Recently I noticed that the Shelby County Fair in Iowa where I reside had twelve 4-H fair queen candidates.  What a tribute to these young women and also to 4-H.

The significant number of fair queen candidates is just one sign that my local county fair and 4-H organization are flourishing.  Nearly all the 4-H livestock and animal shows and other competitions had plenty of entries.

The 4-H projects were incredibly varied and excited me with the obvious expertise of their originators.  Even the apple pie-baking competition was vigorous, with the top two places going to boys.

How is 4-H thriving in other parts of the U.S.?  Is the program to which my brothers and children belonged as vibrant as it was when I was a member 50 years ago?

4-H has seven million members in both urban and rural clubs in the U.S.; another 7 million members affiliate with the program in 50 more countries, according to 4-H publications.  

This youth development organization receives a portion of its administrative support through the U.S. Farm Bill, which funds 4-H Extension advisors through land-grant universities and assists with an annual National 4-H Congress.  However, the majority of the non-profit organization’s energy and financial support comes from local and county volunteer leaders and 4-H club fund-raising activities.
4-H aims to develop citizenship, leadership, responsibility, and life skills of youths to enter adulthood through experiential learning. 

Ongoing evaluation of 4-H’s effectiveness is important to the organization.  A longitudinal evaluation by Tufts University and some other evaluations have been criticized as less than fully objective but efforts were made—and new studies are seeking—to be unbiased.

The Tufts’ report of its seven-year study released in 2008 says 4-Hers reached higher levels of contribution to their communities, more engagement in school activities, higher academic competence, later involvement in sexual activities as the youths approached adulthood, and they were more likely to pursue careers in science than the comparison group of non-4-Hers.

The University of Nebraska makes tools available to evaluate the impact of 4-H.  They assess such variables as agricultural literacy (sometimes called knowledge about agriculture), career development in agriculture and related fields, involvement in community activities, outdoor survival skills, science and robotics.

4-H is changing with the times.  Contemporary activities have much to do with the development of life skills to succeed in any environment, including the agricultural and rural communities that were emphasized in past generations.

Many past participants say 4-H contributed more to them than they gave to the program.  I agree. 

4-H exposed me to diverse people and ideas in my young existence when I had little experience outside my tiny German-Catholic community. 

What I learned in 4-H wasn’t taught in school or in my home, and that is partly why my parents embraced it.  The program values also were a positive factor.

I learned to identify crops, trees and weeds, to evaluate samples of various grains, oilseeds and hay for their worth, and to judge the quality of livestock, poultry, dairy animals and horses.  In the process I became a member of the Shelby County 4-H team that won the Iowa State Fair crop and livestock judging contests and got to travel to national competitions.

I didn’t exhibit the cattle and swine show winners like some of my colleagues.  Guided by my parents and club leaders I chose projects from our efficient farm-raised animals and the activities that served us well. 

I learned how many pounds of feed and what types of ingredients were needed in the feed to maximize livestock productivity.  I learned how to appraise soil nutrients and to raise garden vegetables. 

Later, as a producer of registered Simmental cattle for breeding purposes, the beeves I raised won many cattle feedlot futurities.
4-H helped me to appreciate Robert’s Rules of Order and to overcome a fear of public speaking.  4-H camp helped inspire me to learn to play the guitar and to acquire the confidence to provide music at various events.

One of my first girlfriends was a 4-Her from another community and of a different religion than mine.  Don’t tell Marilyn, but I thought “Kathy” looked pretty hot when washing and showing cattle.

When I met Marilyn years later I learned my wife had participated in 4-H too and that was one of her many selling points, in my opinion.  She served as a leader for our daughter’s club for several years.

Okay, enough accolades about 4-H.  How is the organization faring in your community? 

Does it need your help?  Even if you don’t have children involved in 4-H, can the organization and your local fair benefit from your involvement?  

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.