Maybe it’s the name. Or maybe it’s the clover logo with an unexplained H on each of the four leaves. But there apparently is a lot of confusion about what exactly 4-H is.
Most people know it’s some sort of agriculture-related youth organization. It gets fuzzy after that. In many minds, 4-H conjures sepia images of kids in overalls and straw hats, slopping the hogs or baking cherry pies for the state fair. Something you only qualify for if you live on a farm.
But ask Zoe Nason in Prairie Village and Warren Barge in Liberty and Elizabeth Fiedler in Gardner, and they’ll tell you something completely different. They’ll tell you about rocketry or filmmaking or learning to get up the nerve to speak to the city council.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what (4-H) is,” said Warren, 14. “A lot of people, if they found out about it and understood what it was, would join.”
Youths in 4-H, from 7 to 18 years old, are out do ing all kinds of projects, from financial analysis to bread baking to research on hypothyroidism in cats. They keep bees, they learn to shoot bows and arrows. They build robots. And yes, they also show livestock.
But, at least in the urban areas, it’s hard to find someone with a very clear idea of what modern-day 4-H is all about. That is something club and county leaders are hoping to change.
Even families running the clubs will acknowledge that many people not involved in 4-H still see it as mainly a way for rural kids to learn how to parade cattle, sheep and goats around a sawdust ring in pursuit of ribbons.
Laura Barge of Liberty can attest to the persistence of the country-kid stereotype because she used to think the same way.
“I’m one of those who had no idea about urban 4-H,” she said. Even after a friend suggested they try a 4-H club because of their daughters’ shared interest in horseback riding, Barge was uncertain. “She said, ‘Maybe we should try 4-H,’ and I, again, thought, ‘Well, I don’t live in the country,’ ” Barge said.
That may account for the fact that as far as membership is concerned, 4-H lives in the shadow of Scouting. Local membership in 4-H is around 600 in Johnson County and about 530 in Clay, Jackson and Platte counties. By comparison, Boy Scouts have 8,932 members just in Johnson County, and 16,000 in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Wyandotte counties. Girl Scouts have about 18,000 in the Kansas City metro area, with around 7,000 of those coming from Johnson County.
To be sure, 4-H still has a distinct agricultural bent. It is, after all, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But increasingly, the organization has found ways to make itself relevant to kids in the city and suburbs.
It has a film festival, for instance.
Members of 4-H who focus on filmmaking can write, act in and direct their own films, which are shown annually with awards given. The festival, which will be held in Kansas City next summer, also has workshops with film industry professionals.
Movie making has been one of Warren’s projects — he took third place a couple of years ago. But filmmaking is just one of several nonagricultural topics he has explored in his five years in 4-H. He also did an extensive project on his family’s ancestry, plus a financial notebook that analyzed and tracked stocks in publicly traded companies he’d chosen. And he also takes part in the 4-H shooting sports events popular in the Northland.
His sister Georgia, 11, wrote and performed her own songs as one of her projects. She also has been an avid public speaker, recently taking first place in a club speaking competition.
Technology has also become a big presence in some clubs. Physics and rocketry were the main event at the annual membership kickoff where Johnson County 4-H-ers show off their projects to potential members.
At one station, leader Zachary Botkin, 12, of Shawnee, used Newton’s first and second laws of motion to explain what would happen when toy cars manned by drivers made of modeling clay were rolled down a steep hill. Friction and inertia were discussed amid the hilarity of seeing the cars hit the obstacles at the bottom of the kid-created “hill.”
Outside, the mood was equally raucous as teen leaders Preston Simpson, 16, of Merriam, and Nicholas Graham, 17, of Olathe, rigged a rocket-launching station out of PVC pipe and empty plastic bottles. The kids jump on the bottle, the air goes through the pipe and the rocket flies into the air — often in unexpected directions.
The Comet Tech 4-H Club of Johnson County is into rocketry and robotics in a big way. The club, which has been around for about 10 years, regularly takes a team to the First Lego League robotics competition. Mem bers also are into computers, leader Jeanie Botkin said.
Botkin said her family gravitated toward Comet Tech because her boys, Zachary and Nicholas, already were interested in tech subjects. Botkin said next the club may deconstruct a computer to learn what’s inside.
