By Anne Reed, Extension Master Gardener
Most urban dwellers today are clueless about 4-H. More than likely, quite a few rural denizens, residents of the locations where 4-H had its roots, would be as well. My recollection, from my youth, involves a young man named Hughey, a farmer’s son who lived in Givhans, South Carolina, a rural “hole-in-the-road” about 30 miles from famously hot Charleston. I spent summers there with my cousin whose house was cooled only by window fans, so rocking on the porch and swimming in the nearby Edisto River were daily pastimes.
The summer of my 16th year, I became “besotted” with Hughey. His daddy, like my uncle, farmed peanuts and soybeans with a few dozen ‘Brown Turkey’ fig trees planted on the perimeters. Hughey was a youth leader in his 4-H club at Summerville High School. I discovered this fact during a conversation focusing on our school activities, as we drove his 1960 Ford truck (at very high speed) toward Givhans Ferry State Park, where the Edisto promised a chilly and exciting afternoon. From this relationship my first impression of 4-H clubs was forged: a strictly rural endeavor, membership of farm boys, dedication to the world of peanuts and soybeans, and ownership of powerful Ford trucks smelling of steamy loads of cow manure, acknowledged most seriously by Hughey as “farmer’s black gold.”
Not a particularly landmark memory but certainly a poignant one, one that probably contributed to some biases or misunderstandings about the relevance of 4-H throughout my adult life.
In 2015, retirement from 44 years of teaching youth created an immeasurable void. Try as I might with this adventure or that hobby, I sorely missed school-oriented relationships with kids. One day, as I was checking the blooming coneflowers in my front garden, a neighbor stopped by for a chat. That neighbor was Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener (EMG) with Distinction. If you know Judy, you also know the end of this story. I recall her gentle words: “Do something about it! Become a Master Gardener and find purpose there.” And so, I took the challenge, and through the EMG program and other associated opportunities like 4-H, I found that purpose.
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In 2017 my EMG intern project introduced me to the 4-H program of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE). I created lesson plans and activities for the Arlington Public Schools Extended Day Garden Club at Carlin Springs Elementary that were implemented the following spring and early summer with the support of Nancy Davis, my project mentor. Through the eyes of fourth and fifth graders, I inspected earthworms, pulled weeds, planted seeds, harvested radishes and lettuce, searched for matching garden gloves, and handled shovels and trowels. Along came the bees, and chaos always erupted. Along came a shovel duel, and EMG Al Schneider always interceded with aplomb.
Finally, along came the culminating moment, a party when salad was prepared by the students’ own hands and then eaten hungrily (or gingerly) per individual taste buds. Those three months were all so grand, so very replete with relationships built by a common purpose.
The 4-H Motto is: To Make the Best Better. VCE publishes a newsletter, “Clover Connection,” whose banner asserts: “4-H empowers young people with the skills to lead for a lifetime.” Today, 4‑H serves nearly six million youth in rural, urban, and suburban communities in every state across the nation, making it the largest youth development program in the U.S. 4‑H’ers are engaging in the country’s top issues, from global food security, climate change and sustainable energy, to childhood obesity and food safety. 4‑H out-of-school programming, in-school enrichment programs, clubs, and camps also offer experiences in STEM, like agricultural and animal sciences, rocketry, robotics, environmental protection, and computer science—all efforts to improve America’s ability to compete in key scientific fields and to lead in the challenges of the 21st century.
Arlington 4-H thus looks very different from those days “back on the farm,” because it has adapted to meet local community needs. While we may not have cows, peanut and soybean fields, we do have plenty of natural spaces for youth to explore. The evolution of 4-H into the 21st century has been palpable. My personal story of the “Hughey 4-H” is a case in point. An organization whose programming was endemic to rural America, exclusive to males, and irrelevant to urban America has adapted through creative leadership, fostering access, equity, and resilience. This is 4-H.