Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

Fair Labor October 12, 2012 by Anne Cantrell • Published 10/12/12

For 100 years, Montana 4-H has raised terrific kids
Earlier this year, Kodie Booth headed over to the Park County Fairgrounds to wrangle her lambs at a 4-H weigh-in. Having just finished a soccer game, the 10-year-old sported a bright purple Livingston Raiders soccer jersey at the event, along with jean shorts and cowgirl boots.

It's not uncommon for the busy fourth-grader from Livingston to rush from one activity to the next. Kodie juggles homework, plays soccer and is in 4-H, where her projects range from raising lambs and chickens to participating in shooting sports.

Kodie's market lamb project this year began on an unseasonably warm Sunday in April, at Carlee Smith's home near Manhattan. There, 4-H families from as far away as Kalispell, Philipsburg, Missoula and Dillon gathered for Smith's annual lamb sale. It is one of the top lamb sales in the state, even though Smith just graduated from high school this year. The sale began as one of Smith's 4-H projects 10 years ago and has funded her college education while establishing Smith as one of the authorities on lambs in Montana.

Kodie and her 13-year-old brother, Dalton, both attended Smith's sale with their parents. As Kodie looked for physical characteristics that provided clues about the lambs' potential value, such as the width and length of their legs, Dalton crunched numbers. With a calculator in hand, he added up the cost of food and other miscellaneous expenses, such as vet bills, to determine what he could pay for a lamb and still expect to break even several months down the road when it came time to sell the animal.

Kodie and Dalton were working with more than just spare change. With proceeds from lambs that they raised and sold to market last year, the siblings both put money aside for their college educations and to begin their 4-H lamb projects this year. And, they each had enough money left over to purchase a season pass to Bridger Bowl, a ski area outside Bozeman.

The Booth siblings likely would not have lambs were it not for 4-H, the youth development program of Montana State University Extension. They also might not have the opportunity to develop excellent life and future business skills so early were they not among the 25,000 Montana kids who participate each year in 4-H. The program, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is the largest out-of-school youth development program in Montana.

While many people have a perception that 4-H projects are limited to "cows, sows and plows," that is only part of what the program offers, according to Jill Martz, interim director of Extension and director of the 4-H Center for Youth Development. In fact, throughout its entire history 4-H has provided a diverse array of project opportunities, from robotics to photography to food and nutrition.

The goals, as well as the avenues for achieving them, may be different depending on what the project is, Martz added, but the mission of 4-H is clear.

"4-H provides positive experiences for youth so they have a greater chance of success as adults," Martz said. "The projects are simply a vehicle for contributing to this success."

As a national organization, 4-H celebrated its centennial in 2002, but Montana 4-H got its start in the Treasure State in 1912, when M.L. Wilson, an Extension agent in eastern Montana, founded the first club project, a corn contest. Other contests soon followed, including animals, canning, sewing and garden projects.

Two years later, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which officially established and funded Extension offices across the country. That first year, nearly 3,000 kids across Montana participated in 4-H.

The program is open to youth ages 6 to 19, and kids ages 6 to 8 also have the option to join Cloverbuds, a non-competitive partner program. Now, there are approximately 1,800 4-H clubs across the state, and one in eight Montana kids is involved in the program.

"We're 100 years old, but we still have the same philosophical foundations today that we did a hundred years ago," Martz said. "We always hold true to our roots of providing positive opportunities for youth."

Even in the digital age, those positive opportunities often involve preparing projects for fairs that are held in each county across the state. Animal projects, such as raising and showing pigs, horses and steers, are still the most popular projects for Montana 4-H'ers, but the organization also offers a wide variety of options. In fact, there are more than 200 different projects, which range from clothing and food to robotics and aerospace to projects that are entirely self-directed in the self-determined category.

Throughout the year, many 4-H members attend local club meetings. They learn to give presentations and keep records. Often, they complete service projects in their communities. In addition, 4-H offers a number of targeted programs that are aimed at providing services and opportunities for kids. Those include outreach programs to military youth and international youth exchanges.

Much about 4-H in Montana has remained constant since its founding 100 years ago, according to Martz. Still, 4-H has had to adapt over the years in order to reflect societal changes.

"Families are changing, and we have to adjust our expectations in 4-H in order to accommodate diverse family structures," Martz said.

"Youth and families are being pulled in a lot of different directions today. We continually look for ways to offer programs for kids that take their busy lives into account."

For example, some counties offer six-week to 10-week special interest programs for youth who may not be able to attend meetings for an entire year. 4-H also collaborates with and provides content for other youth-serving organizations, such as after-school programs.

4-H requires a lot of time and effort, but it's worth it because her kids learn so much, according to Jo Anna Booth, Kodie and Dalton's mother.

"Their projects teach my kids a good work ethic," Booth said. "They're also gaining important skills and learning about responsibility."

Each day, Kodie and Dalton feed their lambs in the morning and the evening. About once a week, they also practice walking with them in preparation for showing them at the fair. Keeping the lambs under control without halters can be quite a challenge, so they work on this more and more as the fair approaches.

Kodie's animals include two ewes that she purchased at the Smith sale to begin a 4-H breeding project. Lambs at the sale sold for an average of about $300. Kodie named her lambs Lulu and Daisy and added them to her small flock at home. That flock also includes Buddie and Polkadot, two market lambs that she had purchased earlier with her grandparents' help.

To get their lambs ready for the fair, Kodie and Dalton will wash and shear them. They'll also trim their hooves. "That's fun but gross," Kodie said.

They also learn to deal with the unexpected. When Polkadot ran into a fence earlier this spring, the animal needed a shot. It took some time, but Kodie learned how to administer the shots into the lamb's neck herself.

Kodie admits raising lambs is a big responsibility, but she said it's also enjoyable.

"They're fun, and they're calm sometimes, and they're easier to handle than beef and pigs," she said. "And, we sometimes put a soccer ball in their pen, and it's like they know how to play soccer," she said, giggling.

Dale Booth, Kodie and Dalton's dad, is a fan of 4