4-H: Still Important Today

4-H Logo. Photo Credit: Alabama Cooperative Extension System
4-H Logo. Photo Credit: Alabama Cooperative Extension System

When Mindy Reynolds of Randolph County, Alabama, was growing up every July or August she would get a new steer calf to raise.

Every day through the fall and winter she would go out to the barn and work with her steer and keep her log books.

The log books showed how much money

she spent on her steer and how much time she spent working with the steer.

“We had paperwork on top of paperwork,” said Reynolds. “We had to keep logs every day; when you fed them, when you exercised them, how much food, how much it cost to start the project, how much the food was every month.”

All of her hard work paid off each March when she took her steer to the county 4-H livestock show.

Reynolds was judged on how well she kept her log books and on the performance of her steer in the show ring.

Since its inception in the early 1900s, 4-H programs have had a reputation of being only for farm children who showed livestock.

Even though this is the current stigma of 4-H and its programs, most do not recognize the many different opportunities from participating in 4-H.

The Smith Lever Act of 1914 established the Cooperative Extension System to educate people on new and developing methods in agriculture and home economics.

It also brought all after-school agriculture and youth programs under the umbrella of Extension and by 1924 4-H was a nationalized program.

For Reynolds, 4-H was more than just showing steers and horses in local 4-H shows.

She participated in bread and dairy demonstrations, livestock shows and public speaking contests each year.

“I learned organizational skills, good work ethic, having to work with other people, diversity, setting goals, the reward of achieving goals, overcoming my fears of public speaking, leadership skills and life experiences,” said Reynolds.

4-H agents would come to her school when she was in 5th grade each month and taught students about exercise, nutrition and citizenship.

Her time in 4-H gave Reynolds the opportunity to gain valuable cultural capital through the different life experiences she was exposed to.

She had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. for a leadership conference with other students from across Alabama when she was a junior in high school.

While in D.C. she went to the Lincoln Center to an opera, the Capitol building and went to formal dinners.

Even though Reynolds is no longer in 4-H she still believes in the importance of 4-H for children today.

“It’s a good organization for children today for teaching those same values,” said Reynolds. “Teaching respecting authority, taking care of your community, developing a work ethic and developing cultural capital.”

Reynolds also learned money management from 4-H.

After showing her steer in March she would sell it at auction and different businesses in the community would usually come and buy the steer.

“You would take that money and subtract what you invested in it and you’d have something to take to the bank,” said Reynolds. “That’s how I started a savings account.”

Today, 4-H still has a focus on farm children and livestock showing but that is no longer their main focus.

“The focus is on all kids, not just farm kids,” said Katelyn Johnson, extension agent in Appanoose County, Iowa.

4-H now has programs and activities involving fashion and robotics.

Appanoose County 4-H held a 4-H fun day to get children interested in 4-H during National 4-H Week. Photo Credit: Katelyn Johnson

“4-H gives kids a chance to dive into different projects and areas,” said Johnson. “It gives them an opportunity to find what they are good at.”

Deborah Stewart, 4-H foundations regional extension agent in Lee and Tallapoosa Counties in Alabama, said that 4-H continues to highlight public speaking and has moved into highlighting technical based skills, such as sewing.

Stewart said the goal is to make children and youth ready for college or a career.

Even though the focus of 4-H has shifted over the years, the values Reynolds learned in the 1970s is still relevant today.

“4-H helps get children ready for real life and responsibilities, and gives them opportunities to become leaders,” said Johnson. “Clover Buds, for kindergarten through 3rd grade, helps make children more confident.”

4-H’s motto is: “to make the best, better.”

Stewart believes that 4-H helps children and youth learn to network and fine-tune life skills.

Though the focus has shifted, 4-H still continues to be an important part of Extension.

“Kids are our future,” said Stewart. “4-H shows the importance of agriculture and outdoor resources to children.”

Even though the main focus is no longer livestock judging, 4-H still offers activities to bring a focus back to agriculture and its importance.

Stewart said that 4-H is a way to expose inner city kids to the importance of agriculture.

Though 4-H has shifted its focus throughout the years, it still offers children an opportunity to learn about agriculture and valuable life skills.

Dr. Duffy: Finding a Passion in Africa

Growing up in the late ‘60s in a small, blue collar, rural farm community in Massachusetts, Dr. Patricia Duffy would wake up early on the weekends and during school breaks to watch the farm shows on TV in the mornings.

As she was learning about garden mulching and corn prices, commercials for the Peace Corps, advertising “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” sparked her interest in one day joining this new program called the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps logo. Photo Credit: Peace Corps
Peace Corps logo. Photo Credit: Peace Corps

After graduating from high school, Duffy attended Boston College and graduated with degrees in English and French literature and then joined the Peace Corps.

