Though it’s hard to know exactly where Montana’s cow-to-computer ratio stands these days, one thing’s for sure: The computers are gaining ground.
Given that scenario, it would be tempting to think that the traditional youth group 4-H is losing ground, particularly in Montana’s more urbanized counties.
But instead, 4-H—with its century-old mission to nurture young heads, hearts, hands and health—is gaining new members and exploring new territory as it evolves alongside Montana’s landscapes and communities. Besides nurturing young ranchers, 4-H is now cultivating young robotics engineers, skateboarders, website designers, cowboy poets and bicycle mechanics.
Kirk Astroth, statewide director of 4-H, says 2005 saw more than 2,000 new members join 4-H clubs, an increase of about 20 percent over the year before. The increase in Montana membership, also reflected on the local Missoula County level, stands out nationally, where membership numbers stand at around 6 million but are more static, Astroth says.
“Our program, without trying to sound like I’m bragging, is unique in how much growth we’re experiencing,” Astroth says. “I think the thing that’s keeping us relevant to kids and families today is we keep changing the program to adapt to kids and families.”
In Bozeman, young skaters pegged as hoodlums and kicked out of neighborhood parks and off city sidewalks found their way to 4-H and ended up helping craft a skateboarding curriculum for an official 4-H skateboarding project that several clubs around the state have since picked up. They then expanded into other related projects like woodworking, Astroth says, and built skate ramps.
A 4-H “club” is a group of at least one adult and five kids that focus on members’ particular interests through projects in subjects like knitting, dog training or hog raising. Missoula County has 24 different clubs and 440 members ranging from ages 6 to 19, says Lisa Mills, the Montana State University extension agent who coordinates Missoula’s 4-H groups. Kids officially run the clubs through parliamentary style leadership, and all clubs perform regular community service as part of their mission.
Jerry Marks, the director of the Missoula County Extension Office who has been involved with 4-H leadership since 1969, says the group that’s always been known for its ties to rural farm life finds itself serving more urban kids as families own less land and dedicate less room and time to raising cows or horses. That’s why, for instance, “Pocket Pets”—a project in which kids raise ferrets, snakes, mice or frogs—is one of the state’s faster-growing 4-H projects.
Marks remembers a time when Missoula was home to more than 800 4-H-ers, double today’s membership. Those numbers dropped substantially in the ’90s before beginning the upward trend seen today.
Mills says much of the recent growth in Missoula 4-H revolves around technology projects like Web development or robotics—Astroth tells of a boy near Great Falls who programmed a robot to “clean” his room by pushing everything out of sight—or other projects that similarly buck the 4-H stereotype. A Foods of the Pacific Northwest project that explores foods and recipes from our region mirrors recent attention paid to local farming and farmers’ markets in Missoula, Mills says. Same with the new 4-H cowboy poetry project, wherein kids read cowboy poets from around the state, write their own poems and are encouraged to perform them.
Still, Mills says, raising livestock remains the most popular and well-known aspect of 4-H, and more kids each year are raising cows, sheep, hogs and horses under the 4-H umbrella.
The 4-H scene at this year’s Western Montana Fair makes that much clear.
This year, for the first time, a white picket fence rings off a portion of the fairgrounds to create a small 4-H universe in the northwest corner called the Country Fair. A cherry-red 1950s tractor flanked by hay bales and planters potted with bright blooms sits at the entrance. Everything past this point—including pony rides—is free and tends toward educational demonstrations like goat milking and wool making. On Aug. 7, a day before the fair opens, family members of all ages gather around animals of all sizes, helping them settle into new quarters for the week.
Last year, widespread frustration over cramped quarters led to a complete reevaluation of 4-H’s place at the fairgrounds, Mills says.
“We’ve had to fit into smaller and smaller places, all while we’ve been growing,” she says. “A lot of people were none too happy about the lower prioritization of agriculture.”
This year’s Country Fair is roomy and free from commercial displays in a deliberate effort to recall more traditional rural fairs.
The contrast between the Country Fair’s swarms of young kids lovingly tending their creatures and the hot tub displays, beer gardens, bright lights and betting games found throughout the rest of the fairgrounds perhaps reflects the fractured focus of 4-H itself.
While dozens of kids like Kathryn Davis, who’s 9 and wearing a bright red cowboy hat while she brushes her goat, hang around eager to chat about their various 4-H projects, the small display barn for other 4-H projects—outside the Country Fair—is full of moms arranging scores of leather purses, cuckoo clocks and chocolate cake. What’s on display here are individual efforts, not the show of community cohesion that the animal barns seem designed to set off.
It’s clear that though 4-H may be branching out to meet the changing needs and interests of kids, the annual fair is still the time and place for 4-H’s agricultural heritage to shine. And Mills says the new Country Fair is a sign of 4-H emphasizing—not shifting away from—the rural life.
“4-H is alive and well and now we’ve established a place to celebrate that,” she says.