Tennessee 4-H

Founded in Tennessee more than 100 years ago, one 4-H goal has remained steady over the decades – put young people on the path of success.

“We really want to help them develop life skills, because that’s what we’re about – helping them become successful and productive,” says Justin Crowe, extension specialist with Tennessee 4-H Youth Development. “Gaining these life skills through 4-H is what leads to their success in the workplace.”

4-H started nationwide more than 110 years ago, gaining ground in the Volunteer State in 1910. Mertie Hardin from Benton County is considered the first 4-H member in the state, Crowe says.

“It started when six part-time agents went to West Tennessee to tend to their own farms and educate the public about agricultural principles,” he says. “That’s when it really began.”

At first, 4-H was primarily aimed at helping rural youth. Young men learned the best agricultural practices for growing crops like corn, while young women were taught canning, food preservation and cooking.

“We were founded on principles in both agriculture and what used to be called home economics, which is now called family and consumer sciences,” Crowe says. “4-H taught skills to young people to help them in everyday life at home and with farming practices.”

From its beginnings to present day, members learn by doing with hands-on projects. Though many agricultural and societal changes have taken place, 4-H stays strong in teaching essential skills.

Today, more than 185,000 youth are involved in 4-H in the state each year, representing the largest 4-H Club program in the U.S.

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“As we have evolved and focused on those life skills, we’ve incorporated not only leadership but also citizenship into our program,” Crowe says.

Tennessee 4-H continues to evolve with the times, incorporating projects relevant to everyday life and affording new opportunities. Animal projects remain a strong interest for many, but new areas have been added over time such as computers and technology, and nutrition, health, and fitness. Areas are developed with the goal of helping youth develop workplace skills and workforce pathways.

“We have 4-H’ers working with GPS technology, building websites and even a young man who has built a mobile app,” Crowe says.

But those age-old skills such as sewing that have been taught by Tennessee 4-H are still important, helping connect generations. “Many people still tell me the very first time they learned to sew was in 4-H,” Crowe says. “When I talk to a 15-year-old who tells me the first time she learned to sew was in 4-H, and there are people in their 80s who tell me they did the same when they were young, that’s pretty powerful to hear.”

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