She became a member of a new Peace Corps program that took people with foreign language skills to Michigan State University for intensive training in agriculture.

“They were having a hard time getting people in agriculture that wanted to join the Peace Corps and who could speak foreign languages,” said Duffy.

At Michigan State, she studied entomology, soil science and animal science for a summer before she was given her Peace Corps assignment.

Map of Zaire. Photo Credit:


After her training, Duffy was sent to Zaire, the area that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

When she arrived in Zaire, she was taught tropical agriculture practices and later began teaching at a vocational agricultural high school.

While living in Zaire, Duffy was introduced to agricultural economics and discovered that she liked teaching.

“Not everyone could go to high school in Zaire and to get that far they had to be really, really smart and they were disadvantaged in terms of background and what they had for books and money, but they were very intelligent,” said Duffy. “Everyone’s IQ was probably 140 or more and that was my first teaching job.”

When she came back to the United States Duffy knew that she was going to go to graduate school.

She began writing to graduate schools, trying to convince them to accept her into their agricultural economics graduate programs even though she had never had an economics or business course in her life.

“I wrote these letters to these graduate program officers at all these major universities, trying to convince them that not only did they needed me as a graduate student, but that they also needed to pay my way,” said Duffy.

The letters worked. Michigan State University, University of Hawaii and Texas A & M accepted her into their graduate programs.

She decided on Texas A & M, not only because of the quality of the program but also because of the weather.

“I had spent two years in the tropics and I liked it,” said Duffy. “I liked not being cold.”

She fell in love with economics in Texas and after finishing her master’s degree, she went right on into the PhD program in agricultural economics.

James Richardson, her major professor at Texas A &M, gave her the best advice while she was getting her PhD.

“If you want to have a conflict with anybody when you’re at work make sure it’s not the staff. You always be nice to the staff.”

After graduating from Texas A & M in 1985 she knew she wanted to teach but academic jobs in agricultural economics was scarce, especially for married couples in the same field.

Duffy and her husband, Dr. Jim Novak, another agriculture economist, both began searching for academic jobs in the same town.

In 1985, Duffy and her husband both accepted jobs at Auburn University in the College of Agriculture’s department of agricultural economics and rural sociology.

“We were lucky,” said Duffy. “The year I finished up was one of the best hiring years, ever, for agriculture economists. So it was possible, barely, to get two jobs in the same city, so we came here.”

Her time at Auburn has not been uneventful.

Since she began teaching at Auburn she got another master’s degree in arts and English literature and is currently getting a master’s degree in statistics.

Comer Hall, houses the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology at Auburn University. Photo Credit.

She was the assistant provost to undergraduate studies, where she helped develop the interdisciplinary studies major.

“I like doing interdisciplinary work,” said Duffy. “I think it can be more useful than straight disciplinary work. It’s got a broader audience.”

She also collaborated with a fellow colleague in nutrition to work on food policy 10 years after she came to Auburn.

This combined social science and nutrition to look at the impact of government food assistance.

Working in the office of the provost did come with its challenges. Having to deal with parents was the biggest.

Parents would call her office to question why their child failed a class and could not understand why Duffy would not give them detailed information into their child’s academic career.

Even though she longed to correct the parent’s misinformation their child had given them, the university’s privacy policy prevented her from speaking her mind.

Her time at the office of the provost was short-lived and after three years Duffy went back to the department of agricultural economics.

“I like teaching and advising the best,” said Duffy.

Even once she retires Duffy said she wouldn’t stop working.

She would look at continuing to teach economics at other local colleges and universities.

It isn’t hard to get her to come into work every day.

“I mostly like what I’m doing,” said Duffy. “I like the mix of having teaching and research.”

Since coming to Auburn Duffy has taught principles of agribusiness management, farm management, appraisal, microeconomics, agriculture policy and trade and agribusiness marketing, just at the undergraduate level.

She has also taught econometrics, operations research and farm management at the graduate level.

She loves economics and would love to go back and teach microeconomics again, but her busy schedule hasn’t allowed her to.

Duffy continues to be a favorite teacher of students in the College of Agriculture.

Lauren Cline, academic advisor for the College of Agriculture, first meet Duffy as an agricultural economics student in 2007.

“She was an extremely intelligent woman,” said Cline. “She had a lot of confidence, she knew what she knew and she really enjoyed students.”

Kate Johnson, extension agent in Appanoose County, Iowa, and recent agricultural communications graduate, recalls her first encounter with Duffy.

“I remember thinking that she was extremely monotone and that she was going to make a difficult and boring subject even more boring but Dr. Duffy tries hard to make the material interesting.”

Duffy is a favorite with students because she is approachable. She is available to students, even at the last minute before an exam.

“She didn’t make me feel like anything was a stupid question,” said Johnson.

Johnson describes Duffy the best, “Different and definitely her own character.”