It was 2009 when Levi Parks, then 7 years old, posed with his prize-winning fainting goat, Hildie, at the Tazewell County Fair in southwestern Virginia. But the corn-fed image feels so classic, it could have been taken decades, even a century, ago. Clad in dungarees, a crisp white button-down, and a bolo tie, this clean-cut 4-H kid paints a reassuring picture of American agriculture as an honest pursuit unsullied by politics or private business interests.
In reality, the United States Department of Agriculture (or more specifically, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture) designates millions of annual Cooperative Extension Program dollars for regional “youth development” initiatives—a total of $68 million in 2015, much of that going to 4-H. The youth organization also receives funding from the nonprofit National 4-H Council, which spent approximately $48 million last year, and accepts donations from a veritable who’s who of Big Ag: Monsanto, ConAgra, DuPont, and Altria each gave at least a million dollars in 2015.
You may be tempted to draw a straight line connecting those corporate contributions with the corruption of an institution espousing old-timey ideals. Don’t. Though often viewed through the hazy lens of nostalgia, 4-H was always intended as an important step in the march toward modernization. Its roots can be traced back to the early 1900s, when many rural farmers were resistant to newfangled advancements, such as soil testing and better seed selection, suggested by scientists at land-grant universities.
Those university researchers began partnering with county school superintendents throughout the Midwest and South to develop corn, tomato, and other crop clubs for children. From the get-go, local businesses provided financing for projects and cash prizes for competitions. In 1911, Ohio Farmer magazine reported that the top 100 corn-club boys had produced an average yield of 133.3 bushels per acre, more than five times the U.S. average of 25 bushels per acre. According to 4-H National Program Leader Jim Kahler, “Parents who didn’t want to bet the farm on whether or not a new corn variety might work became believers when they saw those results.”
The USDA took notice, too. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act formalized the relationship between land-grant universities and nearby farms, establishing the Cooperative Extension System to help underwrite the researchers’ outreach efforts. And by 1921, those disparate youth farming clubs had come together under the unified umbrella of 4-H— short for the “head, heart, hands, and health” members must engage “to make the best better.” Almost immediately, the USDA sought control over the organization, eventually gaining full ownership of the name and iconic four-leaf-clover emblem in 1939.
Initially, 4-H membership looked much different for girls than for boys. Instead of cultivating crops and raising animals, female participants took part in home economics projects that taught child-rearing, cooking, and hostessing skills. One has only to glance at the cover girl on a 1930 Iowa 4-H manual to get the gist: Outfitted in a bonnet and a poufy skirt, this role model seems better prepared to attend a costume party as Little Bo Peep than to shepherd any sheep.
“It’s absolutely the case that a lot of cultural norms around gender and sexuality are directly illustrated by the history of 4-H,” says Dr. Gabriel N. Rosenberg, author of the 2016 book The 4-H Harvest and an assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. He also believes that the organization played a pivotal role in helping the USDA carry out New Deal legislation, such as the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which offered federal subsidies to farmers in an attempt to reduce surplus and raise prices for key crops.
“You can’t really understand why people were willing to accept the subsidy machine without understanding the groundwork laid by extension agents,” Rosenberg explains. “I would argue that 4-H is central to that story.” The Depression-era extension agents who espoused subsidized crops spent 30 to 40 percent of their time on youth work, gaining the trust not just of future farmers but also their farming parents—relationships Rosenberg describes as “transformational” in shifting agriculture from labor-intensive methods to capital-intensive, mechanized ones. 4-H members of the day learned to take out loans and keep scrupulous records and accounts. While other popular youth groups, like the Camp Fire Girls and the Boy and Girl Scouts, encouraged kids to explore the great outdoors, 4-H participants saw the land as their livelihood.
With the onset of World War II, the focus pivoted to patriotism. Many early urban 4-H programs—including those in Denver and Detroit—grew out of the victory garden movement. In June of 1946, hundreds of delegates from around the country arrived in Washington, D.C., for National 4-H Camp. At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, the campers recited 4-H’s citizenship oath, promising to “never allow tyranny and injustice.” There was not a single black child among them.
At the time, African American 4-H clubs were run by a separate system of black agricultural colleges and extension agents, who earned significantly less than their white counterparts. 4-H remained segregated after 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision found segregated public schools unconstitutional. And when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregated 4-H clubs and camps illegal, a number of the African American ones shut down. “We did not get integration, we got disintegration, a feeling that you would gradually disappear,” said Alberta Dishmon, a former Mississippi home-demonstration extension agent, in Thomas and Marilyn Wessel’s 1982 book, 4-H: An American Idea, 1900–1980.
During the postwar era, America also started exporting its anti-communist, pro- agribusiness farming agenda abroad, establishing 4-H programs in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa—a practice that continues to this day. In Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever, published three years ago, author Kiera Butler describes a recent 4-H program in Ghana. In 2012, the program encouraged Ghanaian students to plant hybrid maize seeds donated by DuPont Pioneer. The seeds did improve yield compared with the local Obatanpa variety, but Ghanaians couldn’t afford to purchase more for the following year’s crop; ditto the chemical inputs (pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers) that ensured success. The program was shuttered in 2015.
“Kids aren’t thinking about food systems stuff, the USDA, or DuPont. They’re thinking about, ‘How do I win a blue ribbon at the fair?’” says former 4-H kid Amrys Williams, now an oral historian and associate director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. Another alum, Martha Ann Miller, 105, is living proof that the club has opened plenty of doors for women. She calls the blue-ribbon bread loaf that earned her a scholarship to Purdue University “the event that changed my whole life.”
4-H’s Jim Kahler insists that gender and racial discrimination “is a history that’s long past” and points to recent efforts to educate underserved communities on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) and topics like alternative energy and nutrition. Minnesota extension educator Joshua Kukowski, for instance, has created programs accessible to immigrants, refugees, and the homeless. “My goal is bringing 4-H to those who traditionally haven’t had it,” he says. For members of his state’s White Earth Nation, Kukowski hired native Ojibwe speakers “to foster understanding and empathy between the communities through culturally sensitive curricula.”
Some 4-H participants are even discovering that there’s a more sustainable way to do business. In order to be competitive at state and county fairs, the kids commonly feed their livestock growth hormones, including the controversial chemical compound ractopamine hydrochloride, currently banned in European Union countries, Russia, and China. In 2012, when a 4-H family in Charlottesville, Virginia, decided to raise two lambs on organic feed, the animals came in last in their market class at the Albemarle County Fair. But on the auction block, a bidding war broke out, and one of the sheep fetched the highest price of the day—more than the grand champion.
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This article originally appeared on Modern Farmer.