Lawmakers learn first-hand the value of 4-H programs

BROOKVILLE — Wednesday afternoon, the Penn State Cooperative Extension welcomed state Representatives Sam Smith and Dave Reed to the Jefferson County Fair.

The lawmakers received an up-close and personal look into what the Jefferson County 4-H program is all about.

“I think that generally, a lot of people don’t think about where things come from,” Smith said. “They think that food comes from the grocery store, and they think that electricity comes from the wall socket, and they don’t give it a lot of thought. That’s what’s great about our county fair system that we have in Pennsylvania. This helps tie the two communities together, the agriculture and the town.”

Reed agrees.

“Everybody gets caught up with the big grocery stores, and we forget where the food and the produce comes from, and the younger generation is going to have the responsibility in the future,” he said. “4-H does a great job of not only enhancing the farming community but building young leaders.”

Through the efforts of many individuals, including leaders of various 4-H clubs, Cooperative Extension employees and young members of 4-H clubs, Smith and Reed were invited — for one day — to take part in activities that 4-H members spend an entire year working on.

“We’re advocating for the 4-H program,” said Susan Alexander, Penn State Cooperative Extension educator.

This past spring, after Gov. Tom Corbett revealed his proposed 2011-12 budget, Jefferson County 4-H members Matt Snyder, Shane Johns, Kristin Harriger and Celeste Pearce visited the offices of local state reps, including Smith and Reed. Their goal was to show how important the 4-H program is to Pennsylvania.

Wednesday was a continuation of that visit.

According to Dr. Mary Jo Depp-Nestlerode, interim association director for the Penn State Cooperative Extension, 4-H is receiving a 19-percent cut at the state level.

“Today has been great because the legislators are getting a flavor of the different programs that we do,” she said. “They are getting good examples of what 4-H represents. We can always certainly talk about the programs, but today we get to demonstrate.”

Depp-Nestlerode said that the Cooperative Extensive receives three sources of appropriated funds: Federal, state and county commission community funds. Because of the 19-percent cut, she is afraid that some programming will have to be cut.

“We’re very thankful for what we have, and we’re focusing on the programming that we can do based on the funding that we still have,” she said.

But Alexander worries because she feels that there is a “disconnect,” that people are “unaware that the 4-H program is a part of Penn State University.”

“The 4-H program is a part of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, and the cuts that affect Penn State University has a trickle down effect,” she said. “It greatly affects our 4-H programs.”

Wednesday, she wanted to make it clear to the legislators that budgetary cuts will affect what programs are available to the 4-H members. Alexander always tells the 4-H kids that 4-H is their first class at PSU.

According to Alexander, due to the cuts, 86 people have taken early retirement, and there may be 75 to 80 additional positions to be cut from the College of Agricultural Sciences.

That’s why she believes it’s important for the young people to talk and share their stories.

Philip Kuntz, leader for Top Guns Riflery 4-H club, said that 4-H is a very productive way for kids to learn responsibility, life skills and ways to interact with different kids.

“Many times, I have teachers of middle-school aged children come up to me and say that they can tell which students are a part of 4-H and which are not, because those that are, are not afraid to get up and speak in front of people,” he said.

Public speaking is one of the requirements of 4-H. But it’s not the only skill that 4-H kids learn.

Depp-Nestlerode said that kids learn skills that are critical to everyday living.

“Kids learn how to show and judge dairy animals, and this is a skill they can take well into their adult life,” she said. “And that’s whether they go into the dairy industry or not, because it’s about being able to judge and make decisions and articulate why you made a certain decision. These are skills that the kids take well into their developed lives.”

Barron Hetherington, who works for the Department of Agriculture as a special adviser to Corbett, agrees with Depp-Nestlerode.

He said that 4-H creates the leaders of tomorrow and that fairs are a great celebration of rural Pennsylvania. The state is celebrating 114 fairs this year.

“4-H members are taught how to take care of animals, how to work, how to be responsible, and it’s something that a city-dweller doesn’t always understand,” he said.

Smith — who is also speaker of the state House — also believes that fairs play an important role in the lives of Pennsylvanians.

“It’s a tie between an educational component and agriculture,” he said. “And because agriculture is such a big industry in Pennsylvania, I think 4-H becomes a real positive tie to the family farm. It gives you a little appreciation for what rural kids deal with day-to-day.”

Wednesday, 4-H members showed Smith and Reed how to judge and show animals. Members of the Top Guns Riflery also demonstrated how to properly shoot a rifle.

“We just want people to realize how important 4-H is to society,” Harriger said.

Harriger, who has won grand champion for both market steer and pig, had the opportunity to show Smith and Reed how to properly judge sheep.

“4-H is an important part of the state, and our heritage and our past,” she said. “And we want to keep it going because I know that it’s a little threatened by the state’s budget cuts.”