This story has been updated with information from Pipestone County, Minnesota.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — One of the nation’s largest youth organizations is being celebrated during national 4-H week.

More than six million youth are involved in the 4-H program. That includes thousands across South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

“I think the thing we push and share with 4-H is that everyone can see themselves (in 4-H),” said Anna Rose, a 4-H educator in Nobles County, Minnesota. That can be a youth “who is part of a community club showing corn and sheep at the fair,” Rose said. “It can also look like an after school setting or day camp.”

“It can look different in each county,” said Beth Bunkers, the youth program specialist for the northwestern Iowa counties of Sioux, Lyon, O’Brien, Osceola, Plymouth and Cherokee.

A goat show participant in South Dakota. SDSU extension photo

There are about 32,000 youth participants in 4-H in South Dakota, said Tim Tanner, the South Dakota State University Extension State 4-H Program Director. Those youth are enrolled in traditional clubs or traditional participants in categories such as livestock and food or students in outreach programs at school, Tanner said. “We don’t distinguish between the two,” in terms of overall numbers, Tanner said.

In Pipestone County, Minnesota, interest in livestock projects continues to be strong, Brandi Schaap, the county’s 4-H extension educator said in an email to KELOLAND News.

The interest is not only “showing and caring for the live animal but also learning about animal science through project bowl and judging teams; sheep, dairy, and beef are the most highly participated in livestock project areas,” Schaap said Some of the general project areas that have a lot of interest include crafts & fine arts, Family & Consumer Sciences and Foods & Nutrition. 

Participation in the county fair through sharing livestock or exhibit projects such as photography or baking, is still a big part of 4-H, Tanner said. But youth interest is also expanding in other areas.

“Our largest growth program in recent years is shooting sports,” Tanner said. Participation has also increased in performing arts programs, he said.

Youth are also interested in preparing food in a kitchen to demonstrate their cooking skills, Tanner said.

“That’s not surprising given the popularity of food cooking shows seen on TV these days,” Tanner said.

Food and nutrition and fine arts are also popular general categories in Pipestone County, Schaap said.

Reaching youth with different interests, backgrounds

4-H has responded to changing youth interest but also needs in communities.

“We are just trying to find ways to serve youth, not just 4-H youth,” Bunkers said. Youth can be introduced to 4-H when the program offers services to all youth, she said.

The 4-H summer camps in the six county area are one example. The camps drew 1,600 youth this summer, Bunkers said. It’s been a way to serve youth and attract youth to 4-H, she said.

Many of those campers were not 4-H members but some joined after camp, Bunkers said.

Rose had a robotics program in Nobles County. “Forty percent had never been in 4-H,” she said.

The goal is for youth to get a quality educational experience, to make new friends and to hopefully, find out that 4-H has programs they will like, Rose said.

No matter how well 4-H is able to adapt, there are challenges.

“The biggest challenges the youth face is time…,” Tanner said. As youth get older, it can be difficult to balance 4-H with other activities, he said. South Dakota 4-H works with older youth to help them prioritize fewer projects instead of trying to do four, five or more projects for 4-H, he said.

Participants in a 4-H activity in Nobles County where they dissected flowers. Nobles County 4-H photo

4-H is also reaching out to more diverse communities.

Bunkers said the 4-H program in Sioux County recently had a soccer for success program that focused on the Hispanic community. Bilingual coaches and leaders led a packed auditorium to discuss the program. “Seventy-one kids were at the table where the (leaders) spoke their language, the parents could understand and the kids didn’t need to translate,” Bunkers said.

Sioux County 4-H pet show participant. Sioux County 4-H photo

Rose said its important that programs do not create barriers. She will start some programs at the middle school in Worthington. “We’re going to them,” Rose said of working with youth. That eliminates a barrier of parents needing to have their children transported to a site, she said.

“A way that we continue to make programs more accessible to youth is to be strategic in where and how programs are being offered,” Schaap said. “We need to meet youth where they’re at, many of our local programs are held in varying locations around the county to offer to more youth.”

4-H has programs for kids from kindergarten through second grade as a way to introduce them to 4-H. The programs are called Cloverbuds.

Pipestone County had 74 youth enrolled in Cloverbuds in 2022-2023, Schaap said.

In Nobles County, Cloverbuds meet once a month, Rose said. Other counties may operate the Cloverbuds program in after school programs, she said. The name can also change some by state. It’s Clover Kids in northwestern Iowa.

Bunkers used Lyon County, Iowa, as an example of how Clover Kids can bring youth to 4-H. “Lyon County’s Clover Kids ratio (retention ratio) into 4-H is 60%,” she said.

Learn and leadership

Providing youth the opportunity to lead with positions in their local club or on a 4-H council or as a state ambassador is important, Tanner said.

If youth have leadership opportunities, “we know that the young people are likely to come back to serve the community,” Tanner said.

Youth may be in leadership roles or learning about their specific projects, but there is other learning that happens.

South Dakota 4-H communications participant. SDSU extension photo

4-H projects teach and develop soft skills like learning how to talk to adults and how to present to others, Bunkers said.

Rose said she learned that there is a disconnect between the younger youth, those in kindergarten through second grade and the older 4-H members. She planned for 4-H clubs to help lead activities for those younger kids.

It will give the older 4-H members a chance to teach and lead. Rose gave the example of a sophomore-aged 4-H student who took on the responsibility for planning and organizing the activity the clubs would share with younger kids.

Still room for 4-H

The participation numbers indicate 4-H is still relevant to youth.

Tanner said the almost 32,000 participants in South Dakota is near the pre-COVID19 numbers.

The six-northwestern Iowa counties had an increase of 110 4-H members from last year, Bunkers said. “We’re pretty proud of that,” she said. There is about 1,340 4-H members in the six counties.

Lyon County, which borders South Dakota, has some of the highest retention rates as youth start to get older, she said. About 30% to 40% stay in 4-H until they become young adults, she said.

The Iowa 4-H Foundation said about 100,000 youth participate in 4-H each year.

Nobles County had 281 enrolled youth as of Sept. 30, Rose said. Pipestone County had 265 youth enrolled for 2022-2023. The University of Minnesota Extension said more than 40,000 youth are served by 4-H each year in the state.