Tonia DiPiazza clapped loudly as her son, Joseph, cantered his pony around the ring in front of her. It was the last day of the three-day Harford County 4-H horse clinic, and Joseph and Muffin were showing their stuff in preparation for the county farm fair this week. Joseph, explained his mother, had learned how to canter at the clinic.
But as much as Joseph learned this year, next year could be quite different. The clinic, like many of the county 4-H activities, is in jeopardy.
With a 9 percent budget cut (about $1.6 million) coming from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Office, after a 5 percent cut this year, the county's 4-H program will face difficult choices during the next year as it pares away programs, services and perhaps people.
For the about 780 children in Harford County 4-H clubs, that means changes in everything from the county farm fair to their choices of activities and clubs, said Cynthia Warner, the county 4-H educator. She said she's worried that the cuts could hurt 4-H's core teaching mission.
State-level projects, such as the state farm fair, will be especially affected, she said, because those programs receive no county money to help soften the blow.
The ultimate effects of the cuts will be around for a long time, said Bob Tibbs, a member of the county 4-H's livestock sale committee. "This is a budget for the kids in the county," he said. "4-H is the backbone of agriculture, you might say."
The cuts have come with little fanfare, Tibbs said, and have been bewildering to those who now must tighten their belts. "I know it's a bad situation, but it just seems to me we ought to be able to sit down and talk about these things."
Until the Cooperative Extension Office decides, it's hard to predict what will be affected.
This year's farm fairs across the state, for example, were planned well before the cuts came through, so those activities won't lose much.
Nevertheless, some decisions have already been made. Open positions, for example, won't be filled.
That includes the 4-H educator position in Cecil County. That post has been open for more than a year, although Cecil does have a faculty assistant, who performs some of the same duties.
Although an open position in another county might not directly affect Harford, there will be collateral effects, as Harford County personnel might lend their time or expertise to counties in need, said David L. Almquist, the Harford County extension director. 4-H educators across the state get stretched thinner when there are fewer people to share the workload, he said.
Harford has two paid 4-H positions: one paid for by the county, and Warner's position, which is paid for by county and state funds.
And next year's farm fairs, traditional showcases for 4-H projects such as raising farm animals, horse riding and dramatic and visual arts, will see definite changes. A few contests, especially at the state level, will probably be cut, Warner said.
Even though the contests aren't the focus of 4-H, they provide a showcase for what children have learned in their clubs, she said.
The contests have a more tangible importance, as well. Contest-winning animals fetch higher prices at auction, she said, so a ribbon can mean a significant amount of money for a 4-Her. Since auction money often gets rolled into next year's 4-H project or, in the case of older club members, college funds, the loss of a few hundred dollars can have a lasting result.
DiPiazza has been a 4-H member for 30 years, from riding horses in Baltimore and Harford county clubs to volunteering and judging for horse competitions. She's also the mother of two 4-Hers: 7-year-old Joseph, who rides Liseter Blueberry Muffin, and Rosa, 11, who rides I.C. Blue Zephyr.
As a volunteer, DiPiazza knows how much 4-H relies on families and individuals. But there's only so much volunteers can do, she said.
Already, 4-H volunteers "sometimes give more than what they can really do," DiPiazza said.