Growing Up in 4-H

Brooke Russell of Russell Gorge Farm, Tunbridge, with her Holstein

Written By

Elizabeth Ferry

Written on

September 01 , 2008

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
And my health to better living,
For my club, my community, my country, and my world.
—4-H pledge

There’s often a special quality about kids who grow up on farms. It has to do with capability, and having an ease or familiarity with so many aspects of life, from caring for young animals to tending large ones, from having mechanical skills to engaging in improvisational problem-solving.

For more than 100 years, young people in 4-H have pledged to contribute with skill and thoughtfulness to the world around them. That tradition continues—and is evolving—in Vermont, where there are several 4-H clubs in every county of the state, and where 4-H leaders are providing learning opportunities for young people both on and off the farm.

Hands, Hearts, Heads, and Health

4-H is a national enrichment program for young people ages 8 to 18. Around the country, local clubs teach specific skills intended to give young people four types of experiences that, organizers believe, contribute to positive youth development: mastery, belonging, independence, and generosity. Developing these skills is what it means to grow up in 4-H.

The organization began forming in the late 1890s to address young people’s need for better agricultural education. Yet today, farm and livestock work is only one way that 4-H offers hands-on learning and experimentation to children. Clubs cover an array of other topics under the broad categories of Healthy Living, Citizenship, and Science, Engineering, and Technology.

“It isn’t just cows and corn,” says Wendy Sorrell, Vermont State 4-H livestock educator. “These days, you can see PowerPoint presentations on sheep, as well as sheep themselves.”

The agricultural programs are developed cooperatively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Cooperative Extensions at land grant universities (such as the University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire, and Cornell University); and local volunteers. The idea, Sorrell says, is “to give kids basic information and enough room to come up with their own way of doing something. It’s learning-by-doing, then reflecting on how each step contributed positively or negatively to the process. ‘What decisions did I make along the way? How did I contribute to the group?’”

Sorrell herself grew up in 4-H in Grand Isle, in a club that focused “pretty much on dairy.” She has worked as a 4-H educator since 2000 and reports “an ebb and flow of what’s popular. There’s been a huge surge of interest in sheep. But the most popular now are horse clubs.”

Steered Right

Horses may be popular, but one of the more unusual 4-H clubs in Vermont teaches children to work with steers (neutered male cattle younger than four years of age).

The Green Mountain Teamsters is run by Terri Chamberlin and her father, Neil Lamson. They have been 4-H club leaders since 1992, and share with young people a skill that’s been carried on by their family for as long as there have been Lamsons in Pomfret.

Before the advent of tractors in Vermont, working steer and oxen were used for heavy work on the farm: plowing fields in spring, haying in summer, logging in the winter, and sugaring in late winter. Today, kids may become interested in working steers by seeing them at a fair or reading about them in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or maybe their family has an old farm with an ox yoke hanging somewhere. (A working steer becomes an ox at age 4.)

Children soon find that working with steers takes a lot of dedication—from the club member and on the part of his or her family. Many members don’t live on farms; the steers are often the only livestock in the family, so to speak. And, Lamson points out, it’s not just one animal that must be looked after, it’s a pair. Part of the challenge for a club member is figuring out how to shelter, feed, and train his or her team, in addition to transporting them to club meetings. (New England is the only region in the United States to have 4-H clubs with these draft animals.)

Lamson and Chamberlin teach all aspects of handling steers. In the winter months, their club members learn to make equipment such as a grain scoop, a whip, and a yoke, and prepare signs that they will use at 4-H demonstrations at local fairs. As warm weather comes they start to train the animals to five commands: ‘come up’ to start, ‘whoa’ to stop, ‘gee’ to turn right, ‘haw’ to turn left, and ‘back.’

Clubs compete at qualifying events held throughout the summer with an eye on attending the Eastern States Exposition, commonly known as The Big E, in Springfield, MA, in September. Outside of 4-H, the children sometimes compete against adults in “open class” competitions or parade their animals at July 4th events or local Old Home Days gatherings.

“Cattle are herd animals,” Lamson explains. “They are very comfortable following one another.” Building on that instinct, a child who is a driver must take on the role of “lead cow.” It takes patience, presence, concentration, and responsibility for one person to be in charge of the movements of two additional animals whose weight and strength is several times that of the driver!

Yet it all adds up to one. “When you go into the show ring,” Chamberlain says, “it’s three of you who are one team.”

A Teamster in Training

Currently, the Green Mountain Teamsters have three members, and Brooke Russell, 14, is one of them.

Brooke lives on a dairy farm and had a familiarity with cattle before she started working with steers through 4-H at age 12. She considered joining a club with a focus on horses, but chose steer on the encouragement of a trusted schoolteacher.

In her first year as a Teamster, Brooke trained a pair of Jersey steers that she borrowed from a neighbor. She had the heady experience of competing in an open class competition—and placed second after Chamberlin.

“One of the best things,” Chamberlin says about being a 4-H leader, “is to be in the show ring and watch your kids beat you.” She pauses, judging whether the next words will seem too self-complimentary. “It’s the mark of a good teacher.”

In March 2008, Brooke bought a pair of Holsteins and trains with them every day. “They are my little babies,” she says as tenderly as a mother. “They are so cute, even though they are growing.” She isn’t daunted by their size. “If you work with them every day, you get used to how fast they grow.”

Taking steers into the ring at various fairs is clearly Brooke’s favorite part of the 4-H experience. The animals are judged on three criteria: cleanliness, their ability to pull a cart, and pulling 50 percent of their weight. The biggest challenge, Brooke says, “is keeping them clean. They have white legs. I use Head and Shoulders shampoo on them, and Quic Silver [a product that brightens the whites in an animal’s coat].”

Brooke even made a yoke for her team. Poplar (or popple) is best for calves, she explains, because it’s light enough for them to carry. The bows are made of hickory because the wood can readily be shaped. She made a five-inch yoke in her club—“five-inch means that there are five inches between the bows”—but by the time of the Tunbridge Fair in mid-September, the calves will have outgrown it. For that event, and for The Big E if she qualifies, she will borrow a 6-inch yoke from her club leaders.

Brooke appreciates the personal attention that she gets in 4-H, noting that “school doesn’t have as many people to work with you.” All club members—not just the leaders—work cooperatively and help each other out, fulfilling the 4-H motto “to make the best better.”

We live in changing times. Perhaps the life skills learned through 4-H, and the specific skills of working with steers, will gain greater recognition in the future. Positive youth development and a greater understanding of farming among young people can only contribute to a positive future for us all.

For more information about 4-H in Vermont, call Sarah Kleinman, state 4-H coordinator, at 800-571-0668, or go towww.uvm.edu/%7Euvmext/programs/4h/default.php.

Photo of Brooke Russell of Russell Gorge Farm, Tunbridge, with her Holstein steer by Elizabeth Ferry © 2008

About the Author

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer in South Royalton who values local and sustainable agriculture. Her photographs and articles can be viewed on her website. The Food Works root cellar is named in honor of her parents, Ronald and the late Sylvia Ferry, for their support of the organization over many years.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

What we do

Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.