My mother was in 4-H for many years in her small Hopkins, Missouri farm town. It was only natural when we came of the right age that we would end up also in 4-H. However, it was not in the same town on the Iowa line this time. It was a urban setting in my hometown.
For those of you that do not know, 4-H is basically a hybrid between Boy Scouts and Future Farmers of America. Most people in the program are like my mother was, living in a small town in America. In Missouri, the minority of the clubs are found in the cities.
4‑H is delivered by Cooperative Extension—a community of more than 100 public universities across the nation that provides experiences where young people learn by doing. Kids complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and citizenship, in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles. Kids experience 4‑H in every county and parish in the country—through in-school and after-school programs, school and community clubs and 4‑H camps.
It all started in Ohio with a guy named A.B. Graham that started what he called “the Tomato club.” In the same year, a man named T.A. Erickson started an after school program. By 1912, they have come together, developed the modern concept of 4-H and it was born.
Growing up in Missouri 4-H
As a young boy, my family use to go to the Missouri State Fair every year as a gift from a friend who owned a local grocery store. One of the things that my mother loved (and still does) is going through the 4-H building and seeing the best items that Missouri’s youth made themselves.
It was here that she wanted to get her children involved in the program. She contacted the extension office in our county and to our surprise, we actually knew the 4-H Director from when he was mayor of a small town outside the city.
For the next ten years, I would spend Tuesday evening (when I did not have sports stopping me) at 4-H meetings serving as a club President, county council President, and ultimately serving on the Missouri 4-H youth council for two years. I was also a fixture at state wide events like Missouri 4-H Congress in Columbia, Missouri.
I can not tell you how many purple ribbons that I received over that decade. I would guess that it was about two dozens. I do know I took something to the State Fair in Seledia for all of the ten years. There is blue, red and white ribbons in contests. I do not ever remember receiving a white ribbon.
I did different projects through the years but my main ones was Forestry, photography and wood working. These are the things that form much of what I use today at Last Kodiak.
#2 in America for 4-H Forestry
It started with a friend needing someone to make a forestry team to compete at the state level in Columbia. My mother told them that I could probably do it because it was just a lot of memorization. In the matter of about two weeks, I had to learn how to know what a tree was by its’ leaf and its’ bark; what diseases do to what types of trees, how to measure a tree’s age, and how to run a compass. The good news is using the measuring stick is super easy and I had been using a compass in boy scouts for years at this point.
At the time, I was still in the junior contest (won it every year as a junior I might add) and it was fun making the trip to Columbia every June. I have some very good memories from those trips and still remember most of what I learned in 4-H forestry to this day.
When I was 14, I was the leader for the senior level contest and a trip to West Virginia to compete in the national 4-H Forestry Invitational. I had with me a kid that ended up at the Air Force Academy and a girl that saw the trip an opportunity to meet boys from around the nation more than a forestry contest. However, with the brains David had and the experince that I had, we did well. We did very well.
The final event in the Invitational is a forestry bowl. It is like Jeopardy where you have to hit the buzzer the quickest and answer the question. Everyone from the state was expecting me to lead them to a decent place and we would enjoy the trip home happy.
The problem was we advance in the bowl and then we advanced again. We even advanced again. Ultimately, we was heading into the national finals that would determine the Championship for the year. This was the best that Missouri had ever done and I was #3 in the history of Missouri for individual scores at the national level.
There was me, the genius David and the girl that was not really that useful against the defending Forestry champions from Future Farmers of America out of Alabama. They prepare for a whole year for this tournament and Missouri had prepared for about a month.
David and I had to bring out “A game” to stand a chance against them. I was studying everything all over again. David was trying to idenify everything by using the scientific name. (I was not on that guy’s level nor is most people). That evening it was the two of us with a girl sitting there vs the best in America.
In the end, we lost a close score and Alabama walked away as the national champions (as expected). However, it was the best Missouri 4-H had every done and probably the best they will ever do. I have some very fond memories of competing in the national 4-H Forestry Invitational.
Photography in 4-H
Probably the most useful skill I learned in Missouri 4-H was how to use my camera and basic photography Technics. I will say that it was basic but the leaders gave me the best advice they knew. They might not have been Joe McNally or Jared Polin but they sure did try.
It was here that I started with my first Nikon F3 film camera and I learned things like exposure, ISO, aperture, emotion and depth of field. I learned about how to hold a camera and how to make myself a human tripod. These lessons are things I still use today when I am shooting images for major photography contest.
When I was in 4-H, I took a picture to the Missouri State Fair every year for all 11 years that I was part of the program. I also send seven of them to the national contest in Washington D.C. over the years. It is amazing what I got out of that old Nikon SLR when I think back on it.
You could make the case that photography as an industry has changed. I understand that. The introduction of cheap DSLRs made everything go digital and it did change things. No questioning that.
In many ways, photography is a lot easier for people learning in 4-H programs today and websites like HDR School (shameless plug) make the learning curve much easier. However, all of that means nothing if we do not teach the basics of how to understand light.
I stand in support of the 4-H photography because it was here that I learned to the important fundamentals. It was the foundation that I would build on for many years to come. I did not start winning awards at major photography contest like WPPI. I started winning them at the Buchanan County 4-H Achievement days.
I really can’t drive this home enough of the importance of the 4-H projects and the skills that they give you long term. This morning when I shot an image, I was using the skills that some volunteer leader taught me without knowing I would still be shooting images some 25 years later.
Now, I give back to the young shutter bugs that are learning in the program but being a judge when I can for the achievement days. It is humbling and encouraging listening to young kids explain why they used the shutter speed they used and what they tried to edit and why they did it.
The main thing that I love about kids doing photography in 4-H is they are learning young. Most photographers do not get serious until they are older adults. They have lost dozens of years than these kids are not giving up. For them, they have found a platform to become amazing photographers much earlier than most of their counterparts.
I really hope they never try and axe the project from the 4-H program. Sadly, this has been talked about over the years.