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Cecil County Life

Ready, Set, Grow!

Nov 01, 2017 12:04PM ● By J. Chambless

Coach Susan Sprout-Knight, Taylor Knight, Aubrey Cole, Ray Martin IV, Rachael Ward and coach Eileen Boyle.

Lisa Fieldman
Staff Writer

Last month, members of the Cecil County 4-H traveled to Indianapolis as part of the Maryland state team to test their knowledge and skills in a horticulture competition.

The National Junior Horticultural Association holds the annual convention the first week in October. The convention spans four days and draws youth from across the country. In addition to the competition, the schedule includes time for educational tours of local horticulture businesses, ag facilities and spots of cultural interest.

This year, Rachael Ward of Elkton and Taylor Knight from Rising Sun won spots on the Maryland team. Aubrey Cole and Ray Martin IV, both from Frederick County, took the remaining two spots on the four-person team. Rachael, Taylor and Aubrey all competed in horticultural identification and quality judging in four categories: Woody plants and shrubs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers and bulbs. Ray chose to compete in public speaking and delivered a speech on the benefit of honeybees in the garden.

Rachael is following in the footsteps of her seven siblings by competing at Nationals. As a family, the Wards have been involved with 4-H and the horticulture competition for more than 20 years. According to her mother, Rachael has been accompanying her older siblings to 4-H meetings since she was a baby. “I think she learned it all by osmosis,” her mother said with a laugh. “We have the best coaches in the area. There are five coaches -- one for each subject area of the state contest,” she explained. “Almost every year we’ve sent people to Nationals. Cecil County students have always done very, very well.”

The team makes a pit stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

 Once you have been a team competitor, you are eligible to return and compete as an individual in an open division. Cecil County 4-H members Seth Donnelly and Melinda Ward both traveled to Indianapolis to compete in the open honors division. Seventeen-year-old Seth continued his winning streak. Last year, he accomplished an almost perfect score in the competition, and this year he earned a Grand National award. Harlan King and William Donnelly, while not old enough to make the state team, attended to compete as juniors. Harlan, who is 7, won a Grand National award for his demonstration of the prepping and cooking of vegetables. The Maryland team has a reputation for being victorious at this competition, and this year was no different. The team placed fourth overall, and won many individuals prizes. Rachael Ward placed second, winning a $2,000 scholarship to the University of Maryland. Others came home with cash prizes. Ray Martin IV captured a National Award for his honeybee speech.

Seth Donnelly agrees that the team’s continued success is due to their excellent coaches.

“The Cecil County horticulture group is lucky compared to other groups,” he explained, “because we have coaches who are specific to each area of the competition.”

The coaches are all volunteers and spend countless hours working with the team. Susan Sprout-Knight teaches the group about fruit, Eileen Boyle coaches for the written exam, Sam Brown of Foxfire Nursery instructs ornamentals, Angie Darsney teaches vegetables, Connie King handles weeds, pests, and plant disease, and David Shortall of Fairhill Florist coaches the team on flowers. Many of the coaches competed at this competition in their youth, and they continue to attend the event to support the team.

Eileen Boyle sits on the national board of the NJHA, and has been involved with the Cecil County 4-H team since 2001. She is impressed and inspired by the dedication shown by the youth.

“Most of these kids started studying for this competition when they were 8 years old,” she said. From ages 8 to 10, children are eligible to compete at a county level in the junior division. They are required to identify 25 specimens in each category. The specimens can be any part of a plant, such as a tiny seed, bark, a leaf, or even a dried flower head. At age 11, they move into the intermediate group and they must be able to identify 45 specimens. Senior members, ages 15 to 19, compete to win a spot on the state team and go to nationals.

At nationals, the competition consists of plant identification, quality judging of specimens, and an 80-question written exam.

The team met up with the Maryland Future Farmers of America for some convention fun.

 “Each step you progress, the more difficult the test,” Eileen said. “I’ve had master gardeners take this exam so they can see what the kids are up against, and they come out shaking their heads. It’s extremely challenging.”

