Mike Umphrey was a junior in high school when he entered and won a Sears & Roebuck agriculture essay contest more than 50 years ago.
First prize? A pure breed heifer calf.
“I entered that contest because I was in Future Farmers of America and 4-H,” the retired Aroostook County farmer and potato broker said. “That cow started my dairy business.”
Now, a half century later, Umphrey is watching his grandchildren raise their own bulls as part of the Aroostook Valley 4-H Baby Beef Club.
And while neither 4-H nor FFA attract the numbers of students they once did in northern Maine, Umphrey said the lessons participating in those programs teaches have remained the same.
“It’s learning to work and a what farming is really like,” Umphrey said. “There are a lot of kids today that just don’t see that.”
Sitting across the kitchen table from her grandfather on a recent Saturday morning, Grace McCrum, 17, agreed.
“I have kids ask me at school what I’m going to do over the weekend,” Grace said. “I’ll say ‘Saturdays are for cleaning stalls,’ and they actually think it’s kind of cool.”
Grace McCrum, 17, is a fourth generation participant in the Aroostook Valley 4-H Baby Beef Club. Like her sisters, mother, grandfather and great-grandfather, she has raised calves into beef steers over the course of a year.
Late last fall the family greeted two 4-H baby beef steers to the farm. “Admiral,” is the 800-pound Hereford Steer Grace is raising. “Sugar,” an 800-pound Hereford-cross steer, is being raised by Grace’s younger sister 15-year-old Lila McCrum.
During this upcoming year, Grace and Lila McCrum will spend countless hours in all kinds of weather feeding, watering, tending, grooming, training and hanging out with the bulls getting them ready for their ultimate goal — the show ring at the annual Northern Maine Fair in July.
And by then, both should weigh over 1,400-pounds.
“I started out in 4-H in 1959 when I was 9-years-old,” Umphrey said. “Back then, all the farmers in the area had livestock and [the Northern Maine Fair] was huge with a lot of farmers and 4-H clubs bringing their animals up from downstate to show.”
It was a time when the agriculture track was the most popular in Aroostook County schools and FFH the most popular club, he said.
There was competition among the clubs for who had raised the best and biggest animals, but more than that Umphrey said was a spirit of cooperation and lasting friendship.
“Fair week was like a family reunion,” he said. “You’d see people you had not seen for a year and trade information and tips on raising animals.”
There were no fancy animal trailers or campers back then, Umphrey said. Rather, cattle, horses and other livestock came north in the beds of pickups or farm trucks.
“We’d all help unload animals when they arrived,” he said. “My dad had the hay contract and he’d take orders in the morning and us kids would load and deliver the hay [and] the next morning we’d get up at 3 a.m. to do it all over again.”
After a hard day’s work at the fair many people found a comfortable spot in a barn or under a truck to curl up and sleep.
“Some kids even slept in the stalls with their cows,” Umphrey said. “Sure, we’d raise some Cain at night — we could teach today’s kids some stuff — but it was all in good fun.”
Umphrey’s daughter — Grace’s mom — Nichole McCrum is a co-leader of the 4-H baby beef club and spent her own years raising cows under her father’s tutelage.
Nichole and her husband Troy McCrum live with their four children in the house she grew up in, complete with the attached former dairy barn.
“I remember the pipes for the house water were connected to the same pipes that supplied water to the dairy cows,” Nichole said. “You knew when the cows were drinking because it would make the pipes coming into the house rattle.”
Looking back on those years raising dairy cows, Umphrey said the best part of his day was the evening barn check.
“Every night at 9 we’d go out and check the barn,” he said. “Back then, the only radio station we got was MPBN and they played classical music at night [and] we’d have that playing for the cows so when you went into the barn at night, it was silent except for classical music and cows chewing cud.”
Grace said she and her sisters still play music for their animals, but these days the radio is tuned to a country music station, she added with a laugh.
“For a long time, we used the radio my mom used as a kid,” Grace said.
In fact, much of the gear and equipment the McCrum girls use these days for their steers are treasured hand-me-downs.
Picking up a photograph of her grandfather as a boy with his 4-H cow at the fair, Grace points to the harness on the animal.
“That’s the harness I use today,” she said. “The only things we really have had to buy ourselves are the food and grooming ‘products’ we use on the bulls.”
That comment made Nichole McCrum laugh.
“Those cows have more hair products than I do,” she said.
Nichole McCrum knows the kind of work involved in raising livestock, but also wants to keep it fun for her 4-H club members.
“I want my children to have a taste of what it was like when I was growing up on the farm,” Nichole McCrum said. “And we try to bring that ‘family’ feel back during fair week with picnics or ‘ice cream’ or ‘doughboy’ nights at our camper during fair.”
Grace said she and her sisters look forward to that social aspect of fair week as much as they do the showring.
It’s in the ring that Grace will bring Admiral to strut his stuff and — hopefully — attract the attention of a buyer willing to pay upwards of $2 a pound for the bull.
“That’s a far cry from the $0.27 a pound Umphrey said bulls averaged back in his 4-H days.
“Back then a big steer was around 700 or 800 pounds,” he said. “You never had anything at 1,000 pounds.”
In Umphrey’s day, the breeds popular in northern Maine were the smaller Angus and Shorthorns.
“Those were pretty much the only ones on the farms back then,” he said.
Umphrey is proud of his granddaughters and, is always happy to offer advice — and sometimes more.
“Seven or eight years ago, he looked out and saw us going to do barn chores in the dark at 5 in the morning wearing our headlamps,” Grace said. “That year for Christmas he set up a floodlight in the barn for us and that was the best gift ever — no more headlamps.”
Admiral is Grace’s fifth 4-H steer and she said he is by far the most loving and “cuddly” bull she has raised.
“He just loves to be loved on,” she said. “He’s just the sweetest thing.”
But, she knows as much as she loves Admiral and he loves her, the time will come when she will say goodbye as he goes off to market.
“It’s part of farming,” she said simply.
This is the third installment in an ongoing series of stories following Grace McCrum and her family as they prepare the fourth generation of baby beef as part of the Aroostook Valley 4-H Baby Beef Club.
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