Four-H started out as an instrument for change and after 100 years the youth organization continues to adapt to meet the needs of a capricious but dynamic society.

In 1902 the Cooperative Research, Education and Extension Service, then an agency of the USDA Research, Economics and Education mission, created the youth program to take new agriculture technology and home economics education to farms and rural communities, through the youth.

The organization has maintained that charge for a century, providing rural and later urban youth with experience that teaches life skills. But 4-H also has evolved, changed as technology changed and as communications capabilities brought more efficient ways to reach young people.

Tomato and corn clubs have morphed into opportunities to learn how to create Web sites, protect the environment, and discover the rewards of community service.

Plenty of projects continue for youngsters interested in agriculture. Many have earned scholarships and spending money through livestock projects. And agronomy, cooking and sewing skills remain basic to the program.

But 4-H now offers shooting sports, environmental awareness and master angler programs. It reaches at-risk youth in inner cities and suburban youth unaware of where food originates. Public schools use 4-H materials to teach agricultural literacy and life skills.

Charles Cox, state 4-H program leader for Oklahoma, says staying viable in the 21st Century demands a balance between retaining the proven formula of hands-on learning and taking advantage of new technology to reach youth during the most challenging years of their lives.

“We're actually going back to our roots in Oklahoma,” Cox says, “placing more emphasis on strengthening local clubs and providing more instruction in core competency areas for our adult volunteer leaders.”

He says school enrichment programs, which reach thousands of youngsters with short-term projects and classroom instruction, “have skyrocketed. But individual club membership has decreased.

“Kids have a lot of competition for their time, but research shows that involvement with caring adults over an extended period provides the best results. We're helping leaders with education and support, getting back to the basics of 4-H.”

At the same time, Cox says, the organization will continue to expand program offerings. “We recognize that the audience has changed. We're looking at youth technology teams and finding creative ways for members to make presentations.

“We'll continue to do the agricultural projects, but shooting sports, environmental education, equine programs and other new offerings are growing.”

Cox says enrollment in the state tops 175,000, including school enrichment programs. Local club membership is about 40,000.

Crucial challenges for 4-H in the new century include funding and competition for time, for both youth and adult volunteers.

“Funding, with any organization, poses constant challenges,” Cox says.

He also suggests that the Extension Service will look for new ways to deliver programs to 4-H members.

“County education specialists work their regular 40 hours a week, plus a lot of evenings and weekends. The family has changed and parents and youngsters can't come by the Extension office during business hours. We'll provide more information through the Internet and may rearrange schedules to meet client needs.”

Cox says young people have more opportunities to participate in more activities than at any time in history. “They need the freedom to choose activities, but we also need to provide programs that help them make good decisions.”

He says with the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age, the pool of knowledgeable volunteers deepens. “Many have a lot to contribute,” he says.

New Mexico also contemplates a step backward to improve participation. “We want to get 4-H back into the schools,” says state specialist Darlene Dickson. “Before New Mexico was a state, 4-H meetings took place in the schools, and in some states it's still that way.”

She says 4-H members, in the state conservations they held during the winter, expressed a desire to move the program into schools. “They contend that 4-H ideals are good for all kids,” Dickson says. “Many schools have eliminated home economics classes and 4-H could fill some of that gap.”

Dickson says removing the home economics curriculum comes at an inappropriate time. “Consumer debt is high and child abuse and neglect are critical concerns. Unfortunately, no course exists anymore to teach youngsters about being parents and running a household.”

“As we maintain our rural program, we're also reaching into urban areas with 4-H,” says Michael Schertz, Extension 4-H agent in Denton County, Texas.

Part of that effort includes a “Texans Building Character” program. “It's built on six pillars,” Schertz says, “respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, fairness and citizenship. This may not be a miracle cure, but we want to create an awareness of the importance of character. The program will start in the early grades.”

He says a new offering, Junior Master Anglers, may help, “get them off the couch and away from video games and outside. The program will feature fishing day camps with volunteer, Master Angler, instructors.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com