North Carolina 4-H Poultry Judging Team Is Tops in the Nation

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The national 4-H poultry judging competition has taken place in some form since 1929. The current format of state champions competing against each other dates back to 1965.

In all those years, there had never been a champion from North Carolina — until 2023.

The team of Elizabeth Peluso, Connor Howard, Matthew Peluso (Craven County 4-H) and Tessa Darnell (Halifax County 4-H) won the 2023 National 4-H Poultry Judging Contest hosted by the University of Kentucky in Louisville the week before Thanksgiving.

“This is really significant,” said Mary Fosnaught, Extension associate for 4-H poultry programs. “It feels like we’re on the map in a way that we’ve never been before. This team did just amazing. They worked hard and were very detail-oriented.”

The team was recognized by North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler at the Southern Farm Show in Raleigh on Feb. 1, and presented with the inaugural All-Star Agriculture award. 

North Carolina 4-H poultry judging team wins national championship NC State Extension Craven County

North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler (center) recognizes the national champion 4-H poultry judging team and their coaches (from left) Mary Fosnaught, NC State Extension associate for 4-H poultry programs, Matthew Peluso, Connor Howard, Tessa Darnell, Elizabeth Peluso, and Ashley Brooks, 4-H agent in Craven County.

North Carolina 4-H is NC State Extension’s youth development program. NC 4-H serves nearly 200,000 youth each year with clubs in all 100 counties across the state and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for youth between the ages of 5-19. They include community and project clubs, special interest programs, school enrichment programs and afterschool programs.

Related: NC 4-H Horse Program Wins National Awards 

The national championship is emblematic of the many strong and vibrant 4-H poultry programs throughout the state.

“Poultry is our number one agriculture commodity,” Fosnaught said. “We have a lot of great 4-H agents teaching young people to appreciate the importance of poultry in the state. Between eggs, chicken and turkey, it’s feeding a lot of people. It’s our number one protein.”

Related: North Carolina Eggs

The national champion poultry judging team was coached by Craven County 4-H agent Ashley Brooks, with assistance from Fosnaught and Halifax County Extension director and livestock agent Beth Burchell.

Brooks, an N.C. Cooperative Extension agent for 11 years, is a third-generation 4-H’er. Her grandmother and mother participated in Virginia. She joined the club in Halifax County when her family moved to North Carolina.

“I went to poultry judging nationals, but didn’t win anything,” she said. “I know the value of this program personally. As an agent, it’s so enriching to see my 4-H’ers go beyond what I did. That’s the true reward.”

She said Matthew, Elizabeth and Connor have participated in poultry judging for the last six years. They came in second at the state competition hosted by NC State, and were invited to go to nationals when the first-place team opted out.

Competing as a three-person team put them at a disadvantage because four-person teams can drop the lowest score in any category. Tessa, who competed as an individual at state, came aboard for nationals. She was part of the intensive practice sessions, which included several visits to the NC State poultry teaching unit for coaching by Fosnaught.

“We went over live production hens, which they felt was one of their weakest areas,” Fosnaught said. “We did a deeper dive, going through category after category. We had about six different people give perspectives. I was a little concerned because there was so much input coming at them. It can be overwhelming. But they really did assimilate and incorporate all that information.”

The hard work paid off when they beat out Pennsylvania for the championship.

“I am so proud of our youth for this honor!” Brooks said. “I can’t tell you how much time and energy they have put towards it. I always ask my youth to do their best. That may look different from day to day. It might include a win; it might include completing the contest. It doesn’t matter. I am proud of them.”

The youth are scored on how well they grade and evaluate three divisions of poultry, including production hens, market poultry, and market eggs. Team members also give oral reasons to explain why they ranked the birds the way they did.

“It is a mini-presentation that you have to formulate and do from memory with all the other nerves that you’ve got going on that morning,” Fosnaught said. “It’s a full three hours of judging.” 

Scores are tallied, and the results are announced during a banquet at the end of the poultry conference.

“I vividly remember that moment when we were waiting with bated breath for them to announce the winning team,” Brooks said. “Did we? Didn’t we? When they announced that we had won, I’m pretty sure we shouted. I know I couldn’t get the smile off my face. For all of that hard work for so many years to have culminated into that ultimate win was just incredible.”

The team title was won on their strength in all three divisions. They placed first in production hens — their “weak” area before the in-depth coaching at NC State — with Matthew Peluso winning top individual honors. They were second in market poultry, with Elizabeth Peluso placing third and Tessa Darnell seventh. In the market egg division, the North Carolina team was third. Matthew Peluso was fifth and Connor Howard sixth.

Overall, Matthew Peluso (fourth), Elizabeth Peluso (sixth) and Tessa Darnell (19) placed in the top 20.

“They are leaders in every sense and that is what 4-H is about,” Fosnaught said. “They’re the whole package.”

Related: How That Chicken Got to Market

Fosnaught hopes the attention the team has received prompts people to consider poultry science as a career.

“We all grow up hearing about being firefighters or nurses or doctors,” she said. “But nobody grows up hearing about being a poultry scientist. It’s just getting that word out because poultry is important to feeding people. The opportunities for careers are so great. We need more professionals in this area.”