As you probably know, 4-H clubs of America are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year.

My family spent two decades participating in 4-H activities at the county and state level. Those remain my favorite childhood memories.

I started my 4-H career as a shy farm kid at about 9 years of age. Pigs were my priority project for 10 years. Oh, I dabbled in other projects — agronomy, entomology, photography, citizenship, home improvement, even chickens, but pigs were my favorite.

I was lucky enough to win several trips to the Minnesota State Fair with my pigs. I topped a few classes. No champions, except one my last year in 4-H, which fulfilled a personal goal — winning the swine showmanship contest at the state fair.

Thirty-five years later this past week, I found myself in the swine barn judging a group of 4-H'ers vying for the same title that I treasure still. It was a great day! Moms and Dads, brothers and sisters, pinned to the show ring fence rails, offering support and encouragement.

You might ask: “What does 4-H and swine showmanship have to do with the real world of modern pork production?”

In my opinion — plenty.

For starters, these kids had won the opportunity to represent their respective counties in the state competition. They worked hard, caring for and grooming their animals, knowing full well that their project pigs were either destined for slaughter or, in the case of the breeding gilts, possibly the sow herd at home. At a young age, the 4-H learning-by-doing philosophy had taken these kids through a basic course in genetics, nutrition, economics, food production, competition (winning and losing), sportsmanship and family relations.

Computer vs. Animal Science

While at the fair, I talked with several 4-H alumni about the impact 4-H club work had had on their personal and professional lives. A couple stick in my mind.

One swine project alumni is now a social worker, counseling pre-teen kids in a rural school system that sits on the edges of metropolitan encroachment. Family and alcohol problems are leading concerns. But, he said, after three days of chaperoning 4-H'ers at the fair, he felt rejuvenated. “It's been great to spend time with such good, respectful, responsible kids,” he explained.

Another 4-H alumnus related a brother-in-law's career path that began as a 4-H rocket project which led to his participation in a university ROTC program, an aeronautical engineering degree and eventually to the Pentagon.

You might also be interested to learn that Walter Mondale, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Edmund Muskie, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, to name a few, were also 4-H'ers.

Although the most popular 4-H projects still center on plants and animals (roughly 2.7 million), there are also about 1.2 million youth participating in science and technology projects, 1.7 million kids in healthy lifetime education, and another 1.7 million boys and girls focused on personal development and leadership skills, according to the National 4-H Council.

Seven million young people with clubs in every county in the nation are developing personal skills that will help carry them through a lifetime of goal-setting, career choices, mentoring and family relationships.

I credit my 4-H swine project for nudging me toward an animal science major at the University of Minnesota, and ultimately, my life's profession. Although I didn't realize it at the time, it also provided me with lifetime friendships and valuable mentors.

I can count dozens of pork industry acquaintances who trace their career roots back to a 4-H swine project. These are the pork industry's producer leaders, geneticists, extension swine specialists, nutritionists, agricultural economists and company executives.

The Four H's

I came away from my state fair judging experience reassured that today's 4-H youth carry the same life values and commitment professed in the 4-H pledge:

“I pledge my Head to clearer thinking,
my Heart to greater loyalty,
my Hands to larger service,
and my Health to better living
… for my club, my community, my country and my world.”

What greater tribute could we pay to America this September than to recognize and celebrate the thousands of 4-H'ers, parents, volunteer leaders and Agricultural Extension Service staff who guide and mentor our rural and urban youth through their 4-H projects?

The Minnesota 4-H Foundation's Centennial celebration theme captured the essence of what 4-H is all about: “Opportunities to shape a life.”

I congratulate you all — past and present.

By the way, my local club's name was the “Golden Opportunity 4-H Club.” For me, it truly was.