A few years back, a friend from Washington D.C. visited my farm for the first time. Right off the bat, he noticed the bumper sticker on my pickup truck, a green four-leaf clover emblazoned with large, white H’s.
“Forrest,” he said, without the slightest trace of humor, “you never told me you were Irish!”
Suffice to say, he had never heard of 4-H, a youth program every bit as venerable as the Boy or Girl Scouts. But he’s not alone. Even with 6 million current members, 30 million alumni, and a 110 year track record, 4-H continues to fly beneath our cultural radar. Unless you happened to be raised in rural America, chances are you might not have crossed paths with this program yourself. But 4-H remains a vital—if habitually unassuming—thread in our national tapestry, and it’s a program that deserves more positive press than it commonly receives.
Traditionally linked arm-in-arm with agriculture, over the years 4-H has increasingly veered towards mainstream American life. In fact, according to their website, 4-H now teaches topics ranging “from agricultural and animal sciences to rocketry, robotics, environmental protection and computer science – to improve the nation’s ability to compete in key scientific fields and take on the leading challenges of the 21st century.” Rocketry and robotics? Sheesh, that’s a far cry from the ascot I made for my “You Can Sew” project way back in middle school. (I’d like to imagine that if they offered Robotics projects in 1984, that I’d have traded in my ascot for an android. But I digress.)
In my case, I eventually graduated from sewing to sowing… that is, sowing seeds, and raising sows. I was one of those 4-H farm kids who actually ended up becoming a professional farmer. Surprisingly, even though my club was located in rural West Virginia, few of my peers became farmers themselves. Most opted for careers in nearby Washington D.C., and left agriculture behind as they commuted to work each day in the big city.
But history has a way of circling back on itself. While supporters would argue that its agricultural mission never went away, 4-H’s farming identity might be primed for an unexpected, retro-style comeback. The likelihood of this occurred to me while thumbing through the 2013 Farmers Almanac. You know the Farmers Almanac, of course—the one started in 1818 and used each year for weather forecasts to gardening advice to the best time to go fishing. It even comes with an unmistakable, (if rather mysterious) hole punched through the upper left hand corner, providing its readers the option to hook it to their belt loop while transplanting tomatoes.
The Farmers Almanac also provides several pages of new farming statistics straight from the USDA’s most recent census. Perusing the numbers, several interesting stats jumped out at me. For instance, did you know:
The average age of an American farmer is 57, and the number of farmers over the age of 75 grew by 20% over the last 5 years alone.
● The number of new farms between 2002 and 2007 actually increased by nearly 300,000, reversing a multi-generational decline.
● In the past 20 years, women have become 50% more likely to choose a career in agriculture. Currently, 10% of all farmers are women.
● A trend shows that American farmers are more educated than ever, with roughly 50% of farmers now attending at least one year of college.
● Average gross farm income was over $137k, with profits coming in at slightly more than $35K.
As the statistics suggest, while agriculture is still heavily skewed towards an older age bracket, there are more reasons than ever for young people to feel optimistic about the future of agriculture. As these older farmers retire, who will replace them? And who will teach the next generation? A program like 4-H is ideally positioned to contribute to their education, and increase the odds of a successful career in farming. Here are several reasons why.
4-H projects are roadmaps to productivity
‘4-H projects’ are booklet-based educational programs which engage 4-Hers in a step-by-step explanation about how to do… well… just about anything. For example, aside from the aforementioned sewing course, I took: Canning and Freezing, Gardening, Tractors, Forestry, Pet Care, Poultry, Small Engine Repair and Beef Cattle. Each year, the participant is required to complete a series of written objectives, as well as hands-on activities relating to the topic. The project culminates in an exhibit, which in my case was placed on display at the county fair each season. In short, projects aren’t simply how-to guides; productivity is required as a component to the coursework. For a young farmer broaching a topic as knowledge-intensive as agriculture, this kind of curriculum is truly indispensable.
Emphasis on intellectual curiosity
Aside from completing their coursework, all participants give an annual presentation to their fellow members about what they’ve learned from their projects. Not only does this foster public speaking and communication skills, but it places the student in a peer-based environment where members support one another. Field trips accentuate this trajectory, providing club members with tangible, real world perspectives. My favorite part of visiting a dairy, for example, was the ice cream sandwiches that were passed out at the end. If given the opportunity, what kid wouldn’t dream of becoming an ice cream sandwich farmer?
