Summer means it’s 4-H season in Eagle County
EAGLE — Jenny Leonetti is one of those rare people who managed to turn her childhood passion into her life’s work.
As a kid, she was an avid 4-H’er — raising animals, riding horses and participating in sewing and cooking clubs. Today, she is the Eagle County Colorado State University Extension Office 4-H/Youth Development agent.
“When I was a kid, my brothers and I were all involved in 4-H,” Leonetti said. “My parents were leaders and it was a family affair. If there was a trip, my mother was the chaperone.”
When Leonetti was a teen, she had the opportunity to intern at an extension office. She decided to pursue a career as an extension agent and she went on to graduate from Colorado State University. Then it was just a case of waiting for an agent opening, and Leonetti had some exceptionally deep family roots pulling her back to Eagle County.
“My relatives moved here in 1920, so our family has been in the valley for more than 100 years,” Leonetti said. Her family homestead is in the Cottonwood Pass area.
“My brother lives up there and my family still runs cattle up there,” Leonetti said.
Her family history includes one of the valley’s most tragic tales. Her great-grandparents and two of their grandchildren lost their lives in a house fire at the Cottonwood Pass ranch in 1952. They were watching the children, because their son had died after drowning following an accident in Glenwood Canyon. His wife was out of town, making funeral arrangements, when the fire occurred.
“That tragedy brought my grandparents back to Gypsum to take over running the ranch,” Leonetti said.
Leonetti’s mom, Karen Wood, moved back with her parents and eventually left the valley to attend the University of Nothern Colorado. While there, she met Leonetti’s father, Claude Wood.
The Woods eventually moved back to Eagle County. Karen was a teacher, then a stay-home mom. Claude was a local game warden. They settled on a 33-acre parcel, which included a house, that the Walkers (Leonetti’s grandparents) purchased in 1963 for $15,000.
“My husband and I and my mom still live at that place,” Leonetti said.
Growing up in Gypsum
Leonetti lived in Gypsum until she was 13 years old and her father was transferred to Walden. The Woods had built a home out on Valley Road and Leonetti recalls how she and her friend Sarah Mayne would ride horses all over the valley.
“Were were raised surrounded by ranches,” said Leonetti. “Never in a million years would we ever have guessed that they would all become subdivisions.”
Life was quiet in Gypsum and it was even quieter in Walden. “There was only about 800 people in town,” she said.
But like Gypsum, Walden was a tight-knit community and 4-H was a big part of what kids did. Leonetti was active in both 4-H and Future Farmers of America. The Wood kids also competed in Little Britches Rodeo, and eventually, Leonetti enrolled at Northeastern Junior College and was a member of the school’s rodeo team.
She finish her bachelor’s degree at CSU with a specific goal in mind.
“When I was in Walden, the extension agent there gave me the opportunity to intern in the office and I found I really liked the profession,” said Leonetti.
After she graduated, she worked at FirstBank for a couple of years and volunteered at the extension office.
“The agent who was here told me he was going to retire in a couple of years, so I hung around so I could apply,” Leonetti said, flashing a grin. “I became the 4-H agent in 1994, but it feels like I have have been here longer.”
Not your grandma’s 4-H
Leonetti’s work title includes the words “4-H/youth development.” It’s a telling description.
“A lot of people think all we do is the (Eagle County) fair,” she said. “But there are a lot of different, exciting things happening that you don’t think of as being traditional 4-H.”
Leonetti noted the largest local program is shooting sports. Cake decorating has a big local following and this year there will be local beekeeping and horseless horse (for kids who love horses but don’t have direct access to them) programs.
Leonetti also does youth outreach and she recently worked with the Zealous School in Eagle on a 22-session My PI program.
“My PI stands for My Preparedness Initiative. It’s a disaster preparedness program with things like CPR and fire extinguisher training. We brought in a lot of community partners for the program,” she said.
In today’s world, which features a plethora of youth activities, Leonetti said 4-H requires special commitment from participants.
“It’s hard for kids with such busy schedules to commit to something that takes so much time and effort. It’s not a six-week course and they are done,” she said. “4-H isn’t for everyone because of that.”
But with big commitment come great rewards, Leonetti said.
“I love 4-H and I believe in the program. It’s exciting to see kids excited about something they are doing,” she said.
There is a strong local heritage of 4-H livestock programs. Leonetti said it’s tougher than people think to bring an animal to the junior livestock sale.
“I tell the kids to look at raising an animal as their summer job,” she said.
Before a 4-H’er parades a steer around the show ring, he or she will have spent hours and hours with the animal. They have to train everything from behavior to hair.
“Training a steer’s hair is a whole endeavor,” said Leonetti. “You have to become a beautician for your steer for the fair in the summer.”
Leonetti also cited another commitment example close to home. One of her 4-H kids keeps a pig at her property in Gypsum. At 6 a.m., the youth arrives to care for the pig and he works with the animal until 7 a.m. He returns in the evening to do the same routine.
“And he does that every day,” Leonetti said.
Fair days ahead
Summertime is when 4-H kicks into high gear with the annual Eagle County Fair & Rodeo happening in late July. The event brings in big crowds for Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association competition, which in turn brings more people to check out the 4-H displays and bid at the livestock auction. From tagging animals to ordering ribbons, the weeklong fair is an event that takes months and months of planning.
“It takes so many people to run this program. I have more than 50 volunteers and if it wasn’t for those volunteers, we wouldn’t be here,” said Leonetti. “There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I am not just amazed and grateful for all these volunteers and what they do.”
“The fair is such a culmination of all this hard work. It’s really a time of celebration for me,” she said.
When she isn’t helping kids with their 4-H projects, Leonetti and her husband Tony own a mobile home transport company. Tony is also involved with his family farm in Ohio and the Leonettis and their family all dabble in ranching.
“It doesn’t really make a living for anybody, but we all have our little hobbies,” said Leonetti. At her Gypsum property goats, cows and horses can be spotted grazing.
While she loves these various agriculture projects, Leonetti remains most excited about her extension agent work.
“I hope to still be doing the same job in five years. But I think, in five years, 4-H is going to look a lot different. Our new project areas are things that all kids can do,” she concluded.