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.

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