A Bridge to the Farm

Meet 4-H star Erica Clouse, and you might be surprised to learn she lives on one-third of an acre in downtown Cambridge. There’s no barn behind her house, only cow and sheep statues by the front walk and a sign that reads “Carson’s Farm” to playfully acknowledge the domain of her 6-year-old brother.

“I was one of those people that thought 4-H was just for farm kids with plaid shirts and boots,” Erica said. “Now I have a greater appreciation for agriculture in Ohio and for the people raising our food 10, 12 or 14 hours a day.” This Meadowbrook High School senior now aspires to a career in agricultural law and hopes to study accounting and agricultural communication next year at Ohio State University.

In this way, Ohio’s food system owes a lot to 4-H as the program has helped incubate interest in careers related to food and agriculture among young people.

“4-H food and agriculture projects make up a good chunk of the projects exhibited at the county fairs,” said Stephen Heppe, a Wayne County 4-H program assistant. “Many people like myself went on to college and majored in agriculture and foods because we loved the 4-H projects and interest areas we pursued.”

Many Ohioans may recognize the 4-H program from the Sale of Champions at the Ohio State Fair. The annual auction showcases the best livestock as well as the showmanship of young exhibitors. While animals may sell for tens of thousands of dollars, much of the money is distributed back into youth programs. To help support youth involvement in Ohio food production, Bob Evans Farms, in partnership with Ohio Farm Bureau, purchased the reserve grand champion market hog at the 2010 Ohio State Fair.

The 4-H program, however, extends well beyond the State Fair as thousands of young people raise livestock or participate in other projects for county fairs across the state.

Heppe says the program has agricultural roots, but it is for everyone.

“4-H is all about your community and making it better,” he said.

The beginning
Introduced to 4-H eight years ago by her step-mother Valerie Clouse, Erica followed in Valerie’s footsteps by choosing a clothing project for her first year. She affectionately recalls embellishing a denim skort and white T-shirt with rhinestones and American flag patches. She said she even “blinged out” her tennis shoes with patches of flag-patterned fabric. After a trip down the state fair runway in her patriotic outfit, she said she was hooked for years to come. “I absolutely loved it,” Clouse said.

“From her start in sewing to her dwarf hamster project and eventually a full-size quarter horse, Erica’s scope of projects shows exactly what you can do in 4-H,” said Valerie. She said working through these projects Erica has learned valuable life lessons like breaking down often overwhelming ventures – most recently choosing a college – into manageable steps.

This year, Erica will take projects involving her dog, rabbit, horse, hamsters and cat, plus projects in clothing, genealogy and teen boardsmanship.

Erica is not the only farmless 4-H’er in Ohio, according to Tom Archer, state leader of 4-H Youth Development. He said these nonfarming 4-H’ers gain valuable training as future leaders in local communities. He said they also gain a better appreciation of farming, by “rubbing shoulders with other youth in agriculture.”

Erica said one of her favorite experiences in 4-H has been public speaking contests and the travel involved. Not surprising, she’s easily tackled complex topics like animal care and recent ballot issues. For the past two years, she’s traveled to Atlanta to make presentations on peer pressure and personal growth through 4-H.

Service and the future
Erica also started Santa Paws, an annual 5K run and holiday collection drive for the Guernsey County Dog Pound and Humane Society, as a 4-H community service project five years ago when her dog Frosty passed away. Santa Paws has now generated $26,000 in donations and cash.

“You’re never too old to get involved,” said Erica. She hopes to continue her involvement beyond high school and is eager for her brother Carson to continue in her footsteps. He starts Cloverbuds – a 4-H program designed to promote development of young children – this year, and she’s training him to take over her Santa Paws project. No doubt, Carson has big shoes to fill, but Valerie said he has an earlier start than his sister and has known nothing but 4-H as a youngster. She said he even thinks the cheer “O-H . . . I-O” goes “4-H . . . I-O.” O

Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

Attention teachers and parents: Find out how this story connects to Ohio’s Academic Content standards for social studies.

Find out more about 4-H in your county by contacting your Ohio State University Extension office. Contact information can be found at extension.osu.edu.

4-H Stats

  • 336,293 Ohio youth members
  • 20,491 adult volunteers
  • 4,547 youth volunteers
  • 32.9 percent of 4-H projects involved plants and animals (including 12,173 market hogs).
  • 19.8 percent of 4-H projects involved leadership and personal development.
  • 11.7 percent of 4-H projects involved science and technology.
  • Clark County was home to the first 4-H club in 1902.