Viewing the Farming Industry Through 4-H

The answer to connecting youngsters with the farming industry and improving agricultural education in the United States might lie with one of the country’s largest youth development organizations.

Brown cow

A growing body of research suggests that American youth are shockingly uninformed about the farming industry, harboring misconceptions such as "chocolate milk comes from brown cows."

Photo by Fotolia/xalanx

Content Tools

Raise (University of California Press, 2014), by Kiera Butler, offers a glimpse into the little-known subculture of 4-H members in urban and suburban environments, interweaving stories of teenagers with the history of the club. Butler also considers the future of the club as she travels to Ghana to investigate the expansion of 4-H programs in corporate partnership with top agribusiness firms such as DuPont and Cargill. In the following excerpt from the introduction, Butler introduces us to the extreme disconnect American children — and adults — have with the food and farming industry.

One sunny day in May, two roommates and I drove out to a farm in the country to pick up a couple of three-week-old turkey poults. The farmer raised her eyebrows when we told her that we planned to raise them in our urban neighborhood in Berkeley, California. But we assured her that our turkeys would have a good life, and she relinquished the apple-sized birds to us. They chirped plaintively throughout the entire hour and a half of our drive home.

But it didn’t take long for our turkeys to get used to their new life in Berkeley. Until they were big enough to live outside, we kept them in our living room. There is a reason that people don’t typically keep poultry in their living rooms: the birds poop everywhere and make your house smell awful. But what our turkeys lacked in personal hygiene they more than made up for with charm. In the evenings, they followed my two roommates and me from room to room, skittering along in an adorable half-flying, half-scurrying fashion. We taught them to fl y from one couch to another. If I curled up in a chair to read a book, the birds would eventually arrange themselves on my lap and fall asleep. They looked like miniature dinosaurs.


Follow Us on Facebook


When they were ready for an outdoor home, our across-the-street neighbors, a carpenter and a landscaper, built an impressive and spacious pen for the turkeys in their yard. I came over every morning with treats for the birds: raisins, nuts, and canned tuna for extra protein. They developed a particular taste for Trader Joe’s arugula, which they could spot before I even took it out of the bag. They flapped their wings and nipped at me in anticipation. Both birds turned out to be hens—lucky for us and our neighbors, since male birds would have made a lot more noise.

Despite their bohemian upbringing, they thrived. By November 10 they were fifteen pounds each, big enough to feed a crowd. As Thanksgiving approached, we all agreed that we wanted to do right by these amazing creatures.

When we pictured killing our turkeys, we envisioned a somber and beautiful ceremony honoring the lives of the two birds we had raised since they were small enough to fit in the palms of our hands. We had researched the most humane way to end their lives—by hanging them upside down in a cone and slitting their jugular vein with a single fast and merciful cut. I had picked out a luminous W. S. Merwin poem for the occasion. There was talk of burning sage.

But on the afternoon when we assembled to slaughter the first of the two turkeys, something happened that we hadn’t accounted for: kids started showing up. Word had spread in our neighborhood that something was going to be killed, and everyone wanted to be there to watch the spectacle.

Bikes were ditched in front of our neighbors’ house. John, a seven-year-old I had met a few times, wandered into the yard. He’d heard that the killing was imminent, and he had a lot of questions.

“Did they ever bite you?” he wanted to know. “Did you bleed? Is that why you’re killing them?”

“When are you gonna do it?” asked a kid on a scooter.

“Oooh, don’t let him bite me, I’m gonna get him!” squealed another, hustling away from the turkey, who had found some onion greens to nibble on. A few kids horsed around by the vegetable bed. There was a lot of yelling.

“What do we do?” I hissed at my friend. The problem was not just that the kids were spoiling our plans for a solemn ceremony. We also weren’t sure about the ethical propriety of letting a bunch of kids witness us killing an animal. We considered asking the kids to get their parents’ permission. But tracking them down could have taken a long time. With some ambivalence, we decided to go ahead with the plan.

