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4-H: Not All Poop Scoopin’ and Shit Kickers

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A few weeks ago I had tea with a friend from the city. Somehow we came upon the topic of 4-H — I probably brought it up as I am wont to do — and she said something that made me laugh. “People out there take it very seriously,” she mused, “It’s kind of a religion.”

She was, of course, completely and utterly right. It is kind of a religion. And the ‘kind of’ might even be superfluous. In many cases it just is a religion.

I was reminded of her observation this week as The Man and I helped The Small Humans go over expenses, complete certification requirements, and design written plans for livestock projects they’re working on for various youth programs, 4-H and otherwise. Sometimes I mourn the fact that these programs — 4-H, FFA, and their ilk — don’t reach a wider variety of participants.

As Melissa put it, most of her neighbors are inclined to wonder what the heck 4-H is and why people are so into it if they hear about it at all. Even many of those who have nostalgic memories of boot-clad farm kids at the county or state fair to draw on are not privy to the nitty gritty, behind the scenes details of the programs, those that make it a “religion”. Because while we’re pretty committed to our farm, our livestock, our way of life, we’re even more committed to raising responsible, autonomous members of society. And while the animals may be cute, and they may draw a crowd however much smaller than it used to be, it’s the much more practical aspects of these programs that keeps most families coming back.

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It’s why we even occasionally indoctrinate our canines. Okay, I made that one up, but she’s cute, no?

So, today, I wanted to tell you about some of those details. Beyond how to groom a cow for show, or how to steer a market hog around a showmanship ring…

Six Unexpected Things Youth Can Learn From 4-H

Organization Skills. Believe it or not record keeping is a big part of completing a 4-H livestock project. Kids are expected to keep track of expenses, feed usage, medications they administer, and even their daily routine in caring for their project animals. They use their records to complete calculations for things like rate of weight gain and feed efficiency at the end of the project period and turn these records and calculations in as documentation of having done the real work of rearing stock. It’s not just a matter of pouring the feed in a dish and moving along, it’s a matter of keeping track of how much feed went in that dish, how it affected the stock’s growth, and even planning out feed strategies to ensure the animal is the right size when the project ends.

Money Management Experience. Most livestock projects shown at fairs are also sold by the youth exhibitors. It’s ultimately up to the parents of that exhibitor how much or how little money management is required of them, but most 4-H families are encouraged to hold their kids accountable and use the experience to teach valuable money management lessons. It’s not uncommon for kids to take out a loan from a family member to cover their operating expenses for the year, then using the proceeds from their sale to pay it off before divvying the remaining money up between savings and spending cash. In fact it’s quite normal for youth to pay for a portion of their own higher education with money they earned in 4-H.

Business Know-How. And the money trail doesn’t stop there. Many kids take a portion of their proceeds to reinvest in their business year after year, eventually being able to cover all of their expenses without a loan and boosting the amount of their proceeds they’re able to call “profit” at the end of the year. They also learn the importance of business principles such as marketing their product to boost the price it brings at auction, efficient management to increase margins, quality control through good management practices, and continuing education through training courses.

Leadership Skills. For kids who stick with it into their teens years 4-H offers leadership and mentorship opportunities, the results of which that can extend well into adulthood. Teen members take on planning and administrative roles in bringing events to fruition and mentor younger members in creating a successful 4-H project.

Volunteerism & A Sense of Community 4-H programs are built on volunteerism and community involvement. Kids are taught how many hands make light work as they pitch in for everything from cafeteria duty to barn clean up. Ultimately, a strong sense of community pride is instilled in them as they work.

Artistic Empowerment. Did you know there’s more to 4-H than livestock projects, too? Artistic expression is fostered through creative projects such as painting and photography. Judges are kind and constructive, helping the kids further their skill in an empowering environment.

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