By Craig W. Anderson

Among the 15 4-H clubs currently thriving in San Joaquin County there is a feeling of renewal, of a future rich with promise, and those holding the reins eager to guide 4-H into new realms of agricultural adventure in the coming years.

"4-H here is starting to get on an upswing along with the economy," said Jennifer Dondero, president of the county's plethora of 4-H clubs and a Linden resident who runs a local business. "This allows mom and dad to participate a great deal more and that's always good for this organization."

California's diversity as a state is driving the 4-H clubs to match the socio-economic mix of the area's population demographic. "It's challenging to find a way to encourage everyone to be a part of the 4-H experience," Dondero said. "But this co-ed after-school program will be able to do it."

Many areas of interest

The areas of interest to youth interested in exploring are varied, different pathways focusing on different realms, essentially STEM oriented: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In the eight programming areas there is much to encourage the fun, hands-on learning style used by 4-H. They are: large animal science, small animal science, equine science and companion and service animals, STEM, creative and healthy living, citizenship and community service, outdoor activities and camp, and primary and new members.

"The demand for creative programs which allow children to explore and develop technology skills is booming and will only get stronger," said Emma M. Fete, PhD., the county's 4-H youth development advisor. "The San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest agricultural industries in the United States, but traditional education is still slow to adapt and provide the groundwork for the next generation to take part in it."

Enjoyment in 4-H The sole object of the program is to demonstrate to kids from 9 to 19 that there is something for them to enjoy in the 4-H realm. And Dondero appears to be the perfect fit to get the leadership job done, according to past three-term President Molly Watkins, also from Linden. "We're excited to have her. She'll be able to keep the organization going."

Watkins pointed out that 4-H

membership is up across the county and Youth Advisor Emma Fete, Ph.D. from Ohio has had a hand in it. "Emma's from the Midwest and there's definitely a difference between the Midwest 4-H and what is now working successfully here," Watkins said. "However, the basic reasons for the upsurge interest in 4-H may be the same."

"The partnership between the San Joaquin Farm Bureau and the San Joaquin 4-H program is a great opportunity for both organizations, but also opens the door for future projects," Fete said. "It creates innovative programming opportunities for kids in the San Joaquin area."

Parents important and kids want to learn

Watkins said we're not only seeing the next wave of kids but "also the next wave of parents who want their youngsters to learn practical skills and, it turns out, kids are eager to learn and participate in sewing, welding, raising animals and all the other myriad activities of 4-H."

"We've seen a great response from traditional 4-Hers and parents, but we've also seen kids who are outside our established membership signing up for these programs as well," Fete said. "That's exactly what both Farm Bureau and 4-H are hoping for: providing relevant and creative opportunities for kids of all backgrounds and interests to explore agricultural technology." 

4-H interest soaring 

This renewed or revived interest in what 4-H has to offer has spread throughout the county with clubs in Alpine-Victor, Banta, Calla, Escalon, French  Camp, Jefferson, Linden-Peters, Live Oak, New Jerusalem, North Stockton, Oak View, Ripon, Roberts Union, Tokay Colony and Farmington.

"Farmington's the new jewel in our group of jewels," Watkins remarked. "The club had been dormant for nearly a decade and as the interest in 4-H began to climb, it became evident that Farmington's citizenry was likewise very interested in supporting a 4-H club again."

The rejuvenated Farmington group is small but, like the majority of the county's clubs, it's excited to be in existence and functioning as a stalwart member of a now-thriving organization.

Funded and supported by the University of California Cooperative Extension the San Joaquin County 4-H receives valuable and high-powered support from the San Joaquin Farm Bureau, which provides scholarships and other financial assistance. 

More countywide projects

This has encouraged more countywide projects wherein in project leaders choose to open their project to all current San Joaquin 4-H members instead of restricting it to members of their community club. The 2017-2018 projects included Hi-4-H, a high school program for teens that offers educational opportunities to members throughout the county; Leadership Development and Shooting Sports where participants can choose from rifle, shotgun and archery disciplines with safety and responsibility emphasized.

Who runs the organization

All of this comes under the purvey of the 4-H County Council, the guiding body for the 4-H Club Program, with an executive board and two youth representatives. There are also a number of key leaders who are available to mentor 4-H'ers in many areas: Advisors who work with 4-H'ers in five different areas; Event chairs who coordinate with the county 4-H staff to plan, advertise and implement county-level events; AgFest representatives, the liaisons between AgFest, and the 4-H program and Barn chairs who help members who're showing animals at AgFest.

The mix of afterschool and camp programs and star ranks, awards and scholarships seems to be drawing more kids in the 9 to 19 age range to 4-H along with their parents.

With these programs ongoing, Fete and her compatriots in the office – Ariel Clay (4-H program representative) and Michelle Drummond (4-H secretary and 4-H administrative veteran of many years) are a very busy trio. "Emma's doing well," Dondero said. "California, with its quirks and new culture, can be challenging for a Midwesterner."

What still needs work

"What we have to work on," she added, "is retention after the eighth grade. It definitely IS possible to do both 4-H and FFA and to develop both 4-H and FFA accolades to acquire scholarships. The upswing in interest is bringing back High 4-H and it's been discovered that what's learned in 4-H can be used with FFA and vice-versa. The difference between FFA and 4-H is that FFA is primarily in the classroom while 4-H activities are after school."

Record sales at AgFest

4-H is thriving, said Watkins. "4-H had record sales of animals being shown at AgFest this year and AgFest remains in Stockton because the Fairgrounds is an adequate venue. We also did horticulture and flowers for AgFest. It was a very popular program and should be even larger next year."

She added, "The SJFB Foundation has also partnered with 4-H and will hold three weeks of summer day camps in July."

With 15 clubs ranging from Farmington's resurrected version boasting 10 members and Escalon's being "really large," according to Watkins, it's apparent that the county's 4-H program's staff, volunteers and members are in it for the long haul and that's a good thing.