The Maryland State Fair is on, which means it's almost time for Audrey Bennett to say goodbye to her goat, Meatball. She hates these partings. To keep some emotional distance, she usually doesn't name her market-bound goats and lambs. That helps, a bit.
Even so, it's natural for an 11-year-old girl to bond with the creatures she has fed, exercised and groomed in the long run-up to the annual fair. And, really, who would want her to remain dry-eyed when the livestock - her animals, after all - are led off to meet the butcher's blade?
"I sometimes cry when I'm in bed," Audrey said in a sweet, matter-of-fact voice. This was 10 days ago, during a break from pre-fair chores at Bramble Hill Farm, her family's pleasingly jumbled slope of earth in northwestern Carroll County.
Overall, she's at peace with the slaughtering that no doubt occurs within weeks of the fair. How come? "Because I know I took care of them. They had a good life."
The Bennett kids are avid 4-Hers, heirs to a family livestock tradition reaching back seven decades. Last week the four siblings - Claire, 17; Troy, 16; and twins Audrey and Dean - hauled 38 of their farm animals to the Timonium fairgrounds for the annual judging and showmanship contests.
All told, some 700 head of "market livestock" - those bound for the dinner table - have filed into the barns with a shot at being crowned champion in their species class. Nervously accompanying them are scores of 4-Hers. But if all that conjures up quaint images of a kid curled up in a stall with a beloved hog, it's only part of the story.
For the Bennetts, 4-H is a real-world lab that teaches public speaking, responsibility, creative thinking and an in-your-face respect for life and death. That includes the fact that farm animals are raised for us to eat them.
"My parents have always said they would be a little upset if we didn't feel something when we get rid of them," said Claire. "And it is sad. It's hard to part with them. But it's part of a balanced diet, and you know going into the market projects that this is what they're destined for."
Bruce and Kate Bennett know their children may well pursue careers off the farm. So they want them to head into the world prepared for anything.
"Life's not always fair," said Bruce Bennett, a mustachioed man of 49 whose day job is as a lieutenant in the Howard County Fire Department. "4-H gets their feet on the ground so they can pretty much handle any curveball thrown at them."
A full week before the fair's Friday start, Bramble Hill Farm resounded with more racket than the usual whirring of fans to keep the animals cool. The buzz of electric clippers was so loud it muffled the almost comical See 'n Say's worth of baas, moos and woofs, not to mention the rise-and-fall hum of the cicadas and the crickets' metallic chirps.
Working in pairs, the children gave 30-minute haircuts to a parade of goats and lambs clomping through like regulars at a striped-pole barbershop. As any 4-H veteran knows, a neatly groomed animal is essential at the fair.
The beefiest job was a 1,125-pound steer. Dean led the lumbering beast from the barn and onto a metal cattle chute that steadied its head.
He and Claire didn't just do a quick buzz cut. No, they spritzed the steer's brown hide with water and used a bristle brush and a metal-tooth comb to nudge the hair forward. They clipped and then dried the hide with a blow dryer. At this, the steer's eyes widened and its giant ears nervously flapped back and forth.
Giggling, Dean trained the rush of air on his older sister. She gamely dodged the blasts before commanding, in that big sibling voice: "Stop."
A long list of chores meant lunch wasn't until 2:40. On the picnic table behind the house, Kate Bennett put out a spread of homemade goat patties and tomatoes from the garden. As the family dug in, their two dogs, chickens and cats came and went.
Bramble Hill Farm is the only home the kids have known. Bruce and Kate bought the 9-acre "farmette" 18 years ago and named it after its then-overgrown state.
He wanted to pass down the love of livestock and land that bloomed during his boyhood on a 150-acre farm in Howard's Lisbon community. Kate Bennett grew up in the Montgomery County suburbs, yet inexplicably pined for farm life. They met while studying animal science at the University of Maryland. Bruce joined the Fire Department for a steadier paycheck than a farmer's; she focused on the family.
Bramble Hill looks out over a rolling vista west of Uniontown. The wavy landscape calls to mind a giant beach blanket frozen mid-ripple while being shaken out. Of course, there's nothing beach-like about the pungent aromas - earthy manure, sweet hay - that hit the nose.
For the Bennetts, 4-H has long meant raising livestock and the many lessons that teaches. That was true for Bruce as a teenager in the 1970s, when he won national acclaim with Angus cattle. His father was a 4-Her, and in the early 1940s, his grandfather helped build the barns at Howard's fairgrounds.
All four Bennett children have excelled at 4-H, winning at the state fair level. All will take part in the coming weekend's youth livestock judging competition, which forces them to make and justify quick decisions. All can talk with easy authority about the two animal categories: market livestock (which eventually go to a meat processor, hence the sad farewells) and breeders.
This year's top-rated market animals were sold last night at the Cow Palace. A few entrants from Bramble Hill Farm made the sale. So cheer for the Bennetts, but temper the applause. Audrey may shed a tear amid the smiles. Among the creatures chosen for the auction block was a goat named Meatball.