4-H began as a simultaneous response to needs throughout the country, rather than as the idea of one individual. The goal of the program was to extend agricultural education to rural youth by organizing boys and girls clubs and through “learning by doing.”
The roots of 4-H began at the turn of the century when progressive educators started to emphasize the needs of young people and to introduce nature study as a basis for a better agricultural education. Boys and girls clubs and leagues were established in schools and churches to meet these needs. To spark the interest of young people, Farmers Institutes cooperated with school superintendents by promoting production contests, soil tests and plant identification.
By March 1904, several boys and girls clubs had already exhibited projects. Most states organized clubs outside the schools with rural parents acting as volunteer leaders and County Extension agents provided materials. Farmers saw the practical benefits and public support and enthusiasm for 4-H grew throughout the nation.
Ties to Formal Education and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The Morrill Act of 1862 provided federal lands to establish land-grant colleges and universities. In 1890, colleges and universities for black citizens were established in the southern region to insure that all people were served. The state land-grant universities and the Cooperative Extension Service of the USDA maintained close contact with the development of 4-H.
The land-grant institutions recommended organizing a distinct administrative division in each land-grant institution to direct the many Cooperative Extension activities that were developing. By 1912, virtually all of the land-grant institutions in the southern states had signed cooperative agreements with the USDA and had organized Extension departments.
Extension work with African-Americans began in Florida in 1915 and was headquartered at Florida A&M University (FAMU). As was common in the southern United States at that time, 4-H work was segregated. About 1,250 boys and girls were enrolled in farm makers clubs and home makers clubs in 1917 in Alachua, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Marion, and Washington counties. By 1920, African-American 4-H club work had expanded to 18 counties. The program for men and boys was expanded to include corn clubs, potato clubs, pig clubs, and savings clubs. For the girls there were canning clubs, poultry clubs, improvement clubs, dairy clubs, sanitation clubs, and savings clubs.
Formal Establishment of 4-H
Congressional appropriations to the state land-grant institutions began in 1912 for development of early Extension work within the states. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension System within the USDA, the state land-grant universities and the counties. Since the early legislation Congress has continued to support 4-H.
Through the years, the overall objective of 4-H has remained the same: the development of youth as individuals and as responsible and productive citizens. 4-H serves youth through a variety of methods:
- organized clubs
- 4-H special interest or short term groups
- 4-H school enrichment programs
- 4-H instructional TV
- 4-H camping
- 4-H activities
- 4-H centers or
- as individual members.
Interested in more history? Read The History of 4-H in Florida.