If you’ve been to a county fair – and who hasn’t – you know that at some point you find yourself wandering through an area where roosters crow, sheep bleat and exotic-looking chickens, extremely fuzzy rabbits and all types of lifestock rule! This marvelous display is the result of hundreds of youngsters, all members of 4-H, who have worked thousands of hours to proudly and lovingly showcase their animals. And it’s been going on for decades.
It all began when, in the spring of 1882, Delaware College held a statewide contest for boys, who were asked to plant a quarter of an acre of vegetables or fruit of their choice. Cash prizes, certificates and subscriptions to the American Agriculturalist were rewarded.
Ten years later, in an effort to improve Wisconsin’s Kewaunee County Fair, its president organized a “youth movement,” in which he solicited the support of 6,000 boys and girls – children of farmers – to produce and exhibit fruit, vegetables and livestock. The fair was extremely successful, in part, due to this addition, and soon various states began to organize youth programs with names like “The Tomato Club”, “Corn Growing Club ” and eventually local agricultural after-school clubs sprang up in many rural areas.
Then, in 1914, the U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act that established a national Cooperative Extension Service which offered outreach programs through land-grant universities to educate rural Americans about advances in agricultural practices and technology. That same year, 4-H programs began – first in the Midwest and, eventually, all over the United States.
Heart, health, hands and health represent the four “Hs” in 4-H and are the four values that are important to all members: Head, managing, thinking; Heart, relating, caring; Hands, giving, working; Health, being, living.
Over the years, 4-H, originally formed as an agricultural organization, is much more. In urban areas, for instance the clubs various programs include public speaking, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, and encourage community involvement.
Yet, encouraging agriculture is still on the forefront for most clubs. With all the exciting technical innovations that appear almost daily, most people don’t think about where our food comes from. Yes, there’s always talk of global warming and, yes, we celebrate Earth Day each year, but the thought of food always being available is taken for granted.
These days, the average age of a farmer is 57. And farms are dwindling: kids moving away, looking for a better life after watching their parents struggling financially. Finally, the United States government took notice. For the first time, since the 1890 Land Grant Act, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 appropriated $75 million per year, through 2012, “to develop programs to enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers.” In 2014, an additional $20 million per year was added, through 2018. The rising average age of farmers, a projected decrease in the number of farmers and citing a need for new programs to address the needs of the next generation, were the reasons behind the renewed interest.
That “next generation” is exactly what 4-H is about. The kids who belong have passion about what they do. And passion is first and foremost! They, like all youngsters, enjoy being outdoors. They learn to nurture – whether it’s fruits and vegetables or chickens and pigs. It’s the process of seeing something come to fruition that encourages and gives each child confidence – knowing that it’s because he or she is responsible for its growth. And what better way to give child self-assurance?
So, the next time to go to a fair and see those youngsters proudly standing next too their “baby,” whether it be a chicken, sheep, cow or zucchini, keep in mind all the hours these kids have put into their projects. And to think, years from now, they might be responsible for providing your coq au vin, rack of lamb, barbequed brisket or your turkey dinner. And not only the turkey, but the sweet potatoes and cherries for your pie, as well.