Thirteen-year-old Tommy Lazzari stays up late these days feeding his steers, Jake and Elwood. In the cool of the evening, he walks them gently around an imaginary show ring in the small pasture behind his Dayton house.
Last winter, the Howard County youth braved the ice on that same hilly pasture, as he and his father, John Lazzari, wrestled metal gates and canvas into a lean-to to keep the animals from freezing.
It'll start to pay off this Saturday when Tommy enters his cattle in the 50th annual Howard County Fair, an annual rite that gives farm youngsters -- and, increasingly, their suburban cousins -- the chance to display their agricultural prowess.
In its first half-century, this summer celebration of agriculture has survived the county's transformation from a farming community into a bustling residential and commercial hub.
There's still plenty of tradition, from the pie-eating contests and the Farm Queen competition to the sights and smells of the midway. Fair organizers expect between 100,000 and 120,000 people to visit the Howard County Fairgrounds from Saturday to Aug. 19.
At the heart of the fair are the agricultural exhibits, chief among them the high-profile 4-H livestock events. And these days, organizers say, most of Howard's 800 4-H competitors are city and suburban refugees who raise their animals on space rented from neighboring farms.
Take Jason Spicer, for example. The 19-year-old Mount Airy resident is participating in his tenth year as a 4-H competitor.
Though his three lambs graze behind the family's red-brick ranch house and detached garage on busy Route 144, Mr. Spicer boards 11 beef cows and steers and three hogs with a nearby farmer. He does chores around the farm to pay for their board.
"It's just something I like to do," says Mr. Spicer, who sees little irony in raising a herd of cattle on somebody else's farm.
And then there's the Proia family.
Don Proia, an office supplies salesman, left a Silver Spring apartment in 1980 for his dream home in Clarksville, on 10 acres that cried out for a farmer's touch.
Getting his four children involved in 4-H simply came with the territory, says Mr. Proia. His 8-year-old son, Alex, who raises 25 chickens in a wire-enclosed shed that once housed lawn and garden equipment, will enter some in this year's fair.
"We wanted them to be around other kids that had other interests besides watching TV and going to the mall," says Mr. Proia, who has won a few ribbons himself in non-4-H competition for the flowers he's grown.
It's a trend that's being seen in 4-H programs statewide as Maryland becomes more urban, says Claudia Payne, a 4-H expert with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in College Park who tracks the state's 40,000 4-H members.
And it's a welcome development, says Rob Moxley, president of the Howard County Fair Board.
"From the fair's perspective, I feel it's just as valuable to have these 4-H youths that don't come from farms," he says. "Even if very few of them are going to become farmers or go into agriculture-related business in the future, their understanding of farming will benefit the agricultural community at large."
In Howard, that community is shrinking all the time.
Between 1982 and 1992, the county lost 22 percent of its farmland, as development in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., pressed in from both sides. The number and size of farms also declined sharply, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
These days, farmers work 70-hour weeks while neighboring suburbanites lounge on vast lawns outside of $350,000 houses. Impatient motorists in Saabs and BMWs sometime hurl insults -- or trash -- at farmers on their lumbering combines, farmers complained.
To keep up with the times, and with the interests of a more urbanized county, fair organizers now mix tradition with high technology.
Among the hundreds of contests this year will be "Data Structures," in the junior and senior 4-H Computers divisions. Competitors are asked to nurture and show off spreadsheet and database programs, instead of sheep or tomatoes.
Of course, there's no shortage of more traditional fare from veterans such as Elmira Seibert, 72. The Glenelg resident has won something at every fair since the first one in 1946, held at Brendel's Manor Park in western Ellicott City.
Yet, like most fair competitors these days, she and her son, Wil Seibert, compete from their residential property, not from farms. Two subdivisions now sit on all but eight acres of the 74-acre farm Mrs. Seibert and her husband, Murat Seibert, bought in 1941.
Young competitors have doubts about making their living through farming.
"Ten years from now, I hope to have a farm and be doing the same thing I am now," Mr. Spicer says. "I have a feeling that by the time I want to do that, I'm not going to be able to do it in Howard County."