At 100, evolving 4-H isa State Fair institution

By Gregg Aamot

Associated Press

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -- Matt Joyer hatched his Rhode Island Reds in January, fed and watered them and kept the foxes away as they grew into chickens worthy of display at the State Fair.

Nothing unusual about that. But the 14-year-old, a 4-Her for eight years, raised his birds not on a sprawling farm in rural Minnesota but on the 40 acres his parents own in Lino Lakes, a half-hour drive north of the fairgrounds.

"It's more than a hobby farm. My dad is a real estate agent, but my mom sells what we grow -- pickles, pumpkins, tomatoes, you name it," he said. "We're all involved in 4-H. That's what we do in the summer."


As 4-H celebrates its 100th year -- with a party Saturday at the fair -- the organization continues to evolve from its roots as an organization for farm kids. Many 4-Hers these days are like Matt: more suburban than rural, environmentally conscious, less tied to agriculture than to an interest in learning an array of skills.

The national organization set about broadening its appeal five years ago, and its enrollment grew modestly to about 6.8 million in 2000 after dropping off in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. About 250,000 Minnesotans are involved in 4-H, according to Brad Rugg, superintendent of 4-H programming at the State Fair.

A nonprofit program administered by the U.S. Department of Health, 4-H was founded in 1902 to provide agricultural education for young people. It stands for Head, Heart, Hands and Health, a theme evident in murals of people working the land in the organization's football field-sized building at the fairgrounds.

But there's an eclectic feel to the displays. Besides Matt's chickens and the usual livestock exhibits, 4-Hers are showing off paintings and photographs, playing some rock-and-roll and demonstrating computer programs.

"When I was a kid, in the '60s and '70s, it was all about cows and cooking," said Rugg. "Today, it's really different from what it was. It's more than just clubs in every county."

The 7,000 4-Hers at this year's fair represent a mix of students from rural Minnesota and the suburbs.

"In marking the centennial this year, we're honoring four- and sometimes five-generation families who've been involved in 4-H, and we're finding a lot of those families in the metropolitan area," Rugg said.

Mary Joyer, Matt's mom and a club leader in Anoka County, said such a broad appeal is what the organization needs to survive.


At a kickoff event held Thursday, students sang and danced on a stage inside the 4-H complex. The drummer for many of the songs was 17-year-old Ross Ayoka, a senior-to-be at North High School in Minneapolis.

Ayoka said making music, part of a program called State Arts-In, is his favorite part of 4-H.

Said Mary Joyer: "There are so many things nowadays that pull at kids, with sports and everything. This kind of thing keeps them in."

For the fourth year, the students have set up a computer lab that they will use to display their work. One 4-Her created a computer program that can run a machine that carves plaques and engravings.

"This is the stuff I love -- working with kids and working with computers," said Nathan Schmitt, a University of Minnesota student overseeing the computer lab. "It's amazing how much the younger kids know about all of this."

Schmitt got involved in 4-H -- which is open to youth ages 5-19 -- when he was a student at Columbia Heights, a Minneapolis suburb.

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