One little girl of about twelve shyly sidled up to me as I was trying to keep the turkey calm. There was something touching about watching the kids take it all in. Morbid curiosity was surely part of the draw (“This is gonna be sick!”). But there was reverence, too.

“Those feathers are pretty,” said the girl. “What do they feel like?”

“They’re soft,” I said. “You want to touch them?”

She gingerly reached out and patted the turkey. “They are soft.”

We watched as my carpenter neighbor mounted a traffic cone onto an old spiraling iron railing—he had found it at a junkyard—and placed a metal pot below to catch the blood. He caught the bird and lowered her into the cone headfirst. I didn’t observe the actual slitting of her throat; I was busy whisking the other turkey away so she wouldn’t see. (Understandably, birds can become stressed out by witnessing slaughter.)

By the time I got back, blood was draining out of the cone and into the pot. John, the curious seven-year-old, came up close to have a look.

“What if the cops come?” he said.

“This isn’t illegal, duh!” said an older kid, rolling his eyes.

“Well, what if it was a person?”

“You are so stupid. Why you gotta be so dumb?” Lots of giggles.

“Oooh, I can see chunks in there,” said John, peering into the pot of blood. “That is so nasty!” I marveled at how none of the kids seemed squeamish. They didn’t shrink away from the goriest of details.

Once the bird had bled out, the kids took off on their scooters and bikes.

When we killed the other turkey a few days later, it was just us grownups. I read my W. S. Merwin poem. Everyone was quiet and respectful. But I found myself missing the kids’ curiosity and energy.

Our Thanksgiving celebration was incredible. The upstairs neighbor, a chef, wrapped one of the turkeys in a layer of bacon, followed by a layer of cheesecloth, and finally a layer of peanut butter. He roasted the whole thing. We were skeptical—especially of the peanut butter part. But when he took the bird out of the oven, everyone agreed it was the most delicious Thanksgiving turkey they’d ever had. I like to attribute this success to the months of careful nurturing and frequent arugula treats rather than the preparation, but in truth it was probably a combination of the two. Our across-the-street neighbors ate the other turkey for their Thanksgiving (sans peanut butter), and they said it turned out delicious as well. I wished the neighborhood kids could have been there to share the meal with us.

A few weeks after Thanksgiving, I ran into John on my way home from work.

“You gonna get another turkey?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe next year.”

He seemed satisfied with this answer and rode off on his bike.

What was it about the turkey that had captured John’s attention? Was it the grisly death? Or was it that he had made a connection between our bird and what his family would likely eat for Thanksgiving dinner a few days later?

I hoped it had been the latter. As I would later learn, fewer and fewer American kids have the chance to see where their food comes from. And the effects of this disconnect are not pretty.

Agricultural Illiteracy

The year is 2012, the scene a bustling community center day camp in a major US city. The camp has a special visitor today, a researcher from the University of California, Davis, who has set up two chairs in a corner of a classroom. She has been conducting one-on-one interviews with the students all morning.

The researcher introduces herself to an eleven-year-old named Lilly, who slips into the chair facing her. She asks Lilly if she’s ever seen a cow. Lilly nods, and the researcher smiles encouragingly. She asks Lilly whether she’s seen different kinds of cows, and Lilly says she has.

“What was different about them?” she asks.

“Well,” Lilly says carefully, “one of them had brown spots instead of black, but you know how cows are all white and have little black spots? Some of them have brown spots.”

The researcher nods. “So is there a difference?”

“Yeah,” says Lilly. “You know how some have a kind of pink look? I think that’s where they get that kind of milk. And they get, I think they get chocolate milk from the one that has brown spots.”

“Okay,” says the researcher. “So which one would you pick for your farm?”

“I would pick the one that got brown spots because the one that has black spots just gives out regular white milk, but the one with brown spots gives out chocolate milk,” says Lilly.

“So cows have different colors and the different colors indicate different milk flavors, and you would pick cows that have the flavor of milk you like for your farm?” asks the researcher. She wants to make sure she has understood Lilly correctly.

“Yeah,” says Lilly.

