Celebrating 100 years of 4-H


4-H Club member Savannah Banner, 8, shares some affection with her Dutch bunny, Thumper, one of many animals the Banner family cares for as part of their involvement in the 4-H program, shown at home in Micanopy on Thursday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 11:34 p.m.

In 1909, when the 4-H program was introduced in Florida, three counties stepped up to let students figure out how to increase corn production.

The findings of the experiments were used to assist the state's corn producers with their growing techniques while giving the boys in Alachua, Bradford and Marion counties needed job skills in basic farming.

Today the program, initially open only to boys, has evolved to become coed and boasts a statewide membership of 234,000 in addition to approximately 10,000 adult volunteers.

As did their counterparts a century ago, 4-Hers today learn practical and leadership skills through hands-on experiments in agriculture and related fields to enhance the livelihood of their families and communities.

Marilyn Norman, Florida 4-H state leader, said events throughout the year will focus on increasing awareness of the program.

The state group plans later this year to have a historical marker in honor of 4-H placed at the University of Florida, which had its own collegiate 4-H club.

Norman said the individual counties will coordinate their own centennial celebrations throughout the year.

Events are planned for this Thursday through Feb. 16 during the Florida State Fair in Tampa to kick off a yearlong, statewide centennial celebration.

In addition, a 208-page history book of 4-H in Florida is now on sale, with proceeds going to the 4-H Foundation.

"We would love to hear people's stories and have copies of their photographs and they can post those on the 4-H centennial Web site," Norman said.

In November, the statewide group is also planning to host a Legacy Ball in Jacksonville to bring 4-H alumni together for a reunion.

As for the next 100 years: Norman said the mission includes everything from animals, career preparation, computers and performing arts, but agriculture, horticulture, family and consumer science and livestock remain key.

Also important is instilling a strong sense of citizenship.

Matt Benge, who has been on the job about two months as Alachua County 4-H extension agent, said the centennial anniversary will be marked during upcoming district events in the spring and during the summer camp season.

"Once the youth fair is complete in March then we will have more focus on the centennial," he said.

More than 2,700 students are part of the Alachua County program, which is made up of 17 clubs and involves three after-school programs, a youth fair, FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) and summer camps.

Toots and Ronda Banner lead the Micanopy Friendship 4-H club, in which their three daughters are members. Ronda Banner describes herself as a "4-H lifer," who first became involved with 4-H at age 8 following in the footsteps of her parents, who also grew up involved in the program.

"Now it's very cool to see my kids involved," she said.

The Banners' daughters, Tiffany, 16, Tori, 13, and Savannah, 8, will enter several categories of the upcoming youth fair.

Tiffany, in 4-H for seven years, is now a veteran working with livestock. Her current steer is Ziggy and she is boarding a friend's steer for the fair.

"When I first got involved in 4-H, I did not know what to expect," Tiffany said. "But it was a good way to meet other kids and I've learned a lot."

Tori pipes in that working with the animal projects means learning to be responsible, "because you have to get up early each morning to feed them and take care of them."

She also works with goats, rabbits and chickens, and she enjoys sewing and public speaking. Tori is also a teen leader for projects like ATV safety.

And not to be left behind, Savannah also has a rabbit, a chicken and a goat she will show in the fair along with a sewing and garden exhibit.

Banner remembers being involved with horse events in 4-H and her father - Edgar Ott, a retired UF professor - said he worked with steers growing up in the program.

"Then my wife and I spent 10 years as volunteers when my children were involved," Ott said. "Now it's amazing to see what all they do in 4-H."

Banner, who is a local veterinarian dentist, works with 4-H members in a variety of areas including sport shooting. He said it's been rewarding over the years to see 4-Hers evolve, "to see the light go on when they get it."

On average, 250 Bradford County students - members of about 20 different clubs - participate in 4-H each year. Debbie Nistler, county 4-H agent, said the county program is a traditional one with livestock, food and nutrition programs.

"4-H is a big part of our community with a strong family involvement," Nistler said.

Bradford County 4-Hers will sponsor one of the 18 holes during a golf tournament at the state kickoff in February that will allow them to promote their activities. The county youth fair in mid-March will provide an opportunity to showcase the local history of 4-H.

A luncheon to welcome back alumni is scheduled for April. And there's talk of a joint event with Alachua and Marion counties.

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