The program teaches self-confidence, and provides a peer-based safety net
In a career with as many uncertainties and challenges as agriculture, self-confidence can often be a farmer’s greatest ally. It’s by nurturing intangible qualities such as confidence and creativity where 4-H might provide its greatest service to our youth. The structure of the club itself encourages collaboration within the community, with knowledge (and a little old-fashioned fun) as the reward. Annual attendance at summer camps further enhances this inner-growth message.
Imagine a world filled with optimistic, knowledge-driven farmers, who celebrate each other’s successes, and lend a hand when their neighbor needs help. Sound too good to be true? When was the last time you attended a 4-H club meeting?
I can still recite the 4-H pledge by memory: “I pledge my Head clearer thinking, my Heart to greater loyalty, my Hands to larger service, and my Health to better living… for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
A serviceable motto back in 1902, and just as useful today. Perhaps these words will inspire a new generation of young farmers, and propel them towards the tremendous opportunities awaiting in the 21st century. We’re certainly going to need them.
Are you a current or past 4-Her? Please share your own experiences, and thoughts about how 4-H could shape the future of farming.
Fabulous blog, but Is there such a thing as a “past 4-Her”? No way could any of us be separated from all those wonderful lessons we’ve learned from the program (and continue to learn if we’ve remained involved as adult volunteers)! 4-H is the best youth development program — bar none — for farmers and non-farmers alike. You identify all the wonderful reasons why. Thanks for the great post!
You’re right of course. Once you’ve experienced the program first hand, it very much becomes a state of mind, and never leaves you (at least, that’s been my experience :^) Naturally, however, there comes a point where a club member must ‘age out’, and challenge themselves with a career beyond the project books. Even so, I always make sure to head to the 4-H exhibit hall each year at the Jefferson County fair, and see what the kids have created!
Excellent blog. I will always consider myself a 4-H’er no matter the age. The lessons learned can never be replaced. Or the friendships that many of us developed with one another over the years. I can only hope that my kids growing up in Georgia be offered the same fulfilling experience. May God bless 4-H
There’s bound to be a great 4-H program in Georgia, right? I’ll be curious to hear your experiences. My own son (who is 7 now) recently told me that when he gets married, he wants to have his honeymoon at 4-H camp. No that’s quite an endorsement to the program!
Forrest, I read this and my heart began pounding harder and harder. I could see many of those young 4-H’ers you talk about standing in front of their peers demonstrating a part of their project for the year. I saw those members honing skills growing richer each year. Thanks Forrest for posting a wonderful article.
Awesome Forrest! I think the lessons that stick me the most from 4-H are leadership, responsibility, and compassion. What more can you ask to learn from a youth organization? I loved the article and completely agree.
Leadership, responsibility and compassion… useful traits for running a sustainable farming business (or any business where the goal isn’t exclusively about money)? Check, check & check!
As a former 4-H Extension Agent, I can say that I agree the program needs a good revival and the time is ripe for it to make a comeback. 4-H has the potential to fill a void in the lives of agricultural youth as well. While FFA is a great program, it does focus more on industrialized agriculture. 4-H does not seem to have that slant – yet. It’s still more of a “raise a pig in the backyard” type of program. The question that lingers is where the funding will come from. Extension programs, including 4-H, are a product of land-grant universities… many who receive major funding from industrialized agriculture giants. Between that and budget cuts, Extension is in dire jeopardy across the country. We could possibly see the 4-H program move to a volunteer-based organization, but it remains to be known whether or not it would survive change to a totally unfunded organization. I truly hope the program both grows and gets back to its agricultural roots a little bit.
On a side note – 10% of farmers are now women? Way to go, ladies! Let’s keep that statistic climbing!
Love your blog, Forrest. I know my husband does too. I look forward to meeting you!
Thanks for the great response. I hear where you’re coming from, and that’s why economics plays SUCH an important role in this conversation. If small farms (especially organic, direct-marketed farms) are increasingly viable career choices for young farmers, then the playing fields begins to level in a way we have never before experienced. The important thing now is that there are real role models out there for new farmers, combined with a consumer marketplace that is craving the types of products that small farms can produce. We might be on the first wave of a perfect storm for new farmers, and one in which 4-H could play a supremely helpful role.
