You may be surprised to know that the Minnesota 4-H program is bigger today than just a few years ago.

It’s expected to keep on growing as more and more youth tune into agriculture, food production, protecting the environment and renewable energy issues.

“Our membership is right at 31,000 today,” said Brad Rugg, Minnesota 4-H program director and superintendent of the State Fair 4-H program.

Interviewed at the big white 4-H Building at the State Fair, Rugg reported membership increases of 8 percent, 6 percent and 8 percent during the past three years. Within the ranks, about 55 percent of that total membership is still rural-based, although non-farm youth (urban based) are rapidly increasing statewide.

Rugg said the 4-H program is in gradual change, even from year to year.

“You need a program that is contemporary, meaning tuned in to what’s the current culture of youth. But you also need to keep focused on what got us to where we are today. Those good animal science projects, which were the backbone of so many 4-H clubs, are still strong. So those staple projects built around aerospace, cows and cooking are sort of the core curriculum and you build from there.”

There are some surprises. Enrollment in 4-H swine projects has gone up over the past six to seven years while the number of hog-producing farms has gone down substantially.

It’s much the same scenarios for 4-H dairy projects, Rugg said, indicating only a modest decline in 4-H projects even with a substantial decline in Minnesota dairy farm numbers.

“So 4-H has done a pretty good job of maintaining interest and enrollment in our livestock industry,” he said.

Rugg sees 4-H as an outstanding program recognized as one of the top 10 youth programs in the world. The revamping of the Minnesota Extension Service into regional programs temporarily challenged the logistics of county 4-H programs. But today every county has 4-H with several counties running eight to 10 4-H clubs, and volunteer adults continue to mentor each club.

“Kids make 4-H what it is today. But adult volunteers make it possible for everyone, myself included,” said Rugg.

“The variety of species has expanded considerably. Today, for example, horse projects are big statewide, yet horse projects were just being introduced when I was in 4-H (Mower County) in the early ’50s. Today the horse project is our largest animal science project,” he said.

Perhaps not surprising is that dog projects are the next largest in animal science.

Beef, dairy and sheep are next in popularity but new and rapidly growing are market goat projects and llama projects with a three-day 4-H llama show added to this year’s State Fair agenda.

You don’t have to be rural to do animal science projects.

“We’ve opened it up to what we call a lease program for animal breeding projects. In essence, a 4-H’er can lease an animal from a livestock farmer, keep that animal right on the same farm and take care of it as though it was his/her own animal. Then take it to the county fair and perhaps qualify for State Fair competition. It’s a new ballgame for non-farm 4-H’ers.”

There are more girls than boys in the state 4-H program; about a 60-40 split today. But during the State Fair in the 4-H livestock shows, boys predominate with about 52 percent participation.

Is the Minnesota State Fair pretty much the culmination of a successful 4-H year? Rugg thinks so because in Minnesota, differing from other neighboring states, 4-H projects that come to State Fair must first qualify by being a winning entrant at their local county fair.

“So you don’t walk into a livestock barn and find a 4-H exhibitor with three steers, four lambs and six barrows. In Minnesota it’s one kid with one project,” he said.

“Compared with other State Fairs that I visit, and often judge at, youth involvement at our Minnesota State Fair 4-H program is rather phenomenal,” said Rugg. “We’ll have over 6,300 kids at the State Fair this year. There are other State Fairs with more livestock in their junior shows because one kid could bring in several animals. But you won’t find a State Fair anywhere with the number of kids that we run through the system.”

A billboard in the 4-H Building simply reads: “Our 4-H Project? Growing Kids.”

“That’s really what the 4-H program is all about,” Rugg said.

Who can join?

A few years back Minnesota switched to a “grade-level” system so when you start the third grade in school, you can also enroll in 4-H and stay a 4-H’er through grade 13 (first year of college). There is also a collegiate 4-H program but adult leadership is not included.

The biggest challenge for Rugg as superintendent of the Minnesota State Fair 4-H program is that “it’s a business that needs to be run like a business. So we like to run at full capacity. We need to pay our bills including all our food and dormitory room costs, plus premium payments, building rents, etc. I’ve got a $600,000 budget to run the 4-H Building so it’s important to keep the dorms full and good food in the cafeteria. So for a 4-H’er to come to the State Fair, stay in the 4-H dormitory for the three-day, three-night livestock show weekend it’s going to cost $120 to $130,” Rugg said.

Send that same kid to a wrestling camp or a football camp and it’s going to cost a whole lot more than three to four days showing their achievements at the State Fair, Rugg said.

Because 4-H controls the number of beds and the number of livestock stalls needed, Rugg said they have a good fix on attendance and participation. “So there’s very little variation from year to year. Plus or minus 1 percent is where I want to be.”

He indicated 2008 has been a good 4-H year, despite the heat and humidity of the first two days of the fair. “If you’re not ready a week before that first day of the fair, you’re never going to get ready. And that fits with 4-H’ers bringing themselves and their projects to the fair also,” Rugg said.

Where do you put all the 4-H’ers?

The 4-H Hilton, as the upstairs two floors of the 4-H Building are called, has bed space for 1,000 4-H’ers, 500 on the girls floor, 500 on the boys floor. However, on the 4-H livestock show weekend, they rent about 700 additional bed spaces in Bailey Hall on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus with the balance sleeping in the open class livestock barns where their animals are housed. About 2,300 4-H’ers participate in this weekend event.

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