Experiences to remember 4-ever

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 7, 2002

Some day, Katie and Jenny will prefer to be called "Kathleen" and "Jennifer."

Some day, the daughters of Robert and Gail Subra will flush with embarrassment, when their father starts telling the story about the day Katie assisted in the birth of a goat. "Assisted" as in "her arm up to her elbow."

Some day, they will forget what the four Hs mean and have to be reminded that heart, health, hands and head were, in fact, the answers.

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Some day, they will be older and wiser as all adults are.

Some day, they will give up the innocence of their youth and that's when the sweet days of their childhood will be made even sweeter.

Days like the summer past.

Growing up on a farm -- with a twist

Katie, 12, is a seventh grader at Ellis Middle School in the Austin Public Schools District. She also competes on the Austin High School swim team.

Jenny, 10, is a fifth grader at Southgate Elementary School.

The girls' father is a federal meat inspector and their mother works in the library at Banfield Elementary School.

The Subra family lives in a new home built near their old home on the family farm homestead along Orchard Creek southwest of Austin.

The girls could be poster children for 4-H.

Each has been involved in 4-H since the organization's "prep-school-style" training in Cloverbuds.

Katie remembers her first Cloverbuds project, a birdhouse, which she built and showed to her peers "just for the fun of it."

Both girls are blessed with loving parents, who involve them in the family's exotic animal farm. Their parents are both teachers and role models.

"Dad taught us how to feed all the animals and what to feed them …." Katie said. "And he taught us how to take care of them" said Jenny, finishing the sentence for her sister.

It is no small task, when the farm is an exotic bird and animal farm, unlike any of the traditional agriculture settings.

The Subras have a feed lot permit just like those farming families who raise swine, dairy, beef cattle or other traditional livestock.

However, the resemblance to farming, as most Americans know it, ends there. Katie and Jenny Subra and their parents live smack dab in the middle of a modern version of Noah's ark.

There are more than 500 exotic birds and more than 100 fur-bearing animals.

Their 4-H experiences are unlike those of any other 4-Hers anywhere.

Not just cows and pigs

Two years ago, Jenny took a camel to the 2000 Mower County Fair 4-H Pet Show.

She could have taken a lemur monkey, miniature horses or donkeys, the Zebu, wallaby, Patagonian Cavi, Brahma rooster, peacock and other rare poultry, goats both full-size and miniature, rabbits and sheep.

Since 1965, Bob, the "country boy," and his wife, Gail, the "city girl" from Owatonna, have raised exotic animals.

Bob's father, Earl, distinguished himself in many ways to earn his induction in the Mower County Livestock Hall of fame. The family

raised beef cattle, sheep, poultry and other domestic animals.

"The first really exotic animals I had were miniature horses and a cougar," he said. "Things sort of started to grow from there."

The Subras raised their exotic creatures to show and sell as breeding stock. They also taught their children that all creatures large and small are living things. That's why it may sound cruel to hear Katie and her father tell the story of the day she helped a goat give birth to twins, without her father's help.

"He was in the house when the time came," she said. "I went in and asked him what to do and he told me. The mother was ready to drop the kid and something had to be done," Katie said.

The first kid came out of her mother dead. Katie struggled as every livestock producer who has raised animals and every veterinarian who has helped a mother deliver. "She had to stick her arm inside the mother up to her elbow. That's all she could do. The first one was born dead, but she saved the life of the second one," her father said.

The 12-year-old girl has done something few children her age have ever imagined.

State Fair teaches more than just how to compete

The Mower County Fair is an important jumping off point for 4-Hers, who work year around to perfect their projects, both livestock and non-livestock.

But, the "big ticket" is the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, when the best of Minnesota's 87 county fairs compete head-to-head. This year, Katie Subra won a curious open class purple ribbon for rooster crowing. Her favorite Brahma rooster came through, winning third-place overall among 30 entries.

But, the experience of going to the Minnesota State Fair taught her more life-skill lessons.

She stayed with other Mower County 4-Hers in a dormitory for four days, met other 4-Hers from around the state.

Her mother knows how valuable those lessons can be for a child. "It wasn't just the competition," Gail Subra said. "They learned to meet different people and to get along and work together."

Now, the Mower County Fair is but a distant memory and the excitement of the Minnesota State Fair is growing stale.

There is school and swimming and everything else each new day brings.

It's also the start of the next cycle of 4-H competition. That means one-and-a-half-hour of morning chores to feed all the animals, snack time and another 20 minutes of feeding the animals all over again after school and supper at night.

The girls -- both of them -- can relish the ever-growing collection of gold trophies, plaques and ribbons they are accumulating.

Even the praise for "thinking outside the box." Katie spun her camel's hair into yarn and earned an honorable mention in needlepoint this year.

Today, Buster, the Jack Russell terrier, who is in charge of the farmyard of creatures, needs his ears scratched. Jenny has a new riding pony. There is a kitten sitting on a haystack who deserves a kiss. Nalla, the camel, wants to play.

The goat kid whose life Katie saved seems to recognize her as she walks by and waves.

"What do you like best about 4-H?" the girls were asked.

Katie answered, "Having fun."

Jenny said, "Doing your best."

In its centennial year, 4-H seems to be on the right track teaching children and teenagers that life is using your heart, hands, health and head to have fun and always to do your best.

Lee Bonorden can be reached at 434-2232 or by e-mail at lee.bonorden@austindailyherald.com