Minnesota 4-H grows even in tough times
By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. - Karen Dvergsten reflected on the meaning of 4-H amid noisy sheep at the Minnesota State Fair.
It is more than the literal meaning of 4-H: head, heart, hands and health.
"It is very important for building a work ethic," the Roseau County woman said. It adds to a youth's self esteem.
And, the teacher from Greenbush said, "it's a hands-on education for the kids."
Added Brandon Waage, a 12-year-old Roseau County 4-H member: "It makes me more responsible."
It is hard to find bad words for 4-H at the State Fair, and in Minnesota, at least, the youth organization is growing in a changing atmosphere that affects most youth groups.
From the down economy to the proliferation of other activities young people can do, 4-H leaders say their organization is adapting and surviving.
"4-H, like all organizations, is trying to figure out how to adapt to changing circumstances," said the man who heads Minnesota's 4-H effort, Dale Blyth, director of the University of Minnesota's Extension Center for Youth Development.
"4-H is healthy," he added, offering as proof that state enrollment is up 25 percent in the past five years.
More than 130,000 Minnesotans took part in 4-H events last year and more than 32,000 belong to 4-H clubs.
But there are problems.
For one, some fear government funding may dry up.
Washington County commissioners pulled their 4-H funding, citing the need to cut $3.2 million in county spending. 4-H supporters there are half-way to their goal of raising $110,000 to keep the program operating for another year.
Blyth said a half-dozen counties are considering trimming their contributions.
"The wild card, if you will, in all of this is the decisions that all 87 county partners have to make," he said.
Cook and Ramsey counties withdrew financial support years ago.
With dwindling state money being sent to counties, commissioners across the state are deciding how to spend less. County contributions total 41 percent of cash used for 4-H programs around Minnesota.
State officials also are looking at ways to cut budgets, but there has been little talk that those funds will dry up.
"Part of the university's promise is that we will make 4-H opportunities available to young people everywhere in the state," Blyth said.
One of the most vocal watchers of taxpayers' money said 4-H is an appropriate place for some of it.
Former Rep. Phil Krinkie, now president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said he can see state money helping those who otherwise could not afford to be in 4-H.
However, Krinkie, whose daughter has won two 4-H State Fair canning blue ribbons, said suburbanites like himself can afford to pay higher dues to help keep 4-H running.
Blyth said there are no state membership fees, although the idea is being considered. County 4-H organizations and some clubs assess dues.
While many county fairs center on 4-H events, much of their money comes from other sources. And Blyth said that in these tough times, "the economic viability of fairs is going to be threatened in some cases, I would guess."
In Douglas County, the birthplace of Minnesota's 4-H movement, things look good, said Jodi Hintzen, university extension educator who oversees the county's 4-H program.
"We have been steady with our membership," Hintzen said. "We have increased some of our activities. We do some more after-school programs."
She credits the Douglas County success to volunteers who do much of the work.
The same is true statewide, Blyth said. If a dollar figure were be put on volunteers' time, he said, they would be worth $21 million, by far the biggest contribution of anyone.
Hintzen said so far, at least, she has not noticed any clubs cutting back because of the economy.
"At this point, our county government is still supporting us," she said. "We are continuing to work with them to maintain the partnership we have. ... We know their finances are changing."
For many, 4-H is vital, and not just for the traditional rural members.
"4-H and FFA make a person unique," offered Emily Scheuler of Raymond, a Princess Kay of the Milky Way finalist this year.
The program offers an avenue for youths, she added, "getting them out trying to do stuff that they haven't tried before."
Hintzen agreed with Dvergsten that 4-H is about education.
"4-H is a community of young people across America who are learning leadership citizenship and life skills" through projects, demonstrations and other 4-H activities, Hintzen said.
Added Dvergsten: "Some kids learn in the classroom, some learn hands on."