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The Enduring Legacy of 4-H

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From its humble beginnings as a boys and girls club to the country’s largest youth development organization, 4H is more relevant than ever.

By Shannon Cowan Posted Nov 16, 2016

Girl in corn field

On a blustery fall day in the Pacific Northwest, my daughter is assessing an injury. Spreading the webbed foot of a domestic duck between her twelve-year-old fingers, she looks for telltale signs of inflammation in the crinkly, grey skin. The duck (otherwise known as Athena) has been limping for days, but she tolerates the inspection thanks to the vet-like hold my daughter uses to keep her wings secure. Responsible for raising Athena since she arrived at our house eight months ago, my daughter points to a bulbous protrusion on the duck’s foot and informs me she has “bumblefoot.” Apparently she will need an antibiotic—and possibly surgery—to stop the infection.

My daughter is not a teenaged veterinarian, but she is a member of our local 4-H poultry club. With two years under her belt raising and showing birds, she has seen a wide variety of ailments and conditions. What she doesn’t know from experience, she learns from 4-H leaders and friends, who raise everything from naked neck turkeys to homing pigeons.

Eight months ago, Athena and five other Welsh Harlequins arrived at our house looking like pint-sized fluff balls. Their arrival kicked off my daughter’s second year poultry project, which involved ushering her birds from day-old starter ducklings to fully feathered adults. The ducklings proceeded to double in size every few weeks, outgrowing their living quarters faster than any of us had anticipated. They also ate voraciously and attempted to swim in their water dish, which thankfully wasn’t big enough to accommodate them.

The 4-H slogan is “learn to do, by doing,” and their success at creating confident, self-assured kids extends far beyond the organization’s agricultural roots.

None of this fazed my daughter, who used her 4-H manual, friends, and club leader as resources any time questions came up. Between business meetings, educational workshops, and supportive phone conversations, the club provided her with everything she needed to know to raise her birds independently.

But knowledge of poultry rearing is not all the club provided. Opportunities to perform speeches, create educational displays, attend camps and conferences, and fill administrative positions offer all members the chance to gain valuable leadership skills and practical knowledge in a variety of areas. The 4-H slogan is “learn to do, by doing,” and their success at creating confident, self-assured kids extends far beyond the organization’s agricultural roots.

Founded in 1902 out of a desire to connect public school education to rural life, 4-H is now America’s largest youth development organization with satellites in more than 70 countries and more than 7 million members worldwide. But these numbers tell only part of the organization’s success story. In a world of breakneck technological advances and burgeoning urban centers, what allure does an organization that grew from America’s desire for agricultural independence have for the children of today? How and why does 4-H have such an enduring legacy?

Innovation and Appreciation for Rural Living

Goats
More than 100 years ago, educators in rural America were looking for a way to introduce agricultural innovation to farmers who were less than enthusiastic about trying new things. Driven by a study from the 1890s that called for an education closely related to the rural environment where children lived, these educators founded clubs in different parts of the US to encourage hands-on research and experimentation with agricultural technology.

They were wildly successful. Although no one person is credited with starting the 4-H we know today, the organization’s original clubs found many eager children interested in learning about technologies and processes that had real applications in their lives. Between 1901 and 1910, dozens of clubs sprung up across America’s agricultural belt epitomizing the “hands, heart, head, and home” ethic represented by the organization’s four-pronged name. Led by schoolteachers, college professors, and public figures, these clubs encouraged innovation and an appreciation for rural living.

In 1902, A.B. Graham worked with 35 students from 12 different schools across rural Iowa to test seed corn. Around the same time, 18 year-old teacher Jessie Field-Shambaugh was also experimenting through her club with corn plantings and soil tests, because “corn was the most important crop of Iowa.” Others, like first African American extension agent Thomas M. Campbell of Alabama, saw promise for improving the lives of black farmers by helping clubs to thrive.

By 1910, 4-H clubs commonly acted as the outreach arms of state land grant institutions tasked with exploring and promoting all aspects of rural living. The passing of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 formalized 4-H as an organization, creating the US Cooperative Extension Service and its associated charter, which included boys and girls clubs related to agriculture and home economics. In Canada, 4-H took shape in 1913 and now operates as a national non-profit organization with provincial chapters.

Learn By Doing

Boy with camera looking through the lens
Those early clubs had one thing in common: they gave children and youth the opportunity to explore in familiar, real-world environments. Guided by adults, the clubs let children experiment with crops, soil, animals, and cookery, and come to their own conclusions. Although much has changed about 4-H, this hands-on approach endures.