The question for us might be, as adults and 4-H alumni, what can we do to help nudge things along?
Oh, and I added the “10%” statistic as a shout-out to the balance of both boys AND girls in the 4-H program, of course… the world needs great farmers regardless of gender!
Forest thanks so much for bringing awareness to 4-H. As you know, past 4-Hers don’t need to go into farming to take the skills they learned into adulthood with them. Everyday I draw on the things I learned in leadership through my time spent in the WV 4-H program. It molded me, made me who I am. And now as a mother who is working hard to provide healthy food options to my family, my experience in 4-H once again proves to not be wasted. Thanks again for writing this post. Beautiful!
As adults, one is unlikely to hear about 4-H unless your children are somehow exposed to the program, or you happen to hear a passing reference on Prairie Home Companion! All joking aside, this is unfortunate because 4-H has so much to offer our youth—as well as providing amazing volunteer opportunities for adults. Beside the need for new farmers, there will always be a need for well-rounded, creative individuals. Happy to bring awareness to a very worthy program.
Hey! Great post! I’m a native WV 4-H’er, and currently work for Maryland 4-H. i thought I’d take this opportunity to give a link to the MD 4-H website in case anyone who reads this may be interested in finding out more! http://www.maryland4h.org/
I had the opportunity to be and exchange camper in Maryland when I was a teenager, and I’ll never forget how much fun I had in 5 short days!
Great article Forrest. I could never express what 4-H did for me in my life, and Jeff feels the same way. It helped us develop leadership, communication skills, citizenship, attitude of service, compassion towards & acceptance of others, to name a few. We are currently 4-H leaders and both of our boys are members and LOVE it. Congratulations & Good Luck.
Hi Barbara! The program offers so many intangibles that create a well-rounded person; it’s that critical element needed beyond school and home life that’s best described as being ‘socialized.’ An attribute that’s critical in all walks of life, but increasingly so in farming, where customer/producer relationships are vital to the economic well-being of new enterprises.
What a coincidence! Just got a message from Michelle to please read your blog. I was recently asked by the Arts Council in my home county if I would be interested in teaching some cooking and/or sewing classes to kids in grades 2-5 during their break from school in February. I was pretty excited about this possibility and met with the director to discuss possible classes I could invent and teach. Immediately I thought “Wow, if I could only get my hands on some of those 4-H project books that my mother used when she and my dad were 4-H leaders. I would be all set with ideas for beginning sewing projects for this age group!” My parents had a 4-H club for many, many years and to this day I have people tell me that it was the 4-H experience that fostered many of the activities, hobbies and careers they participate in today. At age 13, I became a Junior Leader and began teaching 8 and 9 year olds many of the skills I learned from my mother and many other 4-H leaders involved in our club. My love of teaching, I believe, began back then. The best part of my story came just yesterday, when my brother who runs the farm I grew up on called and told me that they were getting reading to clean out the “office” room in the farm house, a room that has been closed since my mother died 13 years ago. He informed me that still in the file cabinets in that room are years and years of 4-H project guides that I thought had been discarded years ago. And his final words were “If there is anything in there you want, come and get it!” Guess what I am doing today?
I couldn’t agree more with your post regarding the lifelong benefits of being part of a 4-H program. Hats off to all the 4-H leaders who continue to share their skills and knowledge with our youth!
Thanks for this great story. I hope those project books were everything that you remembered, and I’m betting they’re every bit as useful today as they were in the past, right? What a resource!
Great blog, Forrest!! I look at the members in my 4-H club and get a little bit teary-eyed. What they have to forward to is so exciting. The fun while learning and the experience that they will have in the future will be so rewarding. The friends that they will make will be their friends forever. I truly hope that each of them get as much out of 4-H as I did as a member and now as a leader! Learning by doing is a great educational tool! I use many techniques from 4-H public speaking and demonstrations in presentations that I give to the students in my school. How How!! to Forrest for reminding all of us of the great program that 4-H is!
Thanks Michele, your enthusiasm is contagious!
To your point about friendship, doesn’t it bring to mind those old fashioned barn raisings, where the community would come together to help another farmer raise his barn? Back in the day, the community recognized how important it was that ALL of its members were strong, and that a farm/family next door wasn’t competition, but a resource. Now THAT’s an old fashioned thought, isn’t it?
