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EastGen Challenge draws 4-H clubs from across Southwestern Ontario for a youth dairy competition and educational workshops

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

The Rotary Complex played host to hundreds of teens – and hundreds of their black-and-white friends – as 4-H clubs from across Southwestern Ontario converged on Stratford for the two-day EastGen Challenge.

Dairy kids from Perth, Oxford, Norfolk, Waterloo and beyond make an annual tradition of the event, the focus of which is a youth dairy competition.

“It is one of the biggest events that they can show in during the summer, so one of the largest shows for them,” said Christa Ormiston, director of communications for EastGen. “For a lot of (clubs) it's the first time they come together as a county, before the other shows of the year...they have time to spend and gel together.”

Competitors – the challenge is open to 4-Hers between age 14 and 21 – were having a blast with friends from near and far as they washed, brushed and shined up their calves for the ring. A full crowd watched the classes from bleachers in the Rotary Complex.

It's the people that keep Landon Smith coming back.

“Most of us in this Perth County (club), we only see each other twice a year,” said Smith, 20, who added there's a strong sense of camaraderie between the competitors.

“That's the best – meeting up with old friends.”

It's a common reflection, said Ormiston.

“It's an opportunity to get to know one another and have that experience together,” she said.

But there's also an emphasis on learning. EastGen starts the challenge with an education day, including seminars and on-farm workshops where competitors learn about topics like genetics and breeding strategies.

“4-H is really about youth development and skill building and them learning to do by doing,” said Ormiston.

Jordan Hawthorne from Listowel said the show is well worth it – both for the friendships and the knowledge.

“It's a lot of fun, good experience,” he said.

A contest like the EastGen Challenge is the best place to pick up tips and tricks for the next competition, he said.

“From watching other people, you learn different techniques,” said the 16-year-old, who lives on a dairy farm.

Volunteers from the Stratford Agricultural Society chipped in, too.

Murray Schlotzhauer took on the dirty work, sweeping up in and outside of the washing station. He said it's a great chance to give back to the youth in the agriculture community.

“That's why some of us old people do what we do – for the sake of the next generation,” said Schlotzhauer. “And somehow or another, we have to get the city folks more educated on agriculture.”

mstacey@postmedia.com