Growing up in 4H
- Mardi Ford
Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing is certain in this world except for death and taxes. If Franklin were alive, well and living in Union County today, he might say nothing is certain but death, taxes and the longevity of a good 4-H Club.
Next week is National 4-H Week. Hundreds of thousands of club members and leaders across the country will be celebrating the rich tradition of a turn-of-the-20th-century youth program designed to teach and strengthen future generations' ties to the land.
Oregon's own 4-H program took root in the Willamette Valley in 1904 with a program known as the industrial club. Young members took on construction and livestock projects, later displaying their results at a special club fair.
In Union County, there is more than one 4-H club that can trace its roots back several generations. A prime example of the county program's viability and endurance is the Union Pitchfork 4-H Club.
Honour Bowen, at the county's Extension office, has written records for the Pitchfork Club that date back nearly half a century. Bowen says the club has averaged 15 to 25 members a year and consistently been one of the biggest livestock clubs in the county.
"Right now at least two different families have kids in the club that the parents were also in the club," she says.
Families like the Grahams from Union. Earl Graham and his daughter, Lory, are currently co-leaders of the Union Pitchforks. They were also members of the club Â— as was Lory's mom, Cheryl, her brother, David, and her three sons, Josh, Jordan and Calvin Stout.
4-H patriarch Earl Graham is now in his 60s. He was 11 when he joined the club in 1955. The leader at that time, he says, was a man by the name of M.C. Pyatt.
"I'm not sure who started the club or how long it had been around before I joined, but it was going before me," Earl says.
Earl even met his future wife, Cheryl, through the club. It was 1958 and her Pitchfork project was a dairy heifer. Six years later the couple got married. In 1965, the Union Pitchforks were looking for a new leader, and Earl was asked to take it on.
"I don't really know why they asked me Â— probably just needed someone to do it," he says. Forty-two years later, he's still "doing it" and can't imagine his life without a 4-H club.
"I enjoy it. I don't know when I'll stop. I suppose when it ceases to be fun," he says.
Lory Graham, who has been the club's co-leader for the past 11 years, literally grew up in her parents' 4-H club, attending meetings in diapers, her mom says.
"The 4-H kids used to want to hold her when she was a baby. We'd have the meeting here at the house and they'd be passing Lory and her brother, David, around from one to another," says Cheryl.
When Lory grew up and had a family of her own, she transitioned into the leadership role as naturally as breathing. And it was also natural her three sons, Josh, Jordan and Calvin, would become members of the Union Pitchforks, too.
"I couldn't do it without my dad, though. He's still the leader," Lory says.
Earl is modest when it comes to talking about himself. But when he talks about the kids and his devotion to the program, his words weigh heavy with the conviction of more than 50 years of experience.
The big picture of 4-H is more than teaching kids about livestock, he says. It's teaching confidence, discipline and responsibility. 4-H teaches kids that life is much bigger than themselves.
"In 4-H, they learn to respect each other, to work hard together and help each other," he says.
The older kids teach the younger ones, and they all look out for each other's best interests, Lory says.
Earl offers one example of a young member whose first lamb died before he got a chance to show the animal at stock show.
"Sheep are the hardest livestock project. They can just lay down and die for no reason at all," Earl says.
Naturally, the young boy was devastated. But another Pitchfork member came to his rescue and unselfishly lent him her animal. Showing the other member's animal went a long way toward easing the pain of his loss that year.
Earl has seen plenty of first time members sob over the sale of an animal at the end of a project. He wonders if they'll come back the next fall to do it again.
"But they do," he says, with new maturity and a greater understanding of the full value of the animals they raise.
Teaching the kids is still the biggest thrill of all for Earl.
"Watching them try to grasp something new and then seeing the light come on when they finally get it is just wonderful," he says.
The biggest change Earl has seen in his 50 years in 4-H is the shift in club members from rural to urban.
"It used to be all the kids were mostly farm kids. But there just aren't as many farm kids anymore," he says.
The family farm is a dwindling industry, he says. New generations grow up with no ties to the land. The consequences for that significant loss of connection, he says, makes 4-H even more relevant and important today.
"People don't even know where their food comes from Â— they don't understand the food chain. If we don't teach them, who will?" he asks.
"It all depends on us Â— each generation has to do its job. We're still training the next generation."