For nearly 100 years, youth in the southern Manitoba community of Roland have been getting together to learn to do by doing through 4-H. Roland s role as the birthplace of the program in Canada will be showcased in 2013 when 4-H celebrates its centennial.PHOTO: LORRAINESTEVENSON
By Lorraine Stevenson
When Clayton Robins joined the Rivers 4-H beef club in the late 1970s, he had lots of company. Most rural kids were in one somewhere, and 4-H was thriving, not just in Manitoba but across Canada.
How times have changed, says Robins, who joined the Manitoba 4-H Council this fall as its new executive director. Today membership in the venerable youth development program drops annually.
As it approaches its 100th birthday, fewer than 2,500 youth are learning to do by doing and pledging their heads, hearts, hands and health to their club, community and country. With more activities competing for fewer rural kids, new members often drift away.
It s the same as in every other rural organization, said Robins. We keep losing ground over time.
It s the same across Canada. Membership in 4-H nationally, from its peak of 70,000 in the 1970s has steadily declined to 26,000 in 2011.
But as clubs reorganize this fall, the program is doing some reorganizing of its own with the goal of doubling membership in the next decade.
4-H Canada s new initiative, dubbed Embrace the Future, is a proposal for a complete revitalization of the 4-H brand, including new programs and new goals to unify the delivery of 4-H across Canada. Every aspect of 4-H is on the table, including its traditional four-leaf clover and pledge, with a proposal currently being looked at to add … for my world to the pledge.
Embrace the Future emerged as 4-H stakeholders looked at their existing program and trends influencing it, said Mike Nowosad, 4-H Canada s chief executive.
We expect 4-H to be a strong and vibrant organization well into the future in all of Canada, he said. But we all agreed we really needed to find ways and means to address how we were going to stop the decrease in membership and turn that around. And a key issue for a program traditionally focused in rural Canada is where, in the not-so- distant future, most young people will live the city.
We recognize the fact that urban centres are going to be the growth areas, he said. (Birth rates in rural areas) are kind of in a holding pattern right now. But by 2021 there s going to be a marked decrease. In urban centres, on the other hand, it s going to be a sharp increase.
What 4-H Canada is proposing is a significant change in programming to make it relevant to potential urban future 4-H ers, he said. Four key areas of programming are proposed including science and technology, sustainability, creative arts and lifestyle.
The other obvious trend 4-H is paying close attention to is the huge interest in food and agriculture in cities nowadays. 4-H has a unique opportunity to pick up new members and form new clubs among urban youth whose families interest in food and agriculture is intensifying, he said. Many new immigrant families in urban centres also have agrarian backgrounds.
Bringing its long history and association with food and farming into Canadian cities seems a natural fit for 4-H, he said. 4-H owns food. We think one of the best things we could do is actually bring the country to the city, if you will.
Leadership is key. Urban clubs need the time, talent and energy of urban-based volunteer leaders. First they have to find them. That s where gearing up to celebrate 4-H s 100th anniversary ties together, Nowosad said. In preparation for celebrating Canadian 4-H program s centennial in 2013 it began in Roland, Man. in 1813 4-H will be gathering names and stories of 4-H alumni. But in doing so, it will be creating a pool of potential leaders. Many former 4-H ers now live in Canadian cities so it will be a way of harnessing the 4-H energy that s already there.
It s how we think we could get a foot in the door, Nowosad said. Online leadership training will be developed as another part of recruiting busy young adults for volunteer work.
There are already examples of 4-H making successful new starts with Embrace the Future momentum behind them. Since 2006, Newfoundland has gone from an all-time low of 200 kids to now around 1,000 thanks to introducing new 4-H programs with new appeal to urban youth, said 4-H Newfoundland and Labrador president Gerry Sullivan.
4-H had been seeing a precipitous loss due to rural depopulation, to the point where, in 2006 the government axed the program.
We were geared primarily to rural kids and there were none to draw from, he said.
The turnaround came when organizers began to sit down and ask the remaining kids what they wanted 4-H to be. They asked for outdoor programs, sporting programs and programs where they could do things they d not normally experience, he said.
For city kids, that included learning about livestock. Now kids living in Newfoundland s capital of St. John s raise poultry and participate in a dairy club, said Sullivan.
Instead of just going out to play ball hockey with your friends, you re in a club doing it, said Sullivan. We ve got kids not just going out to snowshoe, but now coming to 4-H to first make their own snowshoes.
In a pilot project in Ontario two years ago, Kingston s Boys and Girls linked with 4-H to create a city-based club focused on the agriculture behind your dinner, says Wraychel Horne, executive director of 4-H Ontario.
About 20 kids planted urban gardens, learned about healthy eating, different types of farming and how supermarkets are laid out, and visited a nearby farm, said Horne. Many of the kids participating said they d never been on a farm. Ontario s view is that 4-H should be accessible to all Canadian youth no matter where they live, and the program can successfully branch into urban areas without pulling up its rural roots.
We market ourselves to people who are already invested, she said.
4-H teaches values that are universal. As demographics shift and populations change, I think there ll be more and more interest in what 4-H has to offer, if we re at the right place at the right time.
Nowosad said some provinces may decide to have limited involvement in urban centres and to grow their program other ways. In no way is 4-H proposing to abandon its rural programs or its heritage, he stressed.
I think we can bring an awful lot to the table in urban areas that will be of interest to urban kids, he said. But at the same time there s a lot of neat and innovative project development that we can do in the rural areas that will keep kids in the program.
In the meantime, discussions about Embrace the Future are ongoing.
The conversation has started but it s about to go into much deeper levels at provincial and regional levels, he said. We ve basically got a strategic plan developed with strategic elements as well as strategic tactics. But input from our provincial counterparts and the buy-in from our provincial counterparts is going to be critical.
& the program is doing some reorganizing of its own with the goal of doubling membership in the next decade&
We expect 4-H to be a strong and vibrant organization well into the future in all of Canada. But we all agreed we really needed to find ways and means to address how we were going to stop the decrease in membership and turn that around.
4-H Canada s chief executive