Squatting in the sawdust of the county fair tent, Michelle North grasped a chin full of wool with one hand and held a well fluffed black leg with the other. She looked across her sheep's flank at her older sister, Lisa, kneeling in the same position beside her yearling, and winked.
The two girls had just won second- and third-prize ribbons in the fitting and showmanship competitions with their woolly white Shropshire sheep. ''We end up competing against each other in a lot of shows, but it never bothers us,'' Michelle explained later. ''We're too used to working together at home.''
Michelle and Lisa North, their dad, Jack, and mom, Theresa, could be on a poster advertising the all-American 4-H family. Following in the footsteps of their two older sisters and brother, Lisa and Michelle have been taking top honors at Massachusetts fairs for more than five years. Jack North, who serves as volunteer leader of the local 4-H horse and livestock clubs, spends his vacation each summer chauffeuring rams and swine to and from fairs. And Theresa North is usually busy in the 4-H booth, recording competition winners and serving refreshments.
Day begins at the 14-acre North farm with feeding 14 sheep, 3 cows, 3 pigs, 2 horses, 10 cats, and 2 dogs. Michelle, who starts her junior year in high school in September, has been doing most of the work herself this year while Lisa's been away at college, but now that summer is here, both girls are making the rounds of county and state fairs. They often spend a week at a time at each fair , working on the barn crews that help to care for the show animals and sleeping in the student dorms. It's been a way of life for them for as long as they can remember.
''When we were little kids, we hung around the fairs with our sisters,'' Lisa recalls, ''and when we started to enter the shows ourselves, we had a big advantage because we knew what went on. Our sisters had shown us how to exhibit our sheep, how to shear them to hide their bad points, that kind of thing.''
Today Michelle and Lisa make all the decisions regarding their animals - which of the yearling lambs they'll show and which they'll sell, which rams will be kept for breeding and which will go to market.
''Because of all the decisionmaking they get into, I think the girls show a maturity that most kids their ages don't have,'' says Jack North. ''4-H is what dominates the conversation at meals, and we're constantly talking with each other, which I think is very healthy. I feel that there's a good, open line of communication at home.''
Mr. North says he often has to laugh at himself when he thinks about how involved he and the entire family have become with 4-H. ''I guess it all started about 15 years ago when our oldest daughter went to a fair and came home asking if she could buy a sheep,'' he explains. ''By the end of that year, we had three sheep. After two more years, we had nine sheep - and it's been like that ever since! I still can't believe it at times, because my wife and I both grew up as city kids.''
Although 4-H has a traditional image as a rural youth and family development organization, today more than 24 percent of its 4.8million members aged 9 to 19 live in cities and suburbs. One 4-H program that's getting a lot of attention now is urban gardening. With $3 million in congressional seed money, youngsters have been digging up vacant lots in 16 target cities across the United States (Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; Houston; Jacksonville, Fla.; Los Angeles; Memphis; Milwaukee; Newark, N.J.; New Orleans; New York; Philadelphia; St. Louis). Last year they harvested an estimated $14.5 million in fresh vegetables.
''Gardening in the city has different objectives than in rural areas,'' says Carolyn Weeks of Boston's Suffolk County 4-H Extension Service. ''In rural areas , there isn't much else to do and 4-H is a way of socializing. But kids in the city have so many social options that what they need is something educational, something to slow them down and get them thinking.''
Mrs. Weeks heads the urban gardening program in Boston, which last summer involved more than 14,000 youngsters. She makes the rounds daily of city schools , community agencies, and neighborhoods, looking for adult volunteers and unused plots of land.
''At first kids can be a little skeptical, but once they see that they've got input in our programs, that they can help to plan them, they start signing up and bringing their friends along,'' she notes. ''Sometimes, too, gardening gives them a chance to talk to another adult about things they might not discuss with their parents. That's good, but at the same time, we know that for long-term success we need more parental support.''
One Boston parent who's been a 4-H urban gardener for years describes the program as a ''lifesaver.''
''With nine kids, I was always looking for things to keep them busy and out of trouble,'' says Dorothy Rankin. ''I'd grown up in the South, so I knew the types of things 4-H had to offer, and I was determined that that kind of activity should be available in our neighborhood.''
When a group of youngsters working on a school project began looking for ways to spruce up the neighborhood, Mrs. Rankin joined the campaign. While the kids went door to door asking for donations for seeds, she borrowed rakes and hoes and even found someone who owned a truck and was willing to haul manure from New Hampshire.
That was 10 years ago. Today a beautiful raised-bed garden of peppers and marigolds, collard greens and sunflowers, string beans and roses sparkles in the sun near Mrs. Rankin's original plot.
Mrs. Rankin's latest project? ''I'm trying to get some container gardens going for the little ones in the neighborhood, and I'm trying to interest some of the older children in 4-H scholarships for college. There's always something for everyone.''