4-H might be the most traditional, yet forward-thinking, organization in Linn County. For nearly 100 years, the organization has been supporting youth education in the ag sciences while staying a step ahead of the times.
Kathy Clemens, who lives on a farm north of Marion, has 57 relatives who have been involved in 4-H. She joined 4-H when she was 10 and was inducted into the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame in 2010 after 20 years of leadership with the Indian Creek 4-H Club.
She met her husband through 4-H-related activities, as did her parents, who also are in the 4-H Hall of Fame. Today, her great-grandchildren are getting involved.
“4-H runs in families,” Clemens said. “Once you get it in your blood, you want to share it, and it just kind of keeps going.”
A number of organizations in different states claim ownership to 4-H’s founding. They all agree, however, that the groups merged in the early 1900s with the common idea of educating rural youth in the ways of successful farm living.
The four H’s have been constant since 1910, when Jessie Field Shambaugh, a teacher in Clarinda in southwest Iowa, designed the 4-H clover logo to symbolize the organization’s values associated with one’s head, heart, hands and health.
Interestingly, another story places another Iowa educator at the clover design’s big-bang moment four years earlier — Clarion Superintendent O.H. Benson.
Linn County’s first 4-H efforts started in 1924 when Iowa Farm Bureau sponsored calf clubs for boys and girls who wanted to show animals at the Marion Interstate Fair and the Waterloo Cattle Congress. Boys and girls ended up in separate clubs, pursuing education and competitions in farming and domestic pursuits.
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By 1928, 4-H girls were competing in home furnishings, music memory and clothes-making competitions. Boys were learning about corn, pigs, beef and poultry production, fertilization and forestry.
Boys and girls, however, could compete in any 4-H competition after being in their 4-H club for a year and then joining the other gender’s club. In the 1970s, 4-H merged the boys and girls clubs.
For example, Clemens’ son, Michael, who is 51 now, showed hogs and sheep through 4-H along with his sewing creations, like a reversible vest, jogging pants and short pajamas.
Kids open to ideas
From the very beginning, 4-H clubs were a way for ag science leaders to get new methods incorporated into Iowa farms.
The kids on a farm, they learned, were open to new ideas. The test crop yields, meat production results and health data from 4-H club projects were more convincing to older generations than the Iowa State College scientists who were pioneering the new methods.
“What made 4-H clubs wonderful (then) still is relevant today in 2020,” said Emily Saveraid, executive director for the Iowa 4-H Foundation in Ames. “We need young people who are critical thinkers, civically engaged and care about the place they live and the people who live in their communities.”
Saveraid is quick to point out that 4-H isn’t just for farm kids.
The traditional ag-related programs are still around, but 4-H kids today are also building rockets, competing with Legos and delving into dietary science to create healthier snacks.
Last year, more than 4,000 Linn County kids were involved with 4-H through community clubs, before- and after-school programs, in-school programs, day camps and outreach events.
Youth leadership continues, too.
JD Waybill, county youth coordinator for the Linn County Extension Office, says the adults were recently apprehensive about 4-H kids having to compete virtually in this year’s Linn County Fair, due to the coronavirus health risks. The kids, however, jumped right in, taking photos and videos to show their animals and projects virtually.
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They also created a Bitmoji component — character avatars to guide site visitors through the virtual experience.
Clemens’ father, Loyd Martin, passed away in December. She says her dad picked corn by hand and used implements powered by horses in the 1940s. But just last year he was operating a combine with GPS and a computer that tracks yield down to the very row.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said RaeAnne Gordon, director of the Linn County Extension Office. “4-H kids learn how to learn.”
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org