Linda F. Benedict, Gautreaux, Craig
4-H, the nation’s largest youth organization, had a humble beginning in the corn fields of central Louisiana and was a part of the vision of agricultural pioneer, Seaman A. Knapp, credited with helping to engineer the beginnings of both 4-H and the Cooperative Extension Service.
Knapp was a firm believer in agriculture demonstration. He felt that if you could show proven farming methods, farmers would be more likely to adopt them. Knapp also believed that young people would be more accepting of new ways to grow crops. If he could get young people to use these new techniques and be successful, Knapp would have an easier time convincing their parents.
The foundation for today’s 4-H clubs can be traced back to Knapp’s corn clubs, the first of which was established in 1908 in Moreauville, La. V.L. Roy, school superintendent for Avoyelles Parish, is credited with starting the first club. According to the late C.J. Naquin, state 4-H leader from 1978-1989, more than 250 boys attended the first meeting.
By 1911, corn clubs were found across the state as well as cotton and pig clubs. Young women became involved in canning and sewing clubs. Knapp’s vision was being fulfilled.
This demonstration work with youth proved to the adults that this educational technique worked, which was the foundation of the establishment of the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914.
The following year, 1915, was a milestone for Louisiana 4-H – the development of 4-H Short Course, which has since evolved into 4-H University. The idea was to bring the youth together for a few days once a year for an educational experience on the LSU campus.
During its early years, the main purpose of Short Course was to interest young men and women in attending LSU and seeing what the campus had to offer along with some information on agriculture, according to Naquin. Gradually, more competitive events were added.
In 2013, more than 1,400 young people from across the state participated in 4-H University, also known as 4-H U. During the event, statewide officers are elected and winners of contests are announced.
4-H’s summer camping program began back in the early 1920s and was at one time at seven locations across the state. Today, Camp Grant Walker serves as host for the program. It is named after Rufus Walker, who was responsible for acquiring the land, and the parish that it resides in, Grant.
As society became more urban, leaders of 4-H realized that the club could no longer offer educational programming based solely on crop and livestock production or canning clubs. In fact, a majority of today’s members live in urban areas.
“It slowly evolved, and we added things such as photography, automotive and eventually dog care,” said Norma Roberts, state 4-H leader from 1989-1993, and the nation’s first female state 4-H leader.
One feature that remains the same but makes Louisiana 4-H unique is the role the organization plays in schools across the state. Many 4-H clubs hold their meetings in and during regular school hours. School systems recognize the educational value of 4-H.
According to Mark Tassin, associate vice chancellor for 4-H and youth programs, approximately 200,000 youth participate in 4-H programs across the state, and more than 42 percent of those participating are members of minority groups.
“We continue to be a national leader primarily because of our close association with schools and the diversity of our programming,” he said. The connection with our schools affords us the opportunity to reach youth who otherwise would not have that chance.”
Today’s 4-H is much different from the corn club meetings held in Avoyelles Parish. The organization has responded to a changing populace and has incorporated innovative technology such as computers and robotics. But one thing that remains the same is teaching today’s young people how to be responsible and productive citizens.
Craig Gautreaux is a communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article appeared in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Watch this 1:49-min video about 4-H beginnings in Louisiana. It's a clip from the video Agents of Change: The Story of Louisiana Cooperative Extension.