If there’s one thing the leaders, parents and kids want you to know about their club, it’s this: You don’t have to live on a farm to be in 4-H.
That hasn’t always been strictly true.
4-H got its start at the close of the 19th century. At the time, civic leaders were looking for ways to promote new agricultural ideas and practical learning for rural youths.
The first clubs emerged in 1902 when Ohio school principal A.B. Graham formed a club for boys and girls with regular meetings, officers and projects to promote vocational agriculture. The clubs were linked to corn-growing contests that were beginning to spring up around the Midwest, in which boys were paid a premium for producing the biggest yields on a set amount of land.
Eventually, the organization — the four H’s stand for Head, Heart, Health and Hands — was put under the direction of the Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service, which wanted to get more acceptance of new farming methods to increase yields and conserve the soil. The club structure was solidified at a meeting in Kansas City in 1919.
The group always has had the mastery of practical and home skills at its heart. Typically, a 4-H youth would choose one or more projects in the fall — most likely a demonstration of livestock-raising techniques or home canning or sewing skills. Then would come the poster board, written documentation and presentations at the local club meetings. Eventually the project would be exhibited at the county fair, an important place for the youths to get ribbons and recognition from their communities. Possibly the exhibit would go on to the state fair for even bigger honors.
That’s the way the clubs were run for decades.
But things are changing. Farm population has declined steadily since its peak in 1935. Generally, farms have become more productive and larger over the years, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Because of that rural population decrease, 4-H has sought to relate better to urban and suburban kids.
In Johnson County, that means exploring a new kind of club. Kids in Johnson County still do exhibits at the county fair, extension agent Tara Markley said. But now they can also join the new special-interest clubs, known as SPIN clubs.
Johnson County was one of five counties in Kansas to start the SPIN model as a pilot project three years ago, and so far it has proved successful, Markley said.
The SPIN clubs are different from traditional clubs in that they meet for a shorter time — about six to eight weeks — and all of the members are exploring the same topic. There’s a club devoted to reading, and there are clubs on gardening and shooting sports as well. Last year, 11 kids were in a beekeeping SPIN club in which they harvested and sold the honey.
SPIN clubs may or may not take exhibits to the county fair, and they don’t necessarily use parliamentary procedure to run club meetings, as traditional clubs do.
The clubs still follow the 4-H philosophy of teaching life skills, Markley said. They don’t replace traditional clubs, but they do allow youths to join who are not sure about a year-round commitment, she said.
Special interest clubs haven’t been offered yet in Clay, Platte or Jackson counties, though officials there announced in December that they would be starting SPIN clubs in 2016, perhaps as early as March, said Emily Reiersgaard, 4-H youth development specialist for Clay County. Until then, there are some regular clubs with a strong focus. There’s a horse project for kids who want to learn about horses. And shooting sports, which include archery, have also been extremely popular, Reiersgaard said, “probably because of (Hunger Games heroine) Katniss Everdeen.”
Clay County 4-H-ers also have the disadvantage of not having a county fair. The fair is one of the main ways the general public is exposed to 4-H. It’s also a big way the culmination of a year’s work is recognized, Reiersgaard said. In Clay County, 4-H kids put up their exhibits at a special 4-H fair at Earnest Shepherd Youth Center, but space is tight, she said.
The lack of space means Clay County 4-H-ers can’t do livestock projects, because there’s no show ring. However, Reiersgaard has hopes that the organizers of the Jesse James Festival and rodeo in Kearney will expand it so that livestock showing can eventually take place there.
Families in 4-H like it because it allows kids to explore a variety of subjects in depth, and each club member’s experience is tailored to his or her interests.
Club members “can continue learning in the project their whole time,” in the club, explained Lisa Nason, a Prairie Village mother of two 4-H club members. “They can become proficient. In scouting, you earn the merit badge and move on.”
4-H parents also say they like the way the clubs are organized, with genders and ages mixed and with the kids running the meetings as elected officers.
Although the rural areas that have been 4-H’s base have been shrinking in population for decades, some other social trends may be good news for the organiza tion, leaders say. It’s a good fit with the maker movement, for example.
Just walking through the 4-H building at any fairground bears this out. Projects can be anything, including written reports. But the majority of them end up being things — in dizzying variety — the youths have made.
