Young people need to be interested in agriculture. 4H is the answer

Young people need to be interested in agriculture. 4H is the answer
Young people need to be interested in agriculture. 4H is the answer

I started a rabbit farm when I was nine years old. I raised my trio of Dutch rabbits to take to the show and fell in love with the breed and raising them. I soon expanded my farm to include Polish rabbits, Dorset Advantage sheep and Welsh Harlequin and Call ducks. Eventually I added horses and pigs to my growing small business and raised animals for sale in my community. I named my business Diamond B Show Stock, a nod to my family farm, Diamond B Farms. The family business was founded in the 1970s and is still going strong today. I am proud to be the next link in the chain of my family’s agricultural business and I hope to carry it on for the generations after me. And I got here with the help of 4-H.

One-day-old twin lambs. Photography by the author.

I grew up in a farming family, so I am completely fascinated by farming. There is something special about watching a newborn lamb take its first steps, watching it grow, and finally feeling the satisfaction of selling it at a county fair on a muggy August day, knowing that I gave it a life full of long evening walks, gentle hands, tasty treats, and comfort. These moments reinforce to me that farming will always be a part of my life. Now, while working through my numerous 4-H projects, I am studying veterinary medicine and ultimately working to protect and improve the lives of farm animals.

Read more: Check out a 4-H project that became a pesticide startup.Read more: Check out a 4-H project that became a pesticide startup.

But not every child has the opportunities I had. Our industry suffers from the inability to inspire enough young people to do their work. I visited the National 4-H Conference in Washington, DC in April, where US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explained it best: The average age of a farmer is 60 years oldTo secure the future of America’s food supply, young people must get involved in agriculture, and organizations like 4-H are the solution.

Tom Vilsack speaks to the crowd at the annual 4-H conference. Photo via USDA/Lance Cheung

More than just agriculture

Founded in 1912, 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands and Health) was originally designed to introduce youth to the work of agriculture through after-school programs. More than 100 years later, it has grown to include much more. Each regional 4-H club offers a variety of programs that emphasize hands-on learning. You can raise animals, like I do, but you can also learn about anything, like photography, public speaking, sewing or technology.

McKenzie Diamond, a recent high school graduate from New York, is considering college. A few years ago, she viewed farming as a hobby rather than a career. But that changed last year.

In addition to her other 4-H projects in nutrition, arts and community service, she raised goats with her mother. After one of the goats had to have a leg amputated, Diamond and her family met with veterinarians at Cornell University to discuss what to do. It was at that meeting that she realized her hobby could become her career. “My mother grew up in a very farming family, and I think that instilled that (farming) lifestyle and life goals in me from a young age. I honestly don’t think I would be who I am today without farming in my life.” Now Diamond plans to study either agricultural education or agricultural economics.

Read more: A major obstacle for young farmers is access to land. Read on to find out what some groups are demanding from the Farm Bill.Read more: A major obstacle for young farmers is access to land. Read on to find out what some groups are demanding from the Farm Bill.

Fighting for the future

As lawmakers listen to the voices of youth, 4-H members are being put on the front lines to advocate for agricultural practices. Wyatt Morrow, a 4-H graduate and college freshman from Ohio, was selected for Citizenship Washington Focusa statewide 4-H opportunity that recruits youth to share their thoughts with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Morrow was privileged to speak on behalf of 4-H in the office of Ohio Senator JD Vance in 2023. After returning home and beginning his freshman year at Wilmington College, he was entrusted with a position by the college. He was one of only three freshmen in the group and was once again privileged to travel to Washington DC, this time to lobby for the passage of the Farm Bill. Morrow called the lobbying “one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had. It showed me that advocating for issues that are important to you and others can really make a difference in shaping our country.”

Through 4-H, he not only gained a life-changing opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with legislators, but he was also able to use that experience to promote growth in the industry.

4-H delegate Alexandra Harvey asks Tom Vilsack a question at the annual 4-H conference. Photo via USDA/Lance Cheung.

However, it can be difficult to get kids excited about farming, especially city kids or people who don’t grow up in farming families. “Kids are involved in so many different activities that demand their time. Often times, coaches and teachers don’t allow them the time off from school or extracurricular activities that they need to fully participate in 4-H because it’s not a school-sponsored activity,” says Kathy Bruynis, a 4-H educator with Ohio State University Extension.

Take Action: Feeling inspired? Find your local 4-H club to explore programs in your area.Take Action: Feeling inspired? Find your local 4-H club to explore programs in your area.

Fortunately, 4-H has one advantage: choice. With more than 200 projects in the state of Ohio alone, such as livestock, gardening, robotics, nutrition, financial management, welding and more, there are topics for almost every child. In addition, in keeping with 4-H’s traditional creative spirit, 4-H professionals and volunteers work hard to find new ways to recruit members. Jamie Stacy, Ohio 4-H advisor and director of the Junior Fair Board, hosts bowling or swim parties and always brings snacks. “Offering some food is usually a pretty good way to attract kids if they’re getting free food and fun,” Stacy says.

Sarah Bailey.

Become a king

Fair or 4-H royalty is another valuable tool for recruiting new 4-H members. I was elected queen of my county almost a year ago after going through a lengthy application and interview process. On the first day of our county fair, I received my crown and sash and the task of representing 4-H not only to others in agriculture but to the general public. After a week of helping out at shows, sales and other fair events, I was assigned the task of attending other local fairs and festivals. As fair season came to a close, I made it a point to get involved in the community in other ways. I handed out candy at a trunk-or-treat, took the time to chat with each child and talk to them about why 4-H is so important to me, read a book at my local library and eagerly answered questions posed to me by children and parents alike. I hugged a veteran as he accepted a quilt made by a 4-H member at the annual quilting event for veterans and first responders at my fair. I later got in touch with Wreaths for Veterans to place wreaths at a nearby cemetery for Christmas. One of my favorite experiences was when I took some baby rabbits and a baby goat to a nursing home with a 4-H friend and saw the residents’ reactions.

Sara Bailey (left) leads a 4-H club.

All of these experiences have helped to create a positive image of 4-H in the local community. Before my visits, many of the people I met didn’t even know what 4-H was, but when I left they knew more about it and felt good about it. The presence of 4-H in the community is essential to its survival.

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