What 4-H teaches 7 million kids about food

A new book explores what the century-old organization looks like today.


In a new book, Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids & How Its Lessons Could Change Food & Farming Forever, Mother Jones senior editor Kiera Butler writes about the century-old organization that teaches kids—via local chapters across the country—how to raise livestock and grow food. While writing the book, she learned about the origins of 4-H, the agribusinesses funding much of its curricula today, and how agriculture education is changing. Butler has never participated in 4-H herself, but first became interested in the program when she wandered over to the livestock barn at the Alameda County Fair in Northern California, and saw “nine-year-old girls leading around giant, hulking cows and kicking ass in the showroom.” High Country News recently spoke with Butler about the book.

High Country News: Will you explain how 4-H was established and how land grant universities (institutions that received federal funds through the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890) played a role?   

Kiera Butler: 1902 or 1903 are the years that people trace it back to. People at land grant universities were developing new ways of farming, using specially branded seeds and tractors and industrializing. Farmers were wary of these new methods. So, as a way to reach the farmers and gain their trust, the universities started clubs for kids. They (would) encourage kids to grow two plots of corn — one plot with the old kind of seed and the another with selective breeding. The parents would see how well the kids’ plots were doing, and they would emulate those methods for themselves. It’s a very clever way of getting ag science into the general farming public.

HCN You write about how companies like Monsanto and DuPont play a role in shaping what 4-H kids are learning. Where’s the influence of these companies in 4-H today?

KB 4-H is housed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture but there’s a fundraising non-profit arm, the National 4-H Council, which, in the last five to 10 years, has stepped up is courting of corporate donors. So Monsanto, Cargill, DuPont and other big (agricultural) companies have contributed in various ways. It’s anything from DuPont-sponsored biotech curriculum, to volunteer programs where company employees might volunteer with a local 4-H chapter for a day.

Agendas of agribusinesses occasionally make their way into 4-H curriculum. In the biotech curriculum sponsored by DuPont, there are copious links back to the DuPont webpage. There’s one about chocolate milk because what makes your Nesquik dissolve into milk is soy lecithin — a product produced by DuPont.  So the lesson is like: “Learn about soy lecithin, and also, enjoy chocolate milk.” The influence is definitely there and pretty obvious.

HCN You spent a lot of time with 4-H families to research this book. Did they have opinions about these companies funding 4-H curricula?

KB What 4-H looks like depends on the community that a particular club (is in). It’s not like the National 4-H Council telling them exactly what they have to learn. There’s curricula that National 4-H Council publishes and people use them. But I think that probably if you looked at 4-H clubs where the hogs are raised in the middle of the country, you’d probably see different hog-raising practices than you’d see here in California.

HCN I’ve read that Wal-Mart is also a funder of 4-H curricula. Is that true, and if so, what impact does that have on the organization?

KB I’d have to check that, but I think they have funded 4-H in the past, if not currently. A lot of companies think of this as an investment in future employees. They see this massive youth development program promising to train a whole work force in science and tech skills. And if the companies can influence what seven million kids are learning, the values that they’re being taught, that’s an excellent opportunity from the company’s perspective.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. But if they’re learning about how great soy lecithin is and forming positive associations with this particular biotechnology, for better or for worse, they’re going to bring those values with them as they go through school and enter the workforce.

HCN In the book, you discuss sustainability, and you quote a 4-Her saying that, “No one is willing to admit that the fundamental purpose in teaching kids to raise animals, and to produce animals for market and a sustainable community, got lost somewhere.” Will you explain this?

KB In order to achieve what some people have described as “Arnold Schwarzenegger pigs,” there’s a lot of pressure for these kids to use things like ractopamine, and other feed additives that have hilarious names like Sumo and Explode. First of all, it can be bad for the animals’ health. But also, the meat doesn’t taste very good. So, I think that Sally was saying in that quote that the original goal of making an animal that tastes good and is responsibly raised has been lost in this contest to make the biggest, prettiest pig.

HCN Has that followed what’s going on in mainstream America in terms of growing foods for size and transportability, but without much flavor?

KB In some ways, judging trends for livestock shows follow culinary trends. It used to be that judges were looking for pigs that were all muscle and had very little fat, which was back in the ‘90s low fat craze era. But now that bacon is having this incredible moment, judges favor pigs that have big bellies.

HCN How will 4-H look in the future; what’s changing for the organization?

KB I see in California a lot more interest in sustainable livestock raising. I’ve heard so many people express the desire to have a (new) category at fair, with organically raised or consumer satisfaction in mind. There’s also a big push to do a lot of science, technology, engineering and math; making robots or learning about GPS.

And the international stuff is also interesting. (4-H is now becoming widespread in Ghana.) It remains to be seen whether these 4-H clubs will really take off in Africa in a big way. Agriculture in general in Africa is changing so fast, so it will be interesting got see whether 4-H shapes it the way it shaped agriculture here in the United States. 


Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. She tweets @taywiles. Photographs of California 4-Hers by Rafael Roy. 

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