By Doug Graves
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Kentucky State Fair is a huge attraction for many reasons: the entertainment, the rides, unmatchable horse and cattle shows, crafts shows and plenty of mouthwatering food.
But there’s one event that attracts 4-H’ers from across the Bluegrass State: The County Ham Project.
In the Country Ham Project, youth cure two hams for nine months, hoping their hams make it to the judges’ tables in Louisville in August.
“This ham process gets started in January around Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” said Dr. Gregg Rentfrow, meat specialist at University of Kentucky, who oversees this lucrative program for youth ages 10-18. “That day the kids are off and we buy the hams from local ham producers.”
For a $60 fee, each 4-H member receives two country hams, two fair tickets and a parking pass for the fair. The 4-H’ers are responsible for washing, trimming and applying a curing mixture to each ham.
“We put the cure in, hang them in the barns, and then around the end of March we shuck the ham,” Rentfrow said. “We remove the old paper it was wrapped in, clean the ham and get rid of leftover salt. We then re-hang the hams and let nature take its course.”
Made of salt, sugar and spices, most cure mixes are pre-made by local ham producers or the local county 4-H youth extension agent. 4-H members wash their hams in May, and make final preparations for the state fair in August. Each county has a designated aging location for hams in their respective county.
“The kids take the hams down in August, just a few days before taking them to the fair,” said Cathy Toole, agent for 4-H Youth Development in Henry County. “They give them a cleaning and a final scrub, then add vegetable oil to them to give the ham a gloss. At this time, the 4-H’ers pick one of the two hams they want to have judged at the state fair. Those in western Kentucky tend to enter a smoked ham, while those in the eastern portion of Kentucky enter non-smoked ham.”
In addition to the curing process, youth must complete six hours of training in the 4-H livestock certification program to be eligible to submit their ham to the state competition. This training provides 4-H’ers with insight about the history of country ham production and the current industry. Participants also give a three- to five-minutes speech at their local county fair in July.
During the state fair, judges, who are country ham producers and meat buyers, score hams based on aroma, lean-to-fat ratio and appearance for 40 percent of their score. Hams are divided into two different categories – smoked and non-smoked hams, and by age groups. 4-H’ers are required to give their speech on the project, which accounts for 60 percent of their overall score.
According to Rentfrow, the 4-H Country Ham Project has provided youth with an excellent education about the food industry, especially country ham production. The project gives youth an awareness of where their food comes from and how it is prepared for grocery stores.
“In addition, 4-H’ers gain a historical perspective about food preservation prior to the use of refrigeration,” Rentfrow said.
Some participants auction their ham, others donate it. Some sell the ham, while others simply eat it. Just because you participate in the Country Ham Project for 10 years, doesn’t mean you have to like the savory meat.
“I don’t even like the taste of country ham,” said Emma Browning, a Henry County 4-H’er who began this annual ritual age 9 and is now a sophomore at University of Kentucky. “I love curing it, I like the processes involved in working with it, and I like the program itself, but I don’ like eating it. I always gave it to my uncles and grandparents.
“Even before I was old enough to enter the Country Ham Project I was helping with the project. My mother was the 4-H agent for our county, so I’ve been around ham for a long time. Being the kid of your 4-H agent you’re exposed to such things much earlier.”
All the work paid off, as Browning was the overall Ham Project Grand Champion her senior year, beating out 800 other contestants.
While she’s not fond of ham, she credits 4-H and the Country Ham Project for opening a few doors in her life.
“This ham project is what led me to picking food science as my major,” she said. “This project taught me patience, planning and how to talk in front of people. My favorite part of this project was the long wait to give the speech before the judges. It gave me free time to walk around and talk to the other kids and learn what they did in their county. Plus, I now spend my time teaching other kids how to cure their hams, so it’s come full circle for me.”
Joey Reed, an eighth-grader in Henry County, is in his third year with the Country Ham Project.
“I like showing my ham and I enjoy speaking about it,” Reed said. “I take pride in both. My favorite part about this project is the involvement in the communications involved and all the competitiveness going on. I’m a very competitive person and love that the program offers me.”
Ambitious to say the least. Reed once tended to horses on his family’s 28-acre farm, but now his interest is growing (and selling) his pumpkins and gourds. He’s also busy with tennis, cross country and archery.
“I’m busy but I enjoy being busy,” Reed said. “It keeps me doing things. And I never get tired of the Country Ham Project because I enjoy eating ham for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
In the 1990s there were just 30 entries in the Country Ham Project. By 2009 there were 550 entries and 47 competing counties. Last year saw 800 children from 78 counties compete at the Kentucky State Fair.
“This is perhaps the easiest project for kids to participate in at the state fair,” Rentfrow said, “because they don’t need livestock, nor any acreage of any kind. Any kid can participate, even those in the inner city.
“This program builds on the Kentucky’s heritage. This ham contest acknowledges this heritage. Different foods go with different regions of the country and I think with Kentucky and the Southeast part of the U.S., the country ham is the signature food. We’re teaching that heritage to the next generation of students. And over the past 16 years this program has doubled in size.”
Participants will compete against those born in the same year – Juniors (born 2009-2013) and Seniors (born 2004-2008). Separate speech topics will be assigned to each age group. The juniors’ topic is to “discuss the history of the country ham” while seniors will “discuss the pests that infest country hams and how to control them.”