“Why do you think farmers chose the plants and animals they raise on their farms?” asks the researcher.

“The same, I guess,” says Lilly. “They like the taste of the colors.”

The researcher thanks Lilly and sends her back to her camp group. The counselor sends over the next camper, a ten-year-old named Art. The researcher smiles brightly and asks, “Why do you think farmers select the animals and plants that they grow?”

Art hesitates, trying to figure out what this researcher expects of him. “So they can make money when they sell them to the factories,” he finally decides.

“Okay,” says the researcher. “Is there any other reason why farmers may decide to select the plants or animals that they grow?”

Art thinks for a minute, and then his face lights up. “Maybe because the sheep have fur so the factory can make pillows.”

The interviews continue like this all afternoon. At the end of the day, the researcher has spoken to eighteen campers between the ages of nine and eleven. A few weeks later, she and her colleagues write up their findings. They compare the children’s knowledge to benchmarks for their age group set by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and a body of agricultural researchers. They note that overall, the interviewees “held no discernible understanding that crops came from different parts of the world, had biologic origins, and are often derived from different cultural groups.” They conclude that the interviewees’ basic understanding of the role of science and technology in agriculture is “nearly non-existent.”

It is disheartening to learn that an eleven-year-old believes that cows with brown spots produce chocolate milk, but it could be that these particular children were especially uninformed about agriculture. After all, they were city kids, like John and his friends who had watched us slaughter our turkeys. The researchers had determined that their farm experience had been limited mostly to school field trips.

Unfortunately, these children are not an exception. By now, it is well known that Americans young and old are a little fuzzy on our food’s origins. But the extent of the disconnect between people and farms is truly shocking. It is estimated that 90 percent of Americans come from families that haven’t farmed for two or three generations.2 A 2011 survey by the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) found that 72 percent of Americans say they know nothing or very little about agriculture. In a 2005 poll, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation found that “Americans think very little about where their food comes from.” Consider these two examples from the interviews the foundation’s researchers conducted with adults:

Q: When you think about the food that you eat, what are the steps that get it to your table, whether it’s bread or produce or whatever?

A: Oh, you mean like the steps—in other words shopping, or microwave?

Q: More like, How was it produced? How did it end up in the grocery store?

A: That, I’m not as familiar with.

Urban female, age 33

A: Fish? Where does it come from? Well, it comes from the ocean.

Q: Sure. But so how does it get here?

A: Oh um, I never really thought of that. I guess they fish for it.

Q: OK. Who do you picture fishing?

A: I don’t know, kind of I guess just fishermen. I don’t know exactly.

Q: What’s the picture in your head if there is one?

A: Well, when I do buy fish, I normally buy it at a Chinese market. It’s like an indoor market. It’s a supermarket or like a grocery store. But it’s just for Chinese food . . . and if I’m going to buy shrimp or fish or anything I’ll buy it there. Because it’s fresh.

Urban female, age 37

Some of the respondents showed wishful thinking about their food. For example:

Q: Would you have any sense of where the milk that you would buy would come from?

A: Local dairy, local cows I would guess.

Q: If you picture where those cows are what comes to mind?

A: They’re in a nice green pasture somewhere.

Q: Do you figure that’s probably the truth or is that how you would like to picture it?

A: That’s the way I’d like to picture it. They probably eat out of a trough and don’t wander around very much.

Urban male, age 62

And:

Q: Do you feel like the food sources are safe?

A: For the most part. You hear reports of people getting sick from South American strawberries and whatnot. I buy all those foods, and I’ve never really gotten sick from any foods. So for the most part, by my personal experience, I feel the food supply is pretty safe.

Urban male, age 34

In 2010, Texas State University administered a basic agricultural literacy test to 501 members of its incoming freshman class. The average score for the section about food, nutrition, and health was just 40 percent. The most hopeful sign that the study’s authors could wring from the results was that “the relatively high score of 55.7% for Theme 1 ‘Understanding Agriculture’ indicated that there might be a general understanding that agriculture plays a role in everyday life among the respondents.”

