Members of Cobb’s Young Farmers Club come from everywhere except farms

A commotion erupted when Kathleen the chicken broke free at a recent meeting of the Cobb County 4-H’s Young Farmers Club.

The gasps and squeals from the club members were to be expected. None of them actually live on farms. Virtually all of the kids reside in subdivisions or apartments. Their previous interactions with chickens were largely confined to lunch or dinner. They are, after all, in a county where most big commercial agriculture is in its final stages of being plowed under.

“Oh, look at how fast it goes,” one boy said as Kathleen rushed from bush to bush behind the Cobb County Farm Bureau office, near a Walmart off Powder Springs Road.

An adult with a net calmly nabbed the bird. He quickly disentangled Kathleen while holding her upside down by one leg.

“I can’t look,” another young club member said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Cobb, like much of suburban metro Atlanta, had fairly robust farming operations within the memory of some longtime residents.

In recent years micro farms — typically part-time hobby operations on less than 10 acres — have blossomed. But farming overall has mostly withered in metro Atlanta’s core counties. Cobb’s farm acreage shrank by more than half between 2012 and 2017, according to the last two federal agriculture censuses released. The county dropped from 14 farms of 100 acres or more to just five. Four of the metro area’s five core counties lost farmland.

Even former Georgia governor Roy Barnes is selling his cattle herd in Cobb and ending his farming in the county, despite family agriculture roots there that go back more than 100 years.

He has a contract to sell 192 acres near Powder Springs to a residential developer. Barnes bought the land about 25 years ago, in part to farm in a less populated part of Cobb, with fewer of the problems that people bring, he said. “Now I’ve got subdivisions all around me over there.”

“My cows get shot by BB guns. My calves get run by dogs. One gate has been torn down three times this year.”

Cobb “has unfortunately gotten to the point you can’t farm on a large scale,” he said. “It’s too crowded, too many distractions.”

The 74 year old still has a big farm in rural Polk County, near the Alabama line, where he raises about 1,000 head of cattle. However, he focused his career on law and politics. His kids didn’t go for farming. And he doubts his grandchildren will.

He still keeps goats and sometimes a couple cows around his home, a mile from the Marietta Square. Suburban kids will stop by to see the animals. Barnes imagines they are drawn by the novelty.

It’s that way for new members of the local 4-H’s Young Farmers Club, aimed at elementary schoolers to high school teens. For the group of roughly three dozen kids, it’s a foray into an exotic world.

Cobb County Farm Bureau president Stan Kirk, who wrangled Kathleen, helped launch the club a few years back. At least six generations of his extended family once farmed thousands of acres around Kennesaw Mountain.

“Farming is in my blood,” he said.

But his parents’ small stake, a cattle farm he worked on as a kid, dwindled. A subdivision was built on much of the land. Kirk has four acres left, not enough for commercial farming. He grows a few crops and has several animals — enough to show suburban youths a snippet of farming life.

He hopes the Young Farmers Club will help another generation better understand the importance of agriculture and where their food comes from. He’s not sure some of them fully get it at first.

When the Young Farmers Club held its first monthly meeting last month, one little girl, not yet old enough to be a member, insisted she did not eat chicken. He asked her if she ever ate sandwiches at Chick-fil-A. She said she did.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

The hour-and-a-half-long meeting included hands-on activities, such as “candling” eggs to judge their quality using a light. They cheered a game of chicken poop bingo, involving a live chicken and bingo numbers chalked out below her. Some were mesmerized as an older student gently, but firmly, held a live chicken. At another station, a gaggle of kids was shown photos of uncooked chicken parts and asked to identify the pieces.

“Heart! Heart! Heart!” one boy shouted.

It was a skinless thigh.

Sixth grader James Clayton, who lives in an apartment, wants to be an actor, not a full-time farmer. Still, he likes helping with a garden at his grandfather’s house in a Cobb subdivision. He has peppers and blueberries and two fig trees.

“I tend to enjoy it,” he said. Particularly “on the perfect, right day or when I’m bored out of my mind.”

His grandfather, 61-year-old Joe Clayton, grew up on a farm but chose a career in the Army. Clayton said his grandson works on the plants “until it gets too hot and then he is gone.”

As much as the elder Clayton would like more kids to be drawn to farming as an occupation, he isn’t sure there will be enough good farm jobs available for them, even if they were. Meanwhile, the average age of farmers in the U.S. continues to increase. More than a third of operators are at least 65 years old.

Many of the Georgia kids who are in 4-H — 240,000 or so, pre-pandemic — are attracted to programs that concentrate on youth leadership, healthy living or science and technology. But the national organization, now more than a century old, has deep roots in agriculture. It’s still a big part of its offerings, from showing livestock to planting watermelon seeds. Members from around the state will enter contests — from cooking to pumpkin decorating — at the Georgia National Fair in Perry, which is expected to draw 500,000 people before the 11-day event ends Oct. 16.

In Georgia, 4-Hers are overwhelmingly from rural areas and small towns. But suburban kids haven’t abandoned the organization.

And sometimes, Cobb’s 4-H participants best kids from more rural areas. Earlier this year, they won awards in horse, wildlife and poultry judging, as well as horse quiz bowl. The poultry team, which evaluates chickens and eggs, had to import birds to practice on from two counties away. They were transported in dog cages. One got away in the local extension office’s parking lot and there were concerns it would flee onto seven-lane South Cobb Drive with dire consequences, according to county extension 4-H agent Brittani Lee.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

It can take a little bit for subdivision kids to get comfortable with farm stuff. Venya Gunjal’s interest was piqued when she learned about the poultry judging team a few years back as a sixth grader in Kennesaw. She is a vegetarian, doesn’t like the taste of eggs and had never handled a live chicken before. “I was scared of them pecking or biting me.”

What she found out, she said, is “they are really sweet.”

In June, Gunjal, who is 16, was elected president of the Georgia 4-H.

“Funny how it turned out,” she said.

After the Young Farmers Club meeting, 12-year-old Phebe Burroughs-Thebault said it had sparked a potential tweak to her career thoughts. She’s still interested in becoming a pediatric hematologist or a lawyer. But, she said, “I know farmers could use a good attorney.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta