Youth in Agriculture, Past and Present

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As we prepare for Farm-City Week coming the later part of November, it is interesting to take a look back at how youth have historically been involved in agriculture through the 4-H program and how 4-H is still positively impacting the future’s of young people in our community today.

In North Carolina, early agricultural clubs began as a way to teach young people hands-on skills and to meet the economic needs of farmers. Since 1906, the North Carolina Farmers’ Institute had offered prizes to boys for corn production. Prizes were awarded to boys who worked the hardest to increase crop yields. The corn clubs began in North Carolina in July of 1909 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed a cooperative demonstration agreement with North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later N.C. State University). These clubs were based upon the idea of farm demonstration work, and they promoted record keeping on costs and productivity as a way to increase crop yield. Another purpose of these clubs was to take abstract lessons from the classroom and adapt them to practical use on the farm. In part, these clubs would form the basis of what later became 4-H.

The first official corn club in the state was organized in Hertford County in 1909. Boys worked an acre of land, using scientific methods to increase their yields. Some of these fledgling farmers successfully tripled and quadrupled the amount of corn typically grown by their parents. The boys’ work helped encourage agricultural innovation and promoted the practice of utilizing research based farming methods throughout the South, as they demonstrated the potential for greater yields. As the program became more successful and the yields continued to increase, adult farmers even began to demand seed corn from the boys clubs! Eventually clubs were established to promote production of a variety of crops and livestock, including tomatoes, calves, poultry, eggs, and pigs. The boys were so successful that they were able to use the extra money they had earned from their crop to help buy school supplies and other necessities.

Girls saw the success and fun boys were having in these corn clubs and wanted the chance to earn some extra money and get involved a project of their own. They needed to buy books and supplies for school, furnishings for the home, and clothes for themselves. In 1910 in South Carolina a tomato-growing program commenced where girls could work a tenth of an acre, and make a profit by selling their produce. The tomatoes could be sold fresh or canned, giving girls another educational opportunity in which to participate. In 1911, Jane S. McKimmon was hired to start the first tomato clubs in North Carolina for girls interested in home economics. This was the beginning of the state’s Home Demonstration program.

Much like the society we live in today, 4-H and agriculture have changed a great deal from the days of the small family farm, corn clubs, and tomato growing programs we knew in the early 1900’s. Today, agriculture and agri-business including food, fiber and forestry account for over one sixth of the state’s income and employees. This means the agricultural industry combines to create the largest driver of North Carolina’s economy, contributing over $84 billion to our state each year.

What has not changed is the importance of agriculture and agricultural based education programs in our schools and community. The 4-H program, with strong roots in agrarian values and work ethic, continues to help young people develop valuable life skills that will help them be successful in whatever field they choose in life. Through instilling skills like leadership, teamwork, public speaking, citizenship, and the value of community service in our young people, they will be prepared to tackle all of the challenges that a continually changing world might bring.

As we celebrate Farm-City Week at the end of this month, it is important for us to keep in mind the value agriculture and agri-business still holds for our state’s economy and the importance of ensuring the next generation understands just how important agriculture is to our county, state, nation, and world.

Our annual Farm-City Week Banquet is Monday, November 21, 2016 at the McSwain Center. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at the Lee County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Bill Stone is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.