Rooted in Agricultural Research: Louisiana 4-H Celebrates 100 Years in 2008

Linda Benedict  |  8/21/2008 9:05:35 PM

The first Boys’ Corn Club at Moreauville High School in Avoyelles Parish in 1908.

Attendees from Louisiana pose in front of the Washington Memorial at the first National 4-H Club Camp in 1927. Delegates slept in tents on the national mall in front of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building.

This photo is of unknown origin. Note the uniforms.

Desoto Parish Corn Club member in the early 1900s displays the fruits of his labor.

Genetic lines were spread throughout Louisiana and the United States through the use of livestock “chains,” such as the Sears Roebuck Pig Chain. This is an agent with 4-H club members and their pigs in Avoyelles Parish in 1937.

4-H club members at an achievement day in the 1930s.

A 4-H club at the Holly Grove Elementary School in Franklin Parish from 1954.

Seaman A. Knapp family in Lake Charles in 1897. His vision for youth involvement in the transfer of knowledge from agricultural research to farmers was the beginning of 4-H.

Paul Coreil and Mark Tassin

Once rooted in rural America, 4-H has significantly diversified over its 100 years of existence. Although 4-H has changed as society has changed, much of its success can be traced to its roots and original mission.

The 4-H movement was born out of corn clubs of the early 1900s. These clubs were originally created by the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station to help Louisiana farmers grow corn more successfully in Louisiana. Later, the clubs evolved into 4-H clubs administered by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service under a U.S. Department of Agriculture partnership.

The vision of the founder of the Extension Service, Seamann A. Knapp, was to teach new and improved agricultural practices to youth, who would in turn transfer these skills to their parents and increase adoption of research-based knowledge.

4-H played a significant role in the early adoption of practices and variety selection in corn and other crops. Corn clubs fostered the creation of other crop-linked clubs including cotton. Livestock production improvements were also born out of the 4-H movement. Through livestock contests, shows and competition, youth learned selection, genetics, nutrition and animal health. Genetic lines were spread throughout Louisiana and the United States through the use of livestock "chains" such as the Sears Roebuck Pig Chain. 4-H youth would receive a gilt, which was subsequently bred, with the expectation that when the litter was weaned, the 4-H’er would place a certain number of pigs back into the chain and provide animals to new 4-Her’s. 

Horticulture improvements were also advanced through tomato clubs and other vegetable-related projects. Events and activities such as "victory gardens" during World War II helped provide food during the war while promoting new and improved horticultural practices.

As the 4-H movement began to spread, the agriculture-related offerings began to expand. Contests and competition such as soil judging, crop judging, weed identification, meat identification and other competitive events increased youth knowledge of agronomic and food production practices. Livestock shows, live animal judging evaluation and livestock workshops taught basic animal science principles. These principles were brought back to the family farm and improved animal agriculture production in Louisiana and throughout rural America. 

Even though it initially developed with an agriculture focus, 4-H has diversified to capture the needs of the youth in the 21st century. As the population in America and Louisiana became more suburban and urban, the interest of youth changed – but the same principles and practices of youth development still exist. For example, young people learn new technological mapping skills such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and transfer those skills to their parents and other adults.

As the youth development educational field has expanded so has the mission of 4-H. The 4-H program in Louisiana recognizes the importance of providing young people with the opportunity to develop into productive, contributing members of their community through four main essential elements: belonging, independence, generosity and mastery. Louisiana 4-H promotes a sense of belonging by offering young people the chance to develop a relationship with a caring adult and conducting activities and programs in a safe environment. They also become part of a team and group through 4-H clubs, project clubs, summer camps and many other programs. Youth develop independence through activities that enhance life skills such as decision making and responsibility. Many Louisiana 4-H youth are instrumental in making decisions concerning statewide programs and conferences through the practice of giving youth a voice in 4-H programs and projects. They plan and implement teen leadership conferences, service-learning projects and statewide competitive events. They are participants on every state level advisory council. 4-H youth master skills in a variety of project areas that range from livestock to electricity to computer technology. They master skills through hands-on learning, including shows, contests, demonstrations, workshops, record keeping and many other experiential activities. Youth compete against peers, compete as a team in cooperative events, and compete against knowledge standards. Through noncompetitive experiences, they learn teamwork, leadership, citizenship and consensus building. The essential element of generosity is learned and experienced through community service and service-learning projects that offer youth the opportunity to give back to the school, community, their state and the nation. Now more than ever, youth are volunteering to contribute to their communities in a multitude of projects. 

The 4-H program in the 21st century continues to drive young people toward projects and activities in three major areas: science, engineering and technology; healthy living; and citizenship and leadership.

These three areas align well with their school-linked competencies and further help retain and expand 4-H’s partnership with parish school boards and systems. Even though agriculture is still considered a cornerstone to 4-H and youth development, 4-H has expanded into new skill development areas such as character education and leadership as a major theme in all youth development initiatives.

As we look back to the beginnings of 4-H, it is apparent that Seamann A. Knapp had great vision about the importance of youth programs in the development of a great nation. The original corn clubs promoted a sense of belonging by being involved in a club, promoting team learning, and tying directly to a caring adult. These clubs helped young people gain knowledge to improve varieties and cultural practices that promoted mastery. The decisions made regarding crop production, including varietal selection, fertilization and other cultural practices, required youth to practice independence. The clubs also taught the valuable skill of responsibility through growing a crop independent of their parents.

The uniqueness, popularity and long-standing history of 4-H can be linked to the hands-on learning, informal approach to education and the interaction with adults in a manner different from formal education in a school setting. 4-H has thrived for the last 100 years in large part because we have never lost sight of the child and what it takes to build community. As we continue to adapt, 4-H will continue to thrive if we put the child first and see our programs through the children’s eyes. Youth voice is an important part of 4-H. When we give youth a voice, they take ownership and do not relegate themselves to just being participants. The following quote from one 4-H record book is an indicator of what 4-H can accomplish for young people:

This quote from Coach Vince Lombardi applies to my career in 4-H: ‘The only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you are willing to pay the price.’ During my 4-H career, I have realized that it takes a lot of hard work to accomplish something that you want.

(This article was published in the summer 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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