Like they say at 4-H camp, ‘rubbing elbows is good medicine.’ So much wisdom out there, if we’ll only have the patience to listen.
Forrest, it seems that 4-H has become considerably more eclectic since the era around 1950 when I was a member! Projects, records, and presentations were part of the program then, and there was a county 4-H only show / fair every year. We also put on presentations in the public schools and for (if memory serves) civic organizations.
Unfortunately, I fear that the increase in farm numbers is coming from corporate agri-business rather than the small farms with which we are familiar. 4-H may be one of the last organizations aimed at the smaller operations.
Thanks for the insights. To your point about the size of farms, while there has indeed been an increase in the number of large farms, the USDA statistics also showed a rise in small farms as well. Many of these small farms (say, 1-50 acres) are perfectly suited for local food production with emphasis towards CSAs or farmers markets. The 4-H program is ideally positioned to prepare young farmers/entrepreneurs for the challenges of small scale farming.
Perhaps 4-H will emerge as a destination for young people looking to learn these skills. They’ve done it before!
This is a great writeup on 4-H. I’m also an alumni. The lessons from 4-H have helped in all parts of my life, even tho I’m not on a farm at the moment (brother still is). One of the better activities in 4-H that you forgot to mention was the Junior Leadership role. After a few years in 4-H, members could be leaders also in selected project areas, helping to past on their knowledge while gaining the ability to teach and lead. Great part of the overall program.
Great blog and one of the best, succinct descriptions of “The 4-H Experience” I’ve read. Most people connected to 4-H will say (I know, I’ve asked) it is difficult to express all the 4-H means and accomplishes, especially when compared to other youth development programs of any ilk. You express it very well.
I always say “I went to my first 4-H meeting about 9 months before I was born” and it’s true. I’m now in my 50s and I’ve never stopped going to 4-H meetings as a 4-H alumnus, a leader, a volunteer and now as a board member for both state and local 4-H Foundations. (These foundations are key to ensuring we fill the growing funding gaps other commenters worry about.).
Agriculture? No, that was my brother’s bag, but 4-H gave me a deep appreciation and understanding for farmers and agriculture, which is sorely missing from other educational venues. I don’t agree that 4-H needs a resurgence, because it has continued to surge in many areas. However, the most change is occurring with regard to its agricultural and self-sustainability roots. Two among several trends will likely strengthen 4-H as part of our national fabric, as long as 4-H leaders at every level recognize the opportunities available.
Small farms and specialty farms is one trend that I believe will grow as long as 4-H leaders at the state and national levels don’t completely forget that agriculture is the perfect teaching context for science, engineering and technology. A sizable part of the population not only want to be more self-sustaining and eat organic and whole foods, they want specialty foods, wine, ornamental crop products, etc.
Second, after a couple of decades of giving into the pressure of two-income consumer-families who purchase the fulfillment of every need from someone else, more couples have one spouse staying home. I hear men and women wanting to once again learn how to cook, sew, raise their own food, change their own oil, make their own decorations and generally “Learn By Doing” rather than “Get By Buying”.
4-H and other Extension programs provide the perfect structure, process, expertise, environment and resources for meeting people’s needs as these trends continue to develop. And as boys and girls, men and women begin to, once again, learn about cooking, sewing and small engines, they also develop the personal leadership, citizenship and neighborliness that is the unique and ultimate product of the 4-H experience.
I love this. As a previous Canadian 4-H member (until I was too old to be a member anymore), I was fortunate to see first hand the value of 4-H. It taught me so many lessons and skills, qualities and values that I know I would never have been exposed to from any other source. I truly didn’t realize how valuable it was until later on when I actually had a reason to use those skills. Likewise, living on a farm, I think I was able to appreciate it more for its role I’m agriculture and agricultural education. I hope this all continues and people are able to continue to take advantage of a great program like this. Thanks for doing your part to share your experiences.
I actually only know about 4-H because of In Cold Blood, since the book is based in rural America. I never knew what the 4 H’s were though, this is a cool organization! My high school could really use one, the skills I could’ve garnered would have helped me out a lot now as a sustainable agriculture major!
Great post. I’ve been meaning to sign my 3 boys up for 4-H for quite a while because of the many good things I’ve heard about it. I think the experiences they’ll have, the skills they’ll learn, and the friends they’ll make will enrich their lives exponentially.