University of Minnesota Alumni Association

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4-H: A Head Start in Life

The nation’s largest youth development organization has deep roots in Minnesota and at the U of M. The program opens doors for kids to learn about animals, agriculture, and nearly anything else that piques their interest.

BRING UP 4-H and people who recognize the name might identify it as a youth organization that’s behind many of the animal showcases at both the local level and the Minnesota State Fair.

They aren’t wrong. But there’s actually much more to 4-H than just an opportunity for kids to raise and show big pigs, docile cows, or fluffy chickens.

In Minnesota, 41,000 youth from kindergarten to one-year post high school participate in 4-H, which is supported and managed by University of Minnesota Extension. [See sidebar below on “What is Extension?”]

In 4-H, students can engage in active learning in 50 project areas, from geology to money management. And yes, there are lots of opportunities to work with animals, too.
Photo by Ruth Klossner, Joel Morehouse, and Extension staff/volunteers

Recognizable for its four-leaf clover symbol signifying “head, heart, hands, and health”—the four “H’s”—4-H has clubs in every Minnesota county and in urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities. In 2022, 10,154 new youth joined the program, and more than 7,000 of them are first-generation
4-H’ers, the first in their families to participate in 4-H.

In 4-H, students can engage in active learning in 50 project areas, from geology and performing arts to mechanical science and money management. In fact, it’s the largest youth-serving organization in the state and the country, says Jennifer Skuza, associate dean of Extension.

And yes, there are lots of opportunities to work with animals, too.



HENRY LEMKE, a high school junior from Watkins, Minnesota, is a 4-H participant who says he’s added leadership, networking, and public speaking skills to his talents through the program, along with designing and sewing clothing. (In fact, he shows the sheep he raises while dressed in a matching wool outfit.)

As one of Minnesota’s 4-H ambassadors, Lemke enjoys passing on his leadership skills to younger kids and promoting 4-H to state and national leaders. “Many people think 4-H is just agriculture, but there are many avenues to explore your interests and hobbies that can eventually turn into career paths,” Lemke says, citing STEM and wildlife projects as examples.

Matt Weber, a college freshman from Lake Benton, Minnesota, has been active in 4-H for more than a decade. He says the top skills he's gleaned from 4-H include developing critical thinking abilities, evaluating and synthesizing information, and making presentations under pressure.

"The 4-H youth development program and its long history is an important part of Minnesota and the U of M."
Jennifer Skuza, associate dean of Extension

“There are so many different things you can do through 4-H,” says Weber, who joined the group with his five siblings, focusing on showing cattle and doing livestock judging. Judging various animal competitions especially polished Weber's abilities to think and present on the fly. “Being part of an organization and putting in the effort to participate, it’s been terrific for me and so many others,” he says. “4-H does such a good job of youth development and helping kids be ready for the real world.”

THE 4-H HISTORY

In 1902, educators in Ohio and Minnesota independently started youth agricultural clubs, and Douglas County teacher T.A. "Dad" Erickson started what he believed to be Minnesota's first school fairs.

At the fairs, students could exhibit produce they'd grown or handmade items, providing them with a social element and opportunities to educate each other.

Erickson (namesake of the Minnesota State Fair 4-H Building's Erickson Hall) promoted a variety of competitions for youth over the years, from growing seed corn and baking bread to exhibiting potatoes and poultry.

In the early 1910s, Erickson joined the University to expand his boys' and girls' club concept statewide. In 1914, 4-H became the group's official name.

Erickson became Extension's first state 4-H leader and wrote its founding principles: to interest youngsters in country life, to teach kids and adults at the same time, and to help schools "teach boys and girls how to do things [that are] worthwhile."

Whether kids participate through school clubs, community organizations, camps, online, or in hybrid settings, they gain life skills and knowledge in the subjects that interest them most. “4-H is designed to help youth deepen their learning and help them see themselves grow as leaders,” Skuza says. “The 4-H youth development program and its long history is an important part of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota.”

