Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Larry Meiller visits with the author of a new book that delves into the 4-H experience. [Original broadcast date: January 21, 2015]

Featured in this Show

  • Mother Jones Editor: Many In U.S. Lack ‘Agricultural Literacy’

    According to a senior editor at Mother Jones, a deep disconnect between consumers and food producers has left many Americans ignorant about where their food comes from — a problem that she thinks the 4-H youth organization can play a critical role in fixing.

    Kiera Butler writes and edits stories about the environment, nutrition, health, and agriculture for Mother Jones magazine, and is the author of the book “Raise.” She said on Wednesday that she’s concerned by the lack of “agricultural literacy” in the U.S. She also said that with fewer and fewer Americans living on farms or being involved in agriculture, it’s a trend that’s likely to increase.

    In “Raise,” Butler shares the story of an 11-year old girl who, when asked by a researcher why she thinks different cows are different colors, said that she thinks the brown-spotted cows produce chocolate milk. While adults might not make that type of mistake, Butler said that it’s possible for them to be ignorant about the people who produce what the country eats and drinks.

    Namely, Butler said a lot of stereotypes about farmers still persist.

    Usually in these surveys, when the researchers will ask adults what they think of as a typical farmer, the adult will say ‘Oh, I imagine a guy in overalls, with a hayseed coming out of his mouth, and he’s driving a tractor,’” said Butler.

    While she said that in some cases that can be true, it certainly doesn’t represent the diversity and variety of agricultural life.

    For Butler, the greatest concern about the lack of agricultural literacy in the U.S. is that so many daily choices are based on what people know, or don’t know, about food production.

    “People vote,” Butler said. We literally vote, and we vote with our dollars at the supermarket. And to not know anything about where this food and fabric that we’re buying, where those things are coming from, that means that we’re not educated and we’re not able to make ethically and morally defensible choices when it comes to our food and our fibers.”

    Examining The Role Of 4-H In Agricultural Literacy

    Butler said preconceived notions also exist about 4-H, a youth development organization partly overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Butler said that when she was raising urban poultry, out of all the workshops that she attended and books and articles that she read about sustainability, urban farming and other related topics, not a single one mentioned the 4-H experience.

    “I think one reason is that people don’t think about 4-H as an urban thing … People think of 4-H as something that people out in the country do that has nothing to do with what people do in the city. But 4-H today is much, much more than that,” Butler said.

    While 4-H today includes everything from photography and art to the science, technology, engineering and math fields, agriculture is still a key component to the program. That gives Butler hope that more people will gain knowledge, appreciation and understanding of food production and systems.

    Butler said she hopes that 4-H — which she said is a “very, very powerful platform with 7 million members” — will use its bully pulpit in a way that can shape the future. She would like to see 4-H “really do some deep thinking about the food system, and about what we want this next generation of farmers and eaters and fabric-wearers to understand about our food systems.

    Added Butler: “Do we want (the next generation) to be fed a line from agribusiness companies, or do we want them to really critically think about sustainability, about how we can keep farmers’ jobs viable, how we can keep small, family farms going?”

    4-H in Wisconsin is coordinated by the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Extension. Be sure to check out a “Larry Meiller Show” discussion of the centenary of 4-H in Wisconsin from last summer.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Kiera Butler Guest