By Gabriel Eberhardt
(This article was originally published in 2015, but was updated in 2021.)
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.
Whether 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, whose mission is to give all youth equal access to opportunity by providing kids with community, mentors, and learning opportunities to develop skills they need to create positive change in their lives and communities. Today, 4‑H serves youth in rural, urban, and suburban communities in every state across the nation. 4‑H’ers are tackling the nation’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 a wide variety of STEM opportunities – 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 6.5 million young people ages 5 to 18 in 90,000 clubs across the United States, and more than 570,000 volunteers, through a network of 110 public universities and more than 3000 local Extension offices, the research-backed 4‑H experience grows young people who are four times more likely to contribute to their communities; two times more likely to make healthier choices; two times more likely to be civically active; and two times more likely to participate in STEM programs. 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. Beyond the substantial US 4-H experience, globally, 4‑H collaborates with independent programs work to empower one million additional youth in 50 countries.
Next week, Gabriel will describe Alexandria’s 4-H Youth Development Program. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, contact the Arlington/Alexandria Extension Office at (703) 228-6400.