Juggling homework and husbandry in the nation’s tech capital
At a glance, it can look like militarized motherhood: a hangar of young recruits in starched, white uniforms, emerald neckerchiefs, and matching felt berets patrolling the aisles with thin, whip-like sticks at the ready. They tenderly wipe the eyes of their charges like seasoned parents, scolding them when they roll on the ground or pull at pant legs to demand attention.
But the uniformed youth aren’t parents. They’re local kids enrolled in 4-H — a national agriculture and youth development program — and they’re raising livestock in San Mateo County suburbia. They live in the contiguous string of cities between San Bruno and Menlo Park, and unlike kids on the coast or farther inland, they pass Google and Oracle headquarters — not farms — on their way to school. Silicon Valley’s agrarian roots may be buried far below the pavement, but thanks to the proximity of the Peninsula’s less developed western half, these kids are just close enough to a handful of “farmshares” to become a rare hybrid in agriculture: suburban farmers.
At least for part of the year.
The unofficial end of the 4-H season comes each June, when the kids take their animals to the county fair, send them across the auction block, and sell them to the highest bidder. After that, the hogs become ham, the steer become steak, and the animal pens at the 4-H farms empty out.
“The last day, it’s like, the parents just leave — they let the kids say goodbye,” says Jerome Lyons, who has two sons in the Burlingame/San Mateo 4-H Club. “There are a lot of girls that just are crying their eyes out, leaving their lamb behind.”
And yet, year after year, the kids re-up and begin the cycle anew—in the end, what they get overshadows what they give. Peninsula 4-H clubs are a tangle of contradictions, where urban and rural blend together, where vegetarians raise animals for meat, and where loss is the price of love. They’re a unique group — these young suburban farmers — and their hobby is heartwarming, heartbreaking, and kind of hardcore.
There are more than 1,000 students at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, but junior Ruby Juballa is the only one participating in 4-H. She lives in Foster City, where farming has never dominated extracurricular choices. But the degree of rarity is a little odd considering the Peninsula’s Goldilocks geography, ripe for the intersection of urban and rural. “What’s different about the Bay Area,” says Ruby’s mom, “is that these farms have been organized . . . that do allow kids in this area to raise livestock.”
The eastern half of the Peninsula may be mostly concrete, but the western half is mostly green, and it’s along this divide that the urban and rural can coexist. Five farms dot the length of the threshold, from Daly City down to San Carlos. Whereas other urban 4-H clubs are limited to sewing and culinary arts, Peninsula kids get ahead of the tech commute to drive to one of five farmshares, where club members can board their animals on land leased by 4-H and visit daily to clean and feed them. The chickens, sheep, and cows rely on 4-Hers for everything, so there are no days off.
For some club members, like Redwood City high schooler Kaitlyn Lynch, there’s more than one animal waiting each morning. This year, she raised hogs, goats, turkeys, and rabbits. Caring for so many animals sounds overwhelming, but the eventual sale of these smaller creatures is part of a sound financial strategy. “Most of the people with large animals also have a small animal like a chicken or a turkey that helps make up some of the cost of their large animal,” Kaitlyn explains. In addition to employing such tenets of microeconomics, kids are responsible for every aspect of their livestock, from cleaning their enclosures and training them to calculating costs and securing funds when the money doesn’t add up.
Some kids visit their farm more than once a day, and it’s a lot of time, energy, and often love for something headed toward a farewell as final as the Market Day auction. This year, 4-H dad Jerome watched as his son spent five hours a day for nine straight months raising the most time-intensive animal: a steer, named Diesel. At the San Mateo County Fair earlier this month, thoughts drifted to the final day of the fair (called Market Day in 4-H circles) when the animals are sold to buyers for meat. “It’s gonna be really sad because he’s like a little pet — he’s like a dog,” Jerome said a few days before the auction. “He’ll come when you call him.” But, like many other families, they not only attended the auction, they bought a third of the animal they raised.
In the Bay Area, where vegetarian options reign supreme and San Francisco just banned the sale of fur, Market Day can ruffle some feathers. Indeed, it would be more compatible with the rural, midwestern communities 4-H originally served. In another way, though, it fits perfectly in Silicon Valley, a region where breaking norms is the stereotype.
A mold breaker by nature, Woodside teen Nate Coruccini is more comfortable with the Market Day process than most. “I killed them this year on my own,” he says of the three hogs he raised (and then ate). “The reality is that this is where meat comes from . . . [and] all of these animals are better meat — better tasting — than anything you can find at a store. And they have better lives because all these kids love them and treat ’em well.”
His ease comes from a mindset 4-H members need to lock into before they start. Although Nate loves raising pigs, he looks at them differently than he does his dog, which is a pet rather than a product. “With the pigs, you know [what’s going to happen] from the very beginning. And if you can’t handle it, you don’t do it . . . I know it’s okay ’cause I know I gave them the best life, so when it’s time, it’s time. I’m ready.”
Even among veteran 4-Hers, not everyone manages to reconcile the process so easily. According to their mom, after the first few years both Juballa kids leaned toward non-market animals (livestock not slaughtered after they’re shown at the county fair). “My son . . . said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to kill any more goats.’ And so the following year he did a breeding goat and then returned it to the breeder. And then after that he did dairy.” For years, dairy goats offered an emotionally sustainable alternative to market animals, but in his final year of high school, Raymond decided to raise a market steer. Ultimately, despite the inevitability of Market Day, he wanted to take on the intensive, nine-month experience of raising a cow.
Kaitlyn, the Redwood City high schooler with a myriad of animals, treads the same path of cognitive dissonance. Although the fate of her market livestock sometimes bothers her, she—like so many others in 4-H — have found purpose and inspiration in the experience she has while the animals are alive. “Before, I wanted to be a fashion designer. And now, because of this . . .” Kaitlyn pats her 200-pound female hog named Hank Williams Jr. “I’m only gonna be a junior, but my plan is to get a degree in animal science and then eventually become a large animal vet.”
Beyond career development, 4-H can be a powerful source of personal growth. “I’m adopted,” Ruby shares, “and learning to bond with my animal has also taught me to bond and understand other people more.” The challenges the three Juballa kids — all adopted — have faced in other parts of their lives can be addressed, in some form or other, in market animal projects. “She learned about bonding,” says Ruby’s mom, “and being connected and loving and loss and still living on. And that’s what the 4-H program has been for us.”
Dichotomous in many ways, 4-H on the Peninsula isn’t for everyone. Raising market animals is a long-term commitment with no weekends off. But the kids who participate have an opportunity that’s rare anywhere in the country — growing up in an urban area and on a farm simultaneously — and for many, its impact defies argument. “It often happens that they raise one market animal and . . . they’re vegetarians after that,” says the Juballas’ mom, “even though they continue to raise the animals. Once you raise it, you’re hooked.”
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