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.

  • 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
  • “Raise,” by Kiera Butler, profiles several 4-H teenagers from California to Ghana and explores how 4-H can shape the food and farming industry.
    Cover courtesy University of California Press

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.

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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.

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