Let 4-H Take Us Back To The Future
by LaVon Griffieon

Over the past hundred years 4-H has influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iowa youth. Jessie Field Shambaugh planted the seeds for 4-H when she formed Boys Corn and Girls Home Clubs, which met on alternate days after school at Goldenrod country school in Page County, Iowa. She promoted hands-on practical learning so that rural children could improve personal skills, agricultural practices and their quality of life. A by-product of that program was that parents learned new and better ways of doing things along with their children.

4-H has changed over the years. It’s not just for rural children any longer. However, it continues promoting practical learning that leads to a better quality of life. As I parent I can attest that the learning continues for all involved.

As the number of farms continues to fall in Iowa, (we lost 1500 last year alone) I often wonder what the county fair livestock contests are actually preparing my kids for. My husband and each of his siblings showed beef in 4-H and they raise beef on their farms today. But I have a suspicion that not all of my kids will be raising beef in ten years. Yet I feel that 4-H could have a hand in turning those falling farm numbers around.

Three years ago my son, Nick, took his hormone-free, antibiotic-free, pastured poultry to the fair. He was told the best way to place high in the class was to feed the chickens he was going to show at the fair a different feed with antibiotics and hormones. These additives were growth stimulants. Nick stated that he couldn’t make as much money if he fed the feed additives to his poultry. The judge agreed but repeated that if he wanted to win at the fair, he needed to consider the growth hormones.

4-H could serve Iowa well by educating rural and urban youth about community-based food systems. Iowans would benefit in learning about the interdependence between our rural and urban citizens. Having food grown in our state that is healthy for our bodies, families, farms, soils, water, environment and economy needs to emerge as a societal issue.

County fair boards have the option of adding specialty classes to their county fair. Special classes for animals raised without feed additives or hormones and garden produce that is grown naturally or organically would be a nice addition to county fair competitions. If the trend becomes common at the local level, more than likely it would be considered at a state level for a classification at the State Fair.

As consumers become more aware of the value of a community-based food system which sustains family farms, is environmentally sound, promotes health and is locally owned and controlled, they are going to be willing to pay the price necessary for the produce that comes from that system. Multi-national corporations and Wal-Mart, the largest grocer on the planet, will not be spending their money on fancy ad campaigns to tell the American consumer about the value of locally grown foods. It is going to be a grassroots effort, much like Jessie Shambaugh’s, that helps educate consumers about the value of a community-based food system.

Producers need to be the first to accept the facts. After years of increasing their acres to make a living, often at the expense of their smaller neighbors, many conventional farmers are convinced that you have to be big to be in farming. Yet a 1999 Farm Bureau report, Farming in the Heartland…A business in crisis, tells us that while personal income in the US increased 65% from 1989 to 1999, farm income decreased. Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have years of research proving that farms don’t have to be big to make money.

While the media and others tell us repeatedly the family farm is passe, a link to a bygone era with a romantic past that never existed, it’s time Iowans speak up and tell the media and policymakers the facts. Iowans spend $8 billion a year on food. Eighty percent of that food is brought in from out of state and travels between 1200-1800 miles to get here. Do the math and don’t forget to include all the benefits. If we had small farms producing fresh food locally the greater share of our money would stay here in Iowa. Consumers would know where their food is coming from and who produces it. Fresh produce is healthier for us. Iowans would have local food security. Small farms using sustainable practices are environmentally friendly. Small farms producing local foods do not require the financial overhead for expensive equipment that big farms require. This would enable more young people to get started in farming.

Sustainable agriculture can co-exist with conventional agriculture. This doesn’t have to be a we vs. them situation. Iowa’s rural communities are losing population and main street businesses are dwindling. The average age of farmers is 53.4 years. In the next 15 years we are going to see a mass exodus of independent farmers. If the face of Iowa’s rural communities is going to endure Iowa needs to have a plan to place more people on the land. Our window of opportunity to do this diminishes each day. Fifteen years from now, today’s beginning 4-H members will be completing college and looking for a career.

Let’s educate our young 4-Hers about the importance of community-based food systems. Let’s develop new fair classes for them to compete at county fairs across Iowa. As they improve their skills, agricultural practices and quality of life we will see Iowa take a step back to a method of agriculture that provides a sustainable future.

Editor’s Note: LaVon Griffieon lives on a farm near Ankeny, Iowa, and is co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa. LaVon is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national fellowship program designed to educate consumers, opinion leaders and policymakers on the challenges associated with sustaining family farms and food systems that are environmentally sound, health promoting and locally owned and controlled. The fellowship is funded through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.