“I think the 4-H model works well because it empowers children,” says Denise Whitson, leader and administrator for today’s Parksville-Qualicum Oddstock Club in British Columbia, Canada. “They feel a sense of responsibility and duty, and the mentorship that takes place means that kids get to listen to other kids.”

The model is a refreshing change from time-intensive, parent-driven activities that often leave families feeling depleted and overcommitted.

Although mentorship from knowledgeable adults is at the heart of the organization, today 4-H children still call the shots in many ways. In 4-H business meetings, for instance, kids fill executive roles and keep tabs on the agenda, though adults are on hand to advise. At fairs and workshops, older 4-H members mentor younger ones, looking to their leaders only when questions come up that they can’t answer (which frankly, isn’t very often). The model is a refreshing change from time-intensive, parent-driven activities that often leave families feeling depleted and overcommitted.

“If you have a group of youth watching adults who are always making the decisions and running the program, their perception is that ‘oh well, that’s for adults.’ But when kids sit back and see other kids doing things, they say, ‘I could do that too!’” Whitson says.

In fact, 4-H club members are keenly motivated to complete their projects and learn new skills. The ‘learn-by-doing’ model is infectious, and many children take pride in knowing the kind of agricultural or technological minutiae that baffles their (often) non-farming parents. The ‘cool factor’ of raising animals, building small engines, taking photographs or carding wool also increases when learned from children the same age or older.

The Human Element

Child with agriculture project
But what does an organization with rural roots offer today’s tech-savvy youth? Modern 4-H project areas include science, technology, engineering, health, citizenship, and of course, agriculture, yet its expansive reach is only part of the reason the program continues to be relevant in an ever-changing world.

Regardless of the project or the club, all 4-H programs include mentoring and career readiness. The organization has long focused on helping young people gain confidence, learn how to work well with others, endure challenges, and stick with a job until it’s done well. Backed by a network of more than 100 public universities and even more volunteers and professionals, the organization creates connections often absent in other forms of learning—with the ultimate goal of growing leaders.

For Whitson, the face-to-face experience with volunteers is an important aspect of 4-H. “Every day we’re losing skills, real life skills. We think we can somehow replace everything with Google…but we can’t.” The 4-H model brings kids together in small groups offering the kinds of hands-on learning most youth don’t get until university. For Whitson, that’s key. “Technology has its place, but it will never replace the human element, the ability to connect with one another and build relationships…you can’t do that with a screen.”

Children who join 4-H select a club, choose a project, and identify their project’s goal. Throughout the year, they work towards this goal and learn as much as they can about their project along the way. According to Whitson, “that’s their accomplishment, that’s the measure of their own success—what they’ve learned.”

“If we don’t teach our children the importance of contributing to a community, then the community fails.”

Scholarships and bursaries support this learning, along with opportunities for skill-building camps, goal setting trips, public speaking contests, and achievement certificates. 4-H is markedly affordable given that volunteers fill local positions. In the US there is no registration or membership fee. In Canada, the cost is about $75 to $90 per club for a year’s worth of programming. Field trips are generally free and many overnight camps are reimbursable.

Parent opportunities with 4-H also abound, although no one is required to volunteer. Getting on board can enrich the experience, Whitson says, and can help build skills for parents who never had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves.

Most 4-H clubs also connect with their communities through volunteer efforts like taking animals to nursing homes or sharing their knowledge through family fairs and parades. Whitson acknowledges this community connection may be the most important of all. “If we don’t teach our children the important of contributing to a community, then the community fails.”

Real World Learning

Back in our duckyard, Athena’s foot has been carefully moistened with antibiotic ointment and bound in vet wrap. Several days of careful wound dressing and treatment with oral antibiotics (purchased from our local feed store where 4-H children receive a discount) has meant the duck is almost fully recovered. My daughter records the lessons learned in her project record book, noting everything from the supplies purchased to the remedies administered. Although she has no inclination to become a veterinarian, she is gaining skills and confidence that seem readily transferable to anywhere in the workforce. She also learns from knowledgeable, generous people who promote the idea that sharing expertise—whether about chicken behavior or wildlife photography or weekend geocaching—is a worthy way to spend your time.

No matter where you come from or who your parents are, 4H will welcome you, fostering a dedication to community and a passion for creative solutions. At a time when the rural and urban divide is bigger than ever, aren’t these qualities just what we need?

Shannon Cowan
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Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.
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