What is 4-H?
It’s easy to spot the 4-Hers at fair. Just head for the barns, where you’ll find hundreds of animals and their proud owners, or to the indoor displays where eager 4-Hers show off their prized projects.
Although 4-H (head, heart, hands and health) is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it isn’t a government farming club. It’s the nation’s largest youth development program, which seeks to empower young people through hands-on learning experiences and the acquisition of skills they’ll use throughout their lives.
More than 6 million youth participate in 4-H throughout the nation, including 60,000 in California. 4-H members can take on livestock projects such as raising a goat for show or auction, but the kids also learn about technology, art, science, citizenship and the culinary arts. Activities include archery, cake decorating, gardening, web design, woodworking and scrapbooking.
“A lot of people know 4-H for its involvement in farming activities, but people would be surprised to know about what these young people are up to,” said Knighsten 4-H leader Jessica Taylor. “4-Hers gain valuable life skills such as leadership, self-confidence and responsibility. All the skills 4-Hers learn are aimed at making a movement for positive change in every community in America and helping the youth reach their full potential.”
The mission of 4-H is to host projects designed to shape the minds of tomorrow’s leaders and innovators. 4-H alumni include Al Gore, Johnny Cash and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 4-H is open to children 5 to 19. The 4-H emblem, a four-leaf clover, reminds 4-H participants of their commitment to a healthy, enriched life. When members join 4-H, they take a pledge: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking; my heart to greater loyalty; my hands to larger service; and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
For Brentwood 4-H member Paris Lewer, 8, 4-H offers an array of learning experiences. “4-H is a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work too,” she said. “When you try something new, sometimes it’s really hard and you want to quit. But the leaders encourage you to keep going, and you feel good when you finish a project.”
Tayler Webb, 9, agreed: “It’s my first year in 4-H, so I’m still getting the hang of it, but I really like it. I joined the sewing group because I wanted to learn how to make clothes. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but you just have to keep practicing. 4-H has taught me that it’s OK if you make mistakes. You just have to keep going; keep practicing. I’m just getting started. There’s so much that I want to do.”
Preparing for fair
East County is well represented in the 4-H community. Brentwood, Knightsen and Delta-Diablo (Antioch and Oakley) 4-H clubs comprise more than 200 participants. Not all 4-Hers participate in fair, but for many members, fair is the highlight of the 4-H experience.
“Fair is my favorite time of year,” said Brentwood 4-Her Hailey Call, 14. “You work so hard on your projects, and fair gives you a chance to share your work with other 4-H members as well as the whole community.”
Hailey has been in 4-H for four years. Since joining, she’s participated in cooking and sewing groups, trained a horse and raised a rabbit. This year she plans to show her horse, and preparations are in full swing. Bathing, clipping and primping her horse have become part of the regular training agenda. While it takes considerable time and effort, Hailey enjoys the 4-H experience, which she shares with her sister Heidi, 9.
Like her sister, Heidi is involved in the Brentwood 4-H sewing group. She also raises rabbits and plans to show her bunny Paprika at fair. At the ripe age of 9, Heidi is a 4-H veteran with four years of experience. Last month she impressed judges at the County Fashion Revue with her hot-pink animal print skirt, which she sewed herself. She even made a matching skirt for her American Girl doll, which accompanied her on the runway.
“I like 4-H because you learn a lot,” Heidi said. “It’s really fun. I like all of the time with the animals, but I like to learn new things and be with my friends.”
While the Call sisters prefer horses and rabbits, Ian Lasher, 15, is all about sheep. His flock currently boasts 12 sheep and one ram. He plans to showcase seven of the sheep at fair and take one sheep to auction.
Even though 4-Hers often form a bond with their animals, selling their livestock can turn a handsome profit. Some 4-H animals are bred for showing, while others are raised to be taken to market. Sheep sell for about $5 a pound. Last year, Ian, a member of Knightsen 4-H, made $700 by selling a lamb at fair. That money, including other monetary awards he earned at fair, goes right back into his sheep operation, which he calls Lasher Ranch Sheep Breeding.
“People don’t realize how much work goes into all this,” said Ian, who keeps his sheep on his grandmother’s ranch in Oakley. “I’m here twice a day to feed them, but a lot of hours go into training. Then there’s the money side of things. I pay for almost all of this myself. I buy the sheep, I buy the feed, the medicine – whatever they need. This isn’t just a hobby. It’s a business.”
Not too shabby for a freshman in high school. Ian recently bought a ram, which he plans to breed with his show sheep. He’ll keep some of the offspring and sell the others to 4-H members and other breeders. Like any business owner, Ian has faced setbacks. Last year, his prized ram was attacked and killed by dogs, which dug under a fence. The loss was hard for Ian emotionally, but his mind quickly returned to his sheep operation and he began the search for a new ram he could mate with his sheep. He purchased one, which he named D.J., earlier this year and has been training it and preparing it for fair.
When he’s not taking care of his 4-H responsibilities, Ian is a member of the Liberty freshman volleyball team and Liberty Leadership. He’s also involved in many community service projects and hosts showmanship clinics to teach new 4-H members what it takes to succeed at fair.
Planning for the future
Tufts University in Massachusetts conducted a study following approximately 7,000 4-Hers during a five-year period and determined that 4-H participants are more likely to succeed in school and life. The study found that 4-Hers are twice as likely than non-4-H members to advance to college, 41 percent less likely to engage in risky behavior such as drugs, alcohol and crime, and 25 percent more likely to participate in community service.
While community service is a requirement for 4-H participants, the amount of service hours is up to each participant. Karli Blach, 14, completed more than 100 hours of community service last year and documented it in her 4-H record book. In recognition of her service, Karli received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award.
“In Brentwood 4-H, we’re always involved in something,” Karli said. “We organize coat drives, we adopt families during the holidays, we participate in the Marsh Creek cleanup – there’s always a way to give back. And it’s not about getting a bunch of hours for your record book. It feels really good to make a difference in your community. It’s something I would want to do even if I wasn’t a part of 4-H.”
Cierra Provan, a former Knightsen 4-H member and this year’s Contra Costa County Fair Queen, has gained significant hands-on experience through the program, inspiring her to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. The Liberty senior is currently an intern at Brentwood Family Pet Care and plans to go to community college before transferring to a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine college, such as UC Davis, where she hopes to specialize in large animal veterinary care.
Cierra, 17, who has been involved in 4-H for 10 years, considers herself lucky to have jump-started her career through 4-H. She encourages parents to take their children to a 4-H meeting to expose them to the program’s possibilities.
“4-H is a great experience,” said Cierra. “There’s an activity for everyone. It’s a great way to make friends and become involved. You might find a new hobby or figure out what type of a career you want. 4-H allows young people to explore a lot of different areas while taking on leadership and community roles. It’s a rewarding experience that I would recommend to anyone.”
To learn more about 4-H, visit the Contra Costa County Fair May 31 through June 3. To learn more about local 4-H groups, visit www.ca4h.org/join/county/index.cfm. For more general information about 4-H, visit www.4-h.org.