“4-H is special because unlike some organizations, it doesn’t center around one thing,” said Georgia Barge, 11. “It has everything, even a category where you make up a project.”
Skyler Long, 12, who lives near Liberty, agrees. Skyler, whose projects have included making a bat house, growing onions, sewing pajamas and a backpack, and investigating hyperthyroidism in cats, said she likes showing off her work.
“It’s like a representation of you, showing what you enjoy,” Skyler said. “You’re an open person, and you don’t really hide in the shadows anymore.”
Recent interest in urban farming, chickens and gardening also meshes with the core 4-H skills that have been practiced for years.
In Johnson County, beekeeping made a return to 4-H last year after an absence of several years, club leader Christy Milroy said. Under the guidance of the Northeast Kansas Beekeepers Association, the kids put together hives and watched over their shipment of 10,000 bees on the Milroy’s acreage near Spring Hill. In July, the club extracted the honey. Later, they showed the honey and educated county fairgoers about the importance of bees, Milroy said.
Along the way, the kids had to learn to be organized enough to present their project to other people, Milroy said. “This was so much bigger than just farm and animals,” she said.
In fact, the public speaking aspect of 4-H is one of the things most mentioned by parents. Members routinely have to demonstrate their projects at meetings, in preparation for answering questions from fair judges.
Elizabeth Fiedler of Gardner knows about that. Last year, as a 9-year-old, Elizabeth convinced the Gardner City Council to allow town residents to keep chickens.
Elizabeth developed an interest in chickens a couple of years ago, her father, Justin Fiedler, said. At age 8, she began writing letters to the City Council in hopes of making chickens legal. The next year, she laid her reasoning out at a council meeting.
“I like chickens because a lot of people don’t know how smart they are,” said Elizabeth, now 10.
Elizabeth’s effort is all the more impressive because when she started 4-H at age 7, she was too shy to say her name during the introduction time at a club meeting. “My dad had to say it for me while I hid behind the curtains,” she said.
Other families have similar stories. Georgia couldn’t talk in front of groups when she joined as a kindergartner, her mother said. Now she and her brother have lead parts in the school play.
“There’s no way that would have happened if not for 4-H,” she said.
All that speaking is good preparation for the corporate world, adds Megan Proctor, whose 10-year-old twin girls, Alex and Abby, are in the Lucky H.S. Clovers club. Speaking up at club meetings helps get kids ready for future board meetings, where “you have to sit with others, share opinions and vote and come to conclusions everyone agrees with,” said Proctor, who lives in Kansas City, North, near Gladstone.
But while 4-H is doing its best to encourage more urban and suburban kids to join, it still keeps the farm connection. Animals, be they horses, dogs or urban chickens, are still a big part of the club for many kids. Lauryn Hillman, 14, of Liberty, said keeping the fluffy silkie backyard chickens has taught her about the constancy of caring for living things. “I learned a lot about responsibility. You can’t skip cleaning the coop or feeding them,” she said.
4-H connects city kids with the bigger livestock, as well. “Horseless” horse clubs encourage kids to learn about horses by taking riding lessons or by studying them.
In Johnson County, town kids have been able to do livestock chores by connecting with mentors who live on farms and are willing to keep their animals.
That’s what Elizabeth does now, with her four goats. The goats are kept at the farm of a 4-H supporter. Last summer, Elizabeth went out nearly every day to groom them and practice walking with them for the show ring.
Zoe Nason, 16, of Prairie Village started working with Alpine Oberhasli dairy goats six years ago, enabled by the willingness of a different farm family to board the animals. “When I was little, I always wanted to live on a farm and have animals,” Nason said. “4-H made my dream come true, in a different way than I expected.”
Who knows, maybe 4-H will even have a hand in reversing the population decline in the countryside. Ben Burling, a Gardner 10-year-old, has learned about livestock by boarding a calf at someone else’s ranch.
4-H, he said, is “fulfilling my dream to have cows and pigs and animals. The world just needs more farmers, and I want to be one.”
Roxie Hammill: roxie.hammill.news @gmail.com
Information on 4-H clubs is available through the county extension offices:
▪ Johnson County, 913-715-7000
▪ Clay County, 816-407-3490
▪ Platte County, 816-270-2141
▪ Jackson County: 816-252-5051