."

With his own kids in or nearing high school now, he's due for more time closer to home, with only one team to chauffeur, tease and teach.

"When you spend that much time invested in kids, you know he not only cares about you as a livestock evaluator, but he cares about you as a person," Todd said.

Of course, King does know exactly how that feels. He laughed and smiled thinking of Karen Hamilton, the extension agent in Helena, Mont., who invested the time to coax a shy little boy out from under the Lewis & Clark County grandstand years ago.

"At my first 4-H meeting, I hid under the bleachers. I was scared, I was so shy. But my first advisor got me out, got me talking, meeting friends," he said. "It took me getting to college on a judging scholarship before it finally clicked, what she had done for me. The animals, the reasons, the evaluation – that's just the vehicle that allows that student to express that potential on their own."

Ag Day 2015: Sustaining future generations

National Ag Day is a day to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture. Every year, producers, agricultural associations, corporations, universities, government agencies and countless others across America join together to recognize the contributions of agriculture. This year’s Ag Day theme is “Agriculture: Sustaining Future Generations.” Learn more at agday.org.

The following series of stories highlights just a few of the thousands of agriculturalists who are working hard today for the success of the next generations. Celebrate National Ag Day with us March 18 by sharing a heart-felt thank you to your agricultural mentor, leader, inspiration or advisor.