The contestants are allowed to look and even smell the items, but are forbidden to touch them. “I once had a team member crawl under a table to look through the slats so she could see the underside of the vegetable,” Eileen said. “It was a softball-sized black radish and she was the only competitor to guess correctly.”

The young people prepare for the written exam by studying an extensive manual that covers a range of topics such as greenhouse structures, plant nomenclature, cultivars, soil types, growing methods, and propagation. This year, the test was prepared by a Purdue University professor.

“The questions are not easy,” said coach Boyle. “You may be asked how to prevent your crop in Florida from freezing when the temperature drops to 30 degrees. Or 'What is the pH of corn growing in zone seven?'”

Part three of the exam is quality judging. Again, each category of fruits, vegetables, woody shrubs and plants, and flowers are presented. “You may see four potted chrysanthemums and you have to decide which has the best quality,” Eileen said. While a consumer may choose the largest mum, the students may notice that the large one is pot-bound and therefore not the best. They will look for leaf damage, disease, pest infestation or evidence of weeds.

The 4-H members start preparing for the competition in May, with weekly study sessions running through September. It’s a huge commitment for the students, their families and the coaches. Each week, one of the coaches will present their topic for the team to review. This continues until mid-August, when they compete at the Maryland State Fair. Here, the top four students are chosen for the Maryland state team. The team then continues to meet and study once or twice a week until the Nationals in October.

The Cecil County community is very supportive of the 4-H team. “Both Harmony Masonic Lodge in Port Deposit and Rosebank church have been extremely generous in allowing our team to meet in their facilities,” said coach Boyle. “Country Thyme Garden Club has continually provided financial support for our open division competitors.”

In return for the support, the kids give a demonstration at a club meeting. “Our rule is that you can’t accept money without giving something back,” Boyle said. This year, both Melinda Ward and Seth Donnelly also received scholarship money from the National Junior Horticultural Association to help with expenses. The state team’s expenses are fully covered by the University of Maryland and the Maryland Extension Office.

Not only did the Maryland team place well, but they also won first place for their state booth. The theme of this year’s event was “Ready, Set, Grow!” Each team booth represented their state, and also highlighted any similarities between their home and the host state. The team’s booth replicated Route 70, which runs directly from Maryland to Indiana. They marked every state you pass through along the route with a water tower featuring the products of that particular state. The team created tiny race cars featuring ads from all their sponsors, such as Herr's, and pointed out how auto racing is a favored sport in both states. The youth also gave out apples and Cow Tail candy as examples of products produced in Maryland.

The highlight for the team was winning the much-coveted Spirit Stick. This award is given to the team that embodies a spirit of friendliness, positivity and the willingness to help others. “I don’t think they cared if they won or lost as team, they just wanted to win the Spirit Stick,” Eileen said with a laugh. Along with the closing of the convention comes some downtime for the kids and the coaches. But next April they will gear back up and start preparing for the county, state and national competitions.

“People ask me why I spend so much time doing this,” Eileen said. “The kids come back so inspired and excited. The devotion they show amazes me.”

There were a lot of people in Eileen’s life that inspired her as she was growing up, and she is happy to have the opportunity to pass it along.

“I can only share my knowledge and hope to inspire them,” she said. One of the most gratifying things Eileen has seen is the desire of former team members to come back to 4-H as volunteers. She routinely hears from young people how the skills they learned in 4-H have helped them personally and professionally. “They go to college, and then come back and say, 'I’m comfortable speaking in public or doing a demonstration at work because I had to do it in 4-H,'”

The National Junior Horticultural Association works to interest today’s youth in horticulture and possibly provide the industry with future professionals. “The NJHA is a great organization for kids,” said Eileen Boyle, “even if they do not plan to major in horticulture, it encompasses so many aspects of agriculture.”

College reps routinely attend the convention because they know they are seeing the cream of the crop. Through the program, and especially the convention, a lot of the kids will make new friends.

“Once they meet through their shared interest in horticulture, they realize they have much more in common and forge lifelong relationships,” Boyle said.

For more information on the NJHA or 4-H in Cecil County, contact Eileen Boyle at 302 892-2645 (, or April Barcewzski at the Cecil County Extension office (410-996-5280).

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