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Some teens happy raising farm animals

There's something unusual in the 4-H barns at the Erie County Fair, and it's not the cows, pigs or the black-and-white rooster with the fuzzy feet.

There are dozens of teenagers around and hardly a cellphone in sight.

Very little texting. Certainly no iPads. Just old-fashioned chores like feeding chickens, sheering sheep and, yes, cleaning up manure.

And they love it.

"I'll be honest," said Scott Gowanlock, who raises steer, sheep and swine. "I don't own any video game console or any of that stuff. You know, these animals are a big part of my day."

It's a passion for Gowanlock, 19, that extends well beyond the August weeks he spends each year at the Erie County Fair. It's a yearlong commitment that gets him up at 6 a.m. -- even during summer vacation -- and sometimes keeps him in the family barn in East Aurora late into the night grooming, feeding and caring for livestock.

This is the other side of the fair -- the world beyond the spinning rides, sticky foods and the call of "I Got It."

This is the wake-up-early, get-your-boots-dirty and-show-off-your-grit side of the fair.

Samantha Basile, of Buffalo, has put nine years into 4-H programs and will spend all 12 days camping with her family at the Erie County Fairgrounds before heading off to the State Fair.

"It's not normally the first thing I bring up in a conversation," said Samantha, 17, a senior at Sacred Heart Academy who travels each week to her cousin's farm in Colden to care for her three goats and a heifer. "Like, oh yeah, I have a thousand-pound cow."

Samantha's country chores are a wonderment to her city friends. She tells them about the chickens, rabbits, cows and goats.

"They're like, 'Wait, what's a goat? Wait, what?' " Samantha recounted.

Showing animals at the fair gives her and others in the 4-H Youth Development program a chance to bridge the gap between the tech-filled lives people lead and the farms where their food is raised.

If these teens seem particularly well-spoken, it's because they've had lots of practice.

They're expected to stay with their animals -- not just to protect and care for them, but also to answer questions and explain to the public what goes into raising livestock. Often, said Michaela Richmond, 16, the fair is the only place people come in contact with livestock or see all the work that goes into food before it gets to the table.

"It's our time to talk to them about how animals are raised, how farmers humanely handle them, how the milk is produced, things like that," said Michaela, whose father runs Richmond Farms Dairy in North Collins. Some of the cattle Michaela will show this week are the descendents of cattle her father showed in 4-H.

There are lessons in toughness to be learned in 4-H.

Michaela, who is tall and slender, can safely lead a 750-pound Jersey cow named Ruby -- most of the time.

"She stepped on my toe yesterday, and it's totally black and blue," Michaela said. "One of the most important things is teaching your animals to lead safely. When they're that big, they can obviously push you around."

The secret? Teach them when they're little, so they're easier to manage when they get huge.

The hardest part of 4-H by far, said Michaela, is when an animal gets sick or has to be put down.

"That's the dumps, because you've worked so hard on your project, and then to have it end like that," she said. "Your animals normally end up becoming like your friends and like your pets, so that's the worst thing for me."

Gowanlock, who has spent nearly 15 summers at the Erie County Fair, plans to turn his passion for livestock into a career. He's studying business at Erie Community College and hopes to either manage or own a livestock-related business.

"It keeps me active," Gowanlock said. "I'm not sitting in front of a TV eating potato chips, is really what it amounts to, and I just enjoy it. I have a passion for it, and I don't see myself doing anything else."

"The least fun part would have to be cleaning up after your animals," said Samantha. "I mean, come on now, who wants to do that? But I think the most fun is that when you actually succeed, and you do really well, you get trophies, and you get rewarded, not only by your animal listening to you, but you get rewarded for many other things as well."