Lessons Learned from 4-H

Above: The Hayward Union High School Future Farmers of America at Hayward High in May 1947  (Photo No. 79.033.1862 courtesy of Hayward Area Historical Society) 

Above: The Hayward Union High School Future Farmers of America at Hayward High in May 1947
(Photo No. 79.033.1862 courtesy of Hayward Area Historical Society)


Early in the school year, hundreds of teenage runners and their families descend upon Hayward High School for the annual Farmers Invitational Cross Country races, an event that has come to be known simply as “Farmers.” Some attendees might know that “Farmers” are the Hayward High School mascot. Fewer still may realize that the school, one of the oldest in the San Francisco area, was founded in 1892 when most area residents earned their living farming tomatoes, peaches, and cherries to supply the vibrant canning industry that was fueling the local economy.

In its early days, Hayward Union High School, with its emblem of a farmer in a straw hat and overalls behind a plow, had extensive gardens and orchards on its campus and active chapters of Future Farmers of America and the 4-H Club. A short video on the school’s website describes students riding horses to school and tying them up to hitching posts as late as the 1960s. Today, the canneries are gone, there’s almost no farmland nearby, and Hayward High School has dozens of student clubs but no 4-H or Future Farmers of America, at least according to the 2014–15 club list on their website. Nobody rides a horse to school.

Hayward isn’t unusual. Throughout the United States, farmland is being sold off to make way for new homes and malls. Farmers are retiring and young people aren’t keen to take up farming as a profession. It’s hard to get the money, land, and affordable health care required to start a farm. For those who manage, it can be hard labor with razor-thin profit margins. As we lose local farms and small farmers, people don’t stop eating. The work of farming and agriculture gets taken up by large agribusiness. We get fed, but we lose our community connection to the people who grow and produce our food, as well as our understanding of and appreciation for how food is produced.

Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever  by Kiera Butler UC Press, 2014  Click here to read an excerpt.

Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids
and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever by Kiera Butler
UC Press, 2014
Read excerpt here.

“It’s easy to bemoan the state of American ignorance about farming,” begins Kiera Butler in her new book, Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever. “But how do we change it?” Butler, an award-winning writer on environmental issues and senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, also an Oakland resident, examines the potential for 4-H, an organization with a long history of providing agricultural youth education, to bring that change not just within the U.S., but also abroad. She also raises provocative and important questions about the organization’s role in education and its ties with agribusiness.

4-H certainly has the ability to reach kids. According to Butler, who delved deeply into many resources while writing her book, 4-H is one of the largest youth development organizations in the world, if not the largest. She follows the experience of several teenage 4-H members from diverse backgrounds, mostly in Northern and Central California, who raise livestock for show. An engaging and often amusing storyteller, Butler is also a careful and thoughtful journalist. Interwoven with the stories are historical details about 4-H, together with facts and statistics regarding farming and agricultural practices in the U.S. The 4-H teens profiled in Butler’s book raise goats and other animals in the Oakland hills, Pleasant Hill, Martinez, Castro Valley, and further afield in Salinas Valley. Butler concedes that most of these kids have backgrounds and home lives that are quite different from their counterparts in 4-H clubs in more rural areas. (Roughly half of 4-H membership today is comprised of kids from farming and ranching families.)

Most people associate 4-H with farming, agriculture, and wholesome, freckled adolescents and their blue-ribboned pigs at county fairs. But 4-H, which according to the organization’s website stands for “head, heart, hands, health,” has always had the broader objective of teaching kids through various hands-on learning projects. “Learn by doing” is their slogan. According to the mission statement, “4-H empowers youth to reach their full potential, working and learning in partnership with caring adults.”

In Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the 4-H program is administered by the University of California. Butler notes that most clubs outside rural areas in the U.S. focus on projects that aren’t directly related to agriculture. California’s local clubs appear to offer a mix of activities, with projects related to robotics, rocketry, computer programming, ham radio operation, automotive maintenance, filmmaking, and urban gardening, as well as farming and livestock.

But despite not having explicit agricultural objectives, the program definitely has support, including financial, from the agriculture industry. Butler explains that 4-H, a federal government program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began in the early 1900s as a network of agriculture clubs for the children of farmers. Researchers at the land-grant universities, more than 100 U.S. schools that receive federal grant money to teach agriculture, science, and engineering, found that while adults were resistant to adopting new agricultural practices, products, and technologies, children were not. 4-H programs were directed at children, but intended, at least in part, to influence adults. Butler quotes a 4-H chief marketing officer as saying, “Of course 4-H has always been about science and technology. Young people convincing their families to change the way they operate their farms to produce more food. It has been science in action from the very beginning.”

According to Butler, “4-H leaders have figured out that science education and agricultural literacy go hand in hand. The organization is deeply involved not only with the science of growing crops and raising animals but also with the business of farming.” Specifically, one concludes from the book, the business of 4-H’s large corporate sponsors. From its earliest days, 4-H has relied upon support from business. Altria, Bekaert, Lockheed Martin, Cargill, ConAgra Foods, Coca-Cola Foundation, DuPont, Monsanto, Motorola, Tractor Supply Co., and Walmart are among the companies I found currently listed as partners and sponsors on the 4-H website.