When researchers asked New York State high school students to describe a typical farmer in a 2009 survey, the most common responses “involved a man wearing overalls, a straw hat and a plaid shirt, with hay sticking out of his mouth and a pitchfork in his hand. Tractors and big red barns were also mentioned. The words redneck, hick, and hillbilly were used in many cases as well.” Studies have found that teachers harbor similar stereotypes. In 2010, researchers from Oregon State University asked teachers to describe what they thought a farm looked like. One teacher said, “When I think of a farm, I think of a big red barn.” Another said that all she knew about farms was “what I’ve seen on TV, Little House on the Prairie like.”

Beginning Change with Children

It’s easy to bemoan the state of American ignorance about farming. But how do we change it? A good group to start with would be children, who are excellent learners. It would be helpful if public schools taught students about food systems, but in these days of dwindling education budgets, it’s unlikely that agricultural literacy will become a priority anytime soon. Some high schools and a small number of middle schools have chapters of the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America), a youth club that teaches agriculture and animal husbandry through hands-on projects. But FFA chapters are mostly located in farming communities.

The answer might lie outside schools, in one organization with both a history of agriculture education and unparalleled access to American youth: 4-H. Founded at the turn of the nineteenth century, 4-H began as a network of agriculture clubs for the children of farmers. The earliest 4-H members competed in corn-growing and food-canning competitions, applying the latest advances in farming from the universities to their own lives. Over the past century, the club has evolved to keep up with the shifting lifestyles and interests of American youth.

Today, through a unique public-private structure, 4-H is officially housed under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it administers its programs largely through the federal Cooperative Extension programs at the nation’s land-grant universities—the 111 schools that receive federal grant money to teach agriculture, science, and engineering. With 6.5 million members in all fifty states and another half million participants in more than seventy countries, 4-H is one of the largest youth development organizations, if not the largest. (By comparison, Girl Scouts has 2.3 million US members; Boy Scouts has 2.7 million.) The group boasts 3,500 staff and 538,000 volunteers. If living 4-H alumni had their own country, it would be the size of Italy. The extensive list of notable 4-H alumni includes many present and former members of Congress, secretaries of agriculture, and state politicians. Other famous former 4-H’ers are Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Garfield creator Jim Davis, John Updike, and Al Gore.

Farm kids no longer make up the bulk of 4-H membership: Fewer than half of 4-H members live on farms and in rural areas. Just shy of a quarter come from a city with a population of more than fifty thousand, and the remainder live in smaller cities and suburbs. And not all of 4-H’s programs have to do with agriculture; 4-H’ers can make a project out of virtually any topic that interests them and their club volunteers and leaders. Web design, calligraphy, GPS navigation, scrapbooking, and shooting sports are just a few of the projects offered by clubs that I found in California. But farm education was the club’s original raison d’être, and it remains a major focus. Even 4-H’ers who compete in the organization’s junk-drawer robotics competition or enroll in their club’s model rocket project learn about agriculture; 4-H leaders have figured out that science education and agricultural literacy go hand in hand. The organization is deeply involved not only with the science of growing crops and raising animals but also with the business of farming.

The National 4-H Council, the nonprofit that supports most of 4-H’s major nationwide initiatives, gets the majority of its money from its corporate sponsors—among which are virtually every big name in agribusiness: Monsanto, DuPont, John Deere, the United Soybean Board, Cargill, Philip Morris, and Walmart, to name just a few. In return for their sponsorship, 4-H offers these businesses valuable services. As national 4-H program leader Jim Kahler put it to me, “Monsanto and DuPont have a vested interest in keeping kids interested in science, since agriculture is science today. You’re doing robotics, so we try to make the connection between that robot you’re building and a robot on a farm.” The firms’ perspective and input shape what 4-H’ers learn about science and agriculture: they hear a lot about the benefits of industrial farming and biotechnology—and little about the environmental and social consequences.


Reprinted with permission from Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever, by Kiera Butler, and published by University of California Press, 2014.