Growing Great Kids | TSLN.com

Growing Great Kids

Victoria Myers

"I'd rather be around cattle than anything," says South Dakota's Dale Farley.

In a lot of ways Dale Farley is the typical teenager. He is a quiet, almost shy mix of one-word answers and hair that always seems to be in his eyes. He likes hanging out with friends, watching horror movies, text messaging, listening to his iPod and driving.

But there’s something different about this South Dakota teen. Something you’d never guess unless you asked him about cows.

Dale is a cattleman, pure and simple. He’s building his own top-notch herd of Herefords, and he spends a lot of his free time in a cattle barn. He begs his dad to let him miss school to go to cattle sales. It’s a passion that started with a heifer named Freddie and Dale’s 4-H club in Union County.

“My grandpa’s name was Dale too,” he says, when asked about his family’s history with 4-H. “He raised Herefords, and he won Grand Champion at the county fair here. I did too. So I felt pretty honored when that happened.”

Mom, Cynthia Farley, gushes a little bit when it comes to Dale and daughter Abbey’s successes in 4-H, as any mother would. She even calls Dale a “cow whisperer” because of the unusually close relationship he has with his show cattle.

She says both Dale and Abbey have been in 4-H since they were old enough to participate. And she shares the tradition, having shown hogs when she lived in California. So when Cynthia and husband, Dean, encouraged the kids to join 4-H, they knew what was to be gained by the experience.

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“Mostly I wanted them to have that experience of taking care of something, of being responsible, of nurturing,” Cynthia says. “We were already raising breeding stock here on the farm so it was easy to do that. And for Dale it’s been so natural.”

It’s also the first step toward what may be a lifetime as a cattleman. Dale’s goal is to build his herd and rely on income from that as he heads off to college. He hopes to have 15 head by then.

It’s a dream that started about six years ago, when Dale talked his parents into letting him take a loan to buy that first heifer–Freddie. He paid that loan off by selling her calves. He still has Freddie, and today he sells off every bull calf to buy more heifers.

This business plan requires recordkeeping and planning. And at 15 years old, it’s so second nature to Dale that he’s miles ahead of the average teen.

“We didn’t want Dale to have to struggle like we did,” says Cynthia. “We really think getting started early is going to pay off. He has the passion and the energy; we provide the support and the encouragement.”

Dale Farley’s story isn’t all that unique when you look at the “learn by doing” motto that has lit the way for 4-H for more than 100 years. The program has adjusted and refocused a few times, but the goal has always been to build up America’s youth. And today you can find hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by the head, the heart, the hands and the health of this classic organization.

These localized youth programs began as an offshoot of the Cooperative Extension’s system of land grant universities and colleges. Extension’s early task was to improve life in rural areas, and in the early 1900s that meant improving life on the farm.

While adults could be resistant to Extension’s new ideas and research, the youth were hungry for better ways to do things. So youth groups were established as a way to get new knowledge into the countryside.

A.B. Graham, a school principal in Ohio, is credited with clubs that laid the foundation for today’s 4-H. He started promoting vocational agriculture in clubs outside of school. These early groups included boys and girls, and had a system of officers, projects, meetings and recordkeeping.

Graham looked to the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station and Ohio State University for help with the clubs and their projects.

4-H changed how Americans farmed, and even how they ate. While boys were often involved in areas like ag science, girls learned how to preserve food using techniques like canning. There were the victory gardens of World War II, bond campaigns and civilian defense. If it impacted a county where 4-H worked, the group addressed it.

By the 1940s 4-H had reached 1.6 million members. More than 76% of those successfully completed their projects. Contests to reward the best of the best became common across the countryside.

In the 1950s and ’60s a demographic change began to alter how and where Americans lived. Instead of going home to milk the cows after school, many youth were living in cities. It could have been the death knell for an organization born out of the countryside.

Instead, it was seen as a new opportunity. Leaders in 4-H continued to expand, with an eye toward what youth in their areas needed. Special interest groups became one of the fastest growing areas of 4-H.

Wes Strange has been on the front lines of 4-H’s evolution since he was a kid. Today the Missourian is a leader in the organization and a 20-year veteran vo-ag teacher at Cameron High School.

“When I was growing up I used dogs as my projects,” says Wes. “Now I’m a sheep leader in Davies County. I think what’s made 4-H work all these years is the wide variety of things kids can choose to do. There’s really something for every kid.

“Each individual can find that special area they’re interested in and excel in it. It’s a safe place where kids get a chance to hone their talents.”

Not just a 4-H leader, Wes is a 4-H dad. He and daughter Maggie have spent a lot of time showing sheep over the years. Maggie was just 7 years old when she joined 4-H, and today at 17 she’s still working on projects. Her pride in her 4-H achievements is easy to see at home.

