Visit the Kentucky State Fair on the day of the 4-H Country Ham Project and you’ll see hundreds of 4-Hers nervously preparing for their ham speeches. Entering its 20th year, the Country Ham Project has become a staple at the fair and one of the largest 4-H competitions in Kentucky.
The Country Ham Project is unique to Kentucky. With Kentucky’s rich history of country ham production, several ham producers began seeking a way to pass on the traditional preparation methods to the next generation.
After a few conversations with Dr. Benji Mikel, the University of Kentucky extension meat specialist at the time, they decided that the perfect partnership was with 4-H.
In 1999, Mikel recruited Bill Robertson of Finchville Hams and Leslie Scott of Scotts Hams to teach the basics of country ham preparation to what Mikel remembers as “just a handful of kids around Lexington.”
Mikel’s goal was to not only pass on the process of producing country hams, but to use ham preparation as a way to educate children on food production.
“We didn’t want this to be just another contest to win,” said Mikel. “We wanted kids to really learn something about agriculture.”
Participants begin prepping their hams long before the State Fair.
In the winter, 4-Hers begin with “green” or fresh hams and cure them, often under the expert guidance of a local country ham producer.
Over the next few months, participants will learn every step in the curing process and the history of country ham production.
In August, 4-Hers bring their finished hams to Louisville where they are judged at the Kentucky State Fair. While 40 percent of the contest consists of judging the quality of the finished ham, the other 60 percent is allocated to a 3-5 minute presentation about a ham related topic.
Awards are given to winners in both the ham and presentation categories, as well as overall placings which combine the two scores.
After the contest, the 4-Her can do with their ham as they please. Many participants sell their finished hams in their community and then use their profits to reinvest in their ham project for the next year.
In 2018, the country ham contest had 800 participants from 70 counties.
To honor the 4-H Country Ham Project’s contributions to promoting pork and preserving Kentucky’s rich country ham history, the Kentucky Pork Producers honored Mikel, Robertson and Scott at the 2019 Kentucky Pork Producers Annual Meeting.