Many of these program sponsors produce or sell supplies for raising animals and crops like feed, seeds, pesticides, fungicides, growth hormones, medications, and equipment. Butler points out a section on the 4-H website on “AgriScience,” which provides curricular resources. I took a look at the materials, developed with the United Soybean Board, and found they are designed “to cultivate the emerging study of biotechnology and business/economics in the agriculture industry through hands-on experiential learning activities and online learning courses for youth.”

DuPont, Butler notes, has been hiring a thousand new employees annually and plans to continue the trend. She quotes Michelle Gowdy, director of community and academic relations at DuPont and president of the Pioneer Hi-Bred Foundation, who remarks, “With United States science education stuck in the doldrums, where will those employees come from? We need more people interested in careers in agriscience.” By investing in science, technology, engineering, and math (referred to as “STEM”) through 4-H, the partnering corporations seek to ensure the availability of a skilled workforce upon which they can draw.

Some of the 4-H members Butler profiles are attracted to the organization because of its business orientation. “I want to be in the corporations,” says one club member who lives with his farming parents in the Salinas Valley. His parents support his goals, and hope that 4-H will prepare their children for careers beyond the Salinas Valley and the farming life they know.

A result of corporate sponsorship, observes Butler, is that “the firms’ perspective and input shapes what 4-H’ers learn about science and agriculture: They hear a lot about the benefits of industrial farming and biotechnology—and little about the environmental and social consequences.” Indeed, there’s little mention of environmental stewardship, ecological sustainability, or organic practices in farming and ranching with regard to the kids’ activities profiled in the book, except to say that it adds considerable expense to raising animals and farming.

A fascinating chapter titled “We Are Praying That DuPont Will Continue to Provide for Us” describes the author’s visit to a 4-H club in rural Ghana. 4-H is active in more than 50 countries around the world. Many international chapters have existed since before World War II. Most of the club members at Ghana’s Ehiamankyene School come from subsistence farming families. As part of 4-H, they learn new farming techniques and are given free seeds to try, like a maize seed called Pioneer® produced by DuPont.

The students watch their parents’ crops, seeded with their local obantanpa maize, struggle. But the Pioneer® seeded gardens planted by 4-H thrive. The parents are persuaded to try out the Pioneer seed with great success, and are desperate for more, but can’t afford them. The seed is a hybrid which will only produce for a season or two. Seeds cannot be saved and replanted. The only way to grow more is to purchase more seed. Which leads Butler to ask, “How can young farmers learn to be self-sufficient if they’re told they need to rely on American companies season after season? I can’t help but wonder whether DuPont’s main objective is less about helping farmers than about finding more customers.”

Butler speculates that the kids in the U.S. she follows aren’t likely to become farmers or ranchers. Indeed, one senses their involvement with animals and farming is probably the sort of youthful personal development pursuit, like ballet, tennis lessons, or Junior Rangers, which might be abandoned after high school. But even if they don’t become full-time farmers, the time spent in 4-H will certainly teach the students something about farming, livestock, and the business of agriculture, lessons which could inform their careers and other choices in life.

“Wherever I looked, I saw evidence that 4-H has succeeded in interesting American students in science—and specifically agriculture—where our school system has largely failed,” Butler observes. Insofar as funding from agribusiness and other corporate sponsors supports and underwrites these efforts, one might conclude that these entities are stepping in to serve a demand for youth training and education, especially in science and technology, in much the same way they’re stepping in to supply food and farming products to serve growing demand around the world.

The Hayward High School website has a tab and associated Facebook page, with a short description of Green Academy, a student group focused on environmental science and alternative energy. The group also maintains the school’s Garden and Ecology Center and grows organic produce. I contacted a handful of teachers and administrators at the school to learn more about the Green Academy, school clubs, and their math and science curriculum. No one responded.

Winter  planting at Hayward Community Gardens

Winter planting at Hayward Community Gardens


The glory days of agriculture haven’t disappeared completely in Hayward. Thirty-five farmers set up at the farmers’ market every Saturday in City Hall Plaza offering reasonable-to-low prices for produce, much of which is organic. Across town on Whitman Street, low-income and apartment dwellers work more than 200 plots on a little over five acres at Hayward Community Gardens. (See “Community Gardening” in the Summer 2011 issue). Locals love the Cannery Café in the Hayward Area Historical Society complex, where Debbie Pfisterer and Elizabeth Fazzio cook up breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch using ingredients sourced from the local farmers and markets. Stop in for their Meyer Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with Fresh Berry Compote and Cannery Hash or the Really Slow Cooked Marin Sun Farms Brisket with Caramelized Onions, Horseradish Schmear and Organic House-Made Potato Chips before you explore Hayward’s agrarian past through the Historical Society’s exhibits.


There are 23 local 4-H clubs operating within Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Each local club has its own leadership and offers different programs and opportunities. Many have their own websites. Find the Alameda County clubs at ucanr.edu/sites/alamedacounty4h/
4-H_Club_Contacts/ and Contra Costa County clubs at ucanr.edu/sites/contracosta4h/4-H_Clubs.