“Maggie has won a lot of awards over the years,” says Wes. “But the three things that still set in prominent view in our home are the first Pee Wee trophy she won, a showmanship trophy from the Clanton County Fair, and a plaque for Grand Champion at the Davies County Fair.”

These days it’s hard to catch Maggie. She’s planning for college, playing sports, working on a photography project–not to mention tending a 32-ewe herd.

She is one of two Knee High Club Reporters at the Davies County 4-H Club. Ask her about 4-H and she’ll tell you it’s taught her how to think on her toes.

“Like today, I pulled a lamb by myself before school,” she says. “It had to be done and I was here. I’m more experienced and I’ve learned I can handle things like that myself when they come up.”

This type of self-confidence is something many ­4-H participants and leaders tell you exists. But there’s more to it than anecdotal evidence. Real data has been collected to back up what 4-Hers have always known: There’s a lot more to this than ribbons and county fairs.

Mary Arnold is a 4-H youth development specialist at Oregon State University. She’s completed a detailed study on how 4-H affects kids. “We know it gives kids a place to belong and helps them develop a sense of self-confidence. It also provides them a sense of community, where everyone has a role to play.

“It’s about developing the 5 C’s–confidence, competence, connection, caring and character. But until now we didn’t have the research to measure these benefits,” says Arnold.

There were some surprises in the study. Arnold says they looked, for example, at market animals projects. They suspected one of the main motivators for kids in this project area was income from selling the animal.

“We’ve always thought animal marketing was about developing recordkeeping and financial management skills. But if you ask those kids what it’s about, they rate these areas low in importance compared to responsibility and cooperation.”

One area not directly measured by Arnold’s study is how 4-H involvement affects the youth’s family.

That’s something the Farleys feel strongly about.Cynthia says their family travels widely so Dale and Abbey can show cows. It’s this time together that creates a bond Cynthia feels helps them stay strong through those tough teenage years.

“I don’t really look at the financial cost,” she says. “The four of us together, that’s everything for me. It’s family time and friend time when we’re at a show. There’s a lot of bonding that goes on when you’re in a barn together all day.”

Dale says he especially looks forward to those shows.

“I’d rather be around cattle than anything,” he says. “It’s a good family project too. It makes you feel close to your family.”

That feeling of closeness doesn’t erase a mile-wide competitive streak between Dale and Abbey though.

“We’re pretty competitive,” admits Dale. That, his mom adds, is a big understatement.

But Dale insists he does support and root for Abbey.

“I’d say ‘good luck’ to her . . . unless we’re competing in the same class.”

Today only about 8% of 4-H members live on a farm. But because the organization has always been community-based, changes in projects and membership have simply evolved and reflected the world where 4-H finds itself.

President and chief executive officer of national 4-H Council Donald Floyd says the core of this organization is built around the belief that every kid is successful because they have a sense of mastery, belonging, independence and generosity.

“Research shows that when youth get the type of experiences 4-H provides, they are more resilient as teens and more successful as adults.” It’s a message Floyd wants to bring to more people over the next five years.

“Our goal is to double the number of youth in 4-H clubs,” he says. “We’re going to use a variety of resources–volunteer recruiting, web access, a new marketing plan–to reach that goal.”

Currently, Floyd says, 1.7 million of 4-H’s 6.5 million youth participate in 4-H clubs.

Development and growth will focus on projects in the areas of science engineering, technology, citizenship and healthy living, none of which is really new for 4-H. “Over 100 years ago we were all about ag science,” says Floyd. “Today we’re looking not only at ag science but GPS, GIS, forensics, water quality and environmental studies.”

In many cases 4-H projects are taking place in areas where there’s no knowledge of the way 4-H used to be.

“I can show you a place in lower Manhattan where a 4-H hydroponics lab is growing some of the best lettuce you’ll taste,” says Floyd.

“Simply put, we continue to be relevant because we adapt. We’ve served every county in the country for over 100 years. We’re not a one-size-fits-all group. We take big ideas and make them relevant for individual communities. That’s the key to our survival and our success, and to our future growth.”

It’s not hard to find individuals who believe 4-H has made a difference in their lives. There are highly successful people in all walks of life who can attest to the value of a 4-H project or the leadership qualities built from time in the organization. But in the case of 4-H there are more than stories, there are facts.

The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, an ongoing project, found that eighth-grade youth in 4-H programs are far more likely to be involved in their communities in positive ways. They volunteer, speak out against inequality, stand up to bullies and trust adults and friends more.

This study, led by Richard Lerner of Tufts University, shows that confidence and leadership skills are well developed in kids involved in 4-H.

In other research by Oregon State University’s Mary Arnold, 4-Hers who participated in animal science projects ranked life skills learned through the experience. Again, the numbers backed up what 4-H veterans have long known: This group is building leaders.

Just look at the top 10 life skills these kids say they learned: sportsmanship, responsibility, cooperation, time management, teamwork, decision making, planning, organization, problem solving and self-initiative.

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