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The third time was the charm for 14-year-old Katherine Ellig.

The 14-year-old Annandale resident was crowned the 2012 Fairfax County 4-H Fair queen on Saturday, after competing for the title since she was 12.

Katherine beat out 16 other contestants for the title and proudly wore her purple sash while riding Dexter, her family’s horse, at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon during the 64th annual fair.

Lenah Nguyen, 4-H’s Fairfax County extension agent, said there are approximately 12,000 kids active in 4-H programs in Fairfax County, and more than 170,000 statewide.

“There are 4-H clubs in every county of every state,” Nguyen said. “And Virginia actually has one of the lower membership numbers nationwide.”

Saturday marked the latest chapter in the nearly 110-year history of the agricultural organization. 4-H, which stands for Head, Heart, Hands and Health, came about in the late 19th century, according to the group’s website, www.4-h.org.

The youth program was conceived as a way to inform the farming community about technological and agricultural discoveries that researchers were pursuing at the time, according to the website.

It was thought that children and young adults would be more receptive to the innovations, and that by teaching them at a young age they could share the knowledge with older farmers who might have been set in their ways. Therefore, the rural youth programs became an innovative way to introduce new agriculture technology to their communities, according to the website.

According to 4-H, a farmer named A. B. Graham started one such youth program in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902, which is considered the birth of the program in the U.S. T.A. “Dad” Erickson of Douglas County, Minnesota, started local agricultural after-school clubs and fairs in 1902 as well, and by 1912 they were called 4-H clubs.

According to 4-H, when Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and created the Cooperative Extension System at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it included work of various boys’ and girls’ clubs involved with agriculture, home economics and related subjects, which effectively nationalized the 4-H organization. By 1924, these clubs became organized as 4-H clubs, and the organization’s clover emblem was adopted.

The Fairfax County 4-H Fair has been staged at Frying Pan Farm Park since 1948.

In 1962, the club built a barn on the property that still is used today for agricultural exhibits during the annual fair. This year, Michelle Coppock of the Falls Church 4-H Club was the adult supervisor for 30 rabbits and 16 Guinea pigs within the 50-year-old exhibit barn.

“Our club is in its first year,” she said. “It is a startup from the Fairfax City 4-H Club.”

Coppock’s daughter, Re’nee, 11, won a blue ribbon for her Polish rabbit entry.

More than 500 visitors flowed through the exhibit between 9:30 a.m. and noon Saturday morning, Coppock said.

“It’s been very popular,” she added.

The fair — which includes rides, animals and agricultural exhibits — attracts about 15,000 visitors per year, Fairfax County Park Authority officials said.

Steve DiLeonardo of Oakton and his wife, Emily; son, Alec, 7; and daughter, Camryn, 6, have been coming for years.

“We love coming out here for this,” Steve DiLeonardo said. “Today there is an antique tractor pull. Where else are you going to see something like that around here?”

In addition to having their daughter crowned as the fair’s queen, the Ellig family won more than 60 additional ribbons for their horse, rabbit and agricultural entries in this year’s fair.

“I’m a 4-H leader for the Hampton Horsefeathers 4-H Club,” said Katherine’s father, Jerry. “It’s a great organization that allows families to participate in events together. People think that it’s in Hampton, Va., because of the name, but it is actually here in the county, near Lake Barcroft.”

The Elligs said they are extremely proud of their daughter’s achievement this year in obtaining the fair’s highest honor.

“She has been trying for three years and we are so happy for her,” said Katherine’s mom, Sandy.

“It’s good to be the queen,” Katherine said.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com