As a Benton County 4-Her, Skuza herself participated in horticulture, health, and leadership programs, meeting people across Minnesota while gaining exposure to the University. She values the skills she learned in project development, assessment, and extending those findings to other areas.

Enhancing participants’ links with Minnesota colleges and careers has also become an important part of 4-H. “It’s one way the University benefits,” Skuza adds. “4-H really helps connect young people who otherwise might not think about higher education or the U of M campuses as part of their future.”



BEING ROOTED at 100 land grant universities like the U of M provides 4-H clubs with research-based curricula developed by subject matter experts. In addition, local 4-H youth benefit from more than 7,000 trained volunteers in Minnesota who share their knowledge and mentor youth.

Kids can lease animals or work with their own—whether that's raising and showing horses at competitions or doing agility training with dogs.

4-H has retained its popularity for decades for many reasons. It’s always been family-focused and for families with kids of varied ages, says Sharon Davis, animal science director and a U of M Extension educator in youth development. Animals have been an enduring 4-H staple; kids can discover ways to connect with and learn about them in 11 categories. In 2023, nearly 15,000 youth completed animal-related projects ranging from goats, swine, and poultry to rabbits and llamas. And not having an animal is no impediment: Kids can lease animals or work with their own—whether that’s raising and showing horses at competitions or doing agility training with dogs.

Newer on the scene in the past 10 to 15 years is the llama-alpaca program, which is popular because the animals are so engaging, Davis says. Participants have myriad options for study, such as learning about the animals’ fiber production and careers related to that; doing obstacle course competitions, or even creating costumes for them—a hugely popular State Fair event.

“Animal science projects build transferrable skills for kids, such as leadership, mentoring, teamwork, decision-making when evaluating their animals, and defending their decisions when they show [them in competition],” Davis says. “Employers look for people with a great work ethic, and the kids are learning that with these projects, as well as responsibility and attention to detail.”

Brian McNeill is another U of M Extension professor and educator in youth development. A plant scientist, he regularly surveys kids to see what they are most interested in and creates research-based programs to suit. That led him to develop projects like a sunflower-growing contest and an online group called Science Sprouts that recently grew kidney beans in the dark as a project. McNeill also points to increasing interest in STEM projects and competitions like engineering design and robotics.

What is extension?

In 1914, Congress created the Cooperative Extension System to connect the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100-plus land grant universities, and 3,000 county offices nationwide.

At the U of M, Extension works to make a difference in the state by connecting rural, suburban, urban, and tribal community needs with University resources.

Extension is in every county in Minnesota and regional offices are strategically located across the state.

In addition, 65 percent of Extension faculty and staff work in greater Minnesota. More than 35,000 trained volunteers participate in Extension activities, and over 1,700 partnerships foster work with key audiences and diverse communities.

Extension research and education helps improve crop yields, animal health, farm productivity, and water conservation across Minnesota's 67,100 farms, as well as promoting responsible lawn and garden practices, creating healthier families, protecting natural resources, and supporting community leadership, economic development, and tourism.

Sheryl Meshke, president and CEO of Associated Milk Producers, Inc., in New Ulm, Minnesota, says the skills she gained through 4-H prepared her for a career in agribusiness. She joined 4-H in third grade with a sheep project. 4-H has been lifelong for her—including collegiate 4-H, serving as a collegiate regional director, and now volunteering as a local leader for nearly four decades.

“4-H offers a laboratory for life. As a youth, you really learn by doing and leading and lending a hand,” says Meshke, whose two sons also participated in 4-H. “Now as an adult 4-H leader, I really see how that allows members to realize their potential through real-life events. When I look at our local communities, so many of the leaders are former 4-Hers. I am passionate about what 4-H does for individuals.”

Skuza concurs. “4-H was designed to reach youth with research-based education and help position them as change agents in their communities,” she says. “It was a way to provide citizens the most updated information, including on agriculture and other subjects. Land grant institutions like the University are meant to reach all people in Minnesota and the 4-H program helped accelerate that.”


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