Master Gardeners in Our Community: The 4-H Program

By Gabriel Eberhardt

Master Gardeners don’t  just volunteer with VCE and MGNV. They also share their expertise with the wider community. In the first of this occasional series, Master Gardeners in our Community, MG Gabriel Eberhardt looks at the history of 4-H. Part two of his article (posted next Sunday) will explore 4-H closer to home, here in Alexandria.

unnamedWhether you are a youth, parent or interested volunteer, and whether you live in a rural, urban or suburban community, the  4-H program has something to offer.

According to the 4-H website, members are “tackling the nation’s top issues, from global food security, climate change and sustainable energy to childhood obesity and food safety. 4-H’s out-of-school programming, in-school enrichment programs, clubs and camps offer a wide variety of academic opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, from agricultural and animal sciences to rocketry, robotics, environmental protection and computer science – to improve the nation’s ability to compete in key scientific fields and take on the leading challenges of the 21st century.”

With such a robust list of endeavors, it is interesting to know how this organization got its start.

In the late 1800s, about 29.4 million Americans were farmers – 43 per cent of the labor force. Universities began to develop new agricultural techniques and practices to increase farming productivity. Unfortunately, most farmers did not readily accept these new practices. Researchers discovered, however, that young people were much more open to these new ideas. By educating a younger generation with practical and hands-on learning, researchers found they could effectively introduce agronomic technology into the farming communities.

In 1902, Albert Belmont Graham was a schoolmaster and a Federal Extension Director for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). A visionary of his time, Graham realized the great potential in combining his occupations to teach youth about modern agricultural production. On Jan. 15, Graham held the first meeting of the agriculture experimental club, the “Corn Growers Club,” as he called it, in the basement of the Clark County Post Office in Springfield, Ohio. Graham is credited with founding 4-H.

Federally recognized through the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, Congress created the Cooperative Extension System at the USDA and the 4-H youth organization became a nationally recognized nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. By 1924, 4-H clubs were forming across the country and the four-leaf clover emblem was adopted. The clover represents the four personal development areas: head, heart, hands and health.

After a century, the 4-H youth organization has evolved from a Corn Growers Club in a post office basement in Springfield, Ohio, into the country’s largest comprehensive youth development program, educating 6.5 million young people ages 5 to 18 in 90,000 clubs across the United States.

More than 570,000 volunteers are part of 4-H. The value of time, mileage and out-of-pocket expenses that volunteer leaders contribute annually exceeds $2 billion—five times the combined county, state, federal and private sector support.

4-H alumni now total about 60 million. They are national, state and local government leaders, community and business leaders, famous entertainers and leaders in their respective fields.

The 4-H youth organization has proven that its programs, services and creative teaching methods are a fantastic way for communities to come together to provide young people a safe, friendly, reliable environment to gain valuable skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. With the help of 4-H, there is no limit to what a volunteer can teach, and a child can learn.

Next week, Gabriel will describe Alexandria’s 4-H Youth Development Program. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, contact Reggie Morris at the Lee Center located at 1108 Jefferson Street, contact him by phone at 703-746-5547 or send him an email at 

About mgnv

Master Gardners of Northern Virginia
This entry was posted in MG in the Garden and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.