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Research on 4H

So my 12-year-old hero from Central Maine has been in 4H, because he would, and besides, I need him to, for the plot.  Having grown up in NYC a long time ago, I know not from 4H.  I mean, I've been to county fairs and seen children standing proudly beside their goats and calves and prize-winning carrots and canned beans, but that's not knowing anything.

The internet has proven less than useful in this instance.  It will tell me all about 4H programs and how wonderful they are for character-building, but I can't find anything telling me how it works.  On the other hand, I now have a firm theoretical knowledge of how to milk goats and the best winter bedding for my (fictional) pig.

Anybody out there willing to help me out with the 4H?  What I need is a quick primer on how involved my character might reasonably be with it, given his age and his economic situation (very poor).  If the fact that his uncle (who is a mechanic and lives in a town) wouldn't pay for any extracurriculars even if he could afford them means Nick (my hero's name is Nick) wouldn't have been part of 4H, I need to know that, too.  If you can help, leave a comment, and we'll find a way to move this to email, or even a phone call, because I don't need much, I just need enough so I can write a paragraph without sounding like the total urban ignoramus that I actually am.

Bless you in advance.  Even if nobody knows what I need, just formulating it like this has already helped.


Oct. 9th, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
My husband John (his old livejournal account) grew up poor in rural western Washington state and was in two different 4H chapters. He says that 4H chapters really vary depending on whether they're in a town (more mixed projects- art, canning, babysitting, baking, sewing) or rural (the main thing is animals (market and show), anything else is a side project). As a 12 year old, Nick could be either in a mixed-project 4H club or in a more animal-dominated one. Counties tend to have trends as to which animals are most popular for club chapters, because local farms' conditions and expertise tend to cluster for specific animals by region. So you might want to call up central Maine 4H to find what animals are most common there. Horse/equestrian chapters are usually separate from the market/livestock animal chapters. (There are also cat/dog chapters.) In a market animal chapter there could be kids doing projects on a number of different market animals (sheep, goats, rabbits, poultry, pigs). FFA (Future Farmers of America, professional farm preparation) handled most of the kids with cows in John's community, to the point of a monopoly on cattle.

It's possible but somewhat unlikely that a 12 year old would run projects for two different animal types at the same time, so you probably want Nick in 4H raising either the pig or the goat (switching animals from year to year happens, but it tends to be a matter of taking too much time to split efforts). But another factor is that if a kid wants to have a chance to compete at the state fair level, they have to have an animal left over after the auction at the county fair. A common solution was to take two animals to the fair (2 sheep, for example), get what ribbons they could with both, sell only one at auction(usually to local grocery stores who sent reps to the fair auction), and then to take the remaining animal to the state fair if the kid qualifies at the county fair.

Another aspect to consider is the fair week itself. Kids living far from the fairgrounds still had to be there around dawn and until late evening to feed/water and clean up after the animals, and so many would camp at the fairgrounds the whole week. In a sense, the entire 4H experience runs around the annual fair schedule, because that's where all the work and prep pays off in competition, ribbons and profit (for market animals, the goal is of course to turn a profit at auction from the 1-2 years of raising the animal, depending on animal type). As for goats vs. pigs, pigs could be for show or market or both, but John doesn't think goats were eligible for auction (goats are for milk or angora wool, but most grocery stores don't want to buy goat meat), just for show, which changes the dynamics of the project and fair experience a lot between the two animals.

Where John was, there were no fees for 4H, just the costs involved in doing the project- raising the animal - and they had to do fundraisers (bake sales, etc). Except for horse chapters, most animal chapters are market chapters- the goal is to make money when you sell the animal at the fair, and then to win ribbons in show. If you want to chat more about what it was like to be in 4H without a real barn- cobbled together fencing, learn-as-you-go animal raising (as opposed to being from a farm family), John's your man. Most of his 4H experience was sheep & goat projects, but his family also kept horses, chickens and rabbits, and briefly tried with a cow and pigs. I wasn't in 4H but I did grow up in Maine if you want stories of Maine fairs (I cringe now to think of the contests that involved kids catching pigs!).

A couple of social issues that might be useful for story- in 4H (in both John's experience and where I lived in southern Maine, in the 80s-early 90s) clubs were dominated by girls, about 3 or 4:1 (Boy Scout attrition, John thinks). We don't know how much that varies regionally. Also, in John's experience, 4H chapters were easily dominated by one or few families- it makes inter-family politics and insider/outsider dynamics pretty common (grownups were usually the biggest problem).

If we can help any more give us a shout: oneman at justoneman dot net and swingjan at hotmail

Edited at 2012-10-09 07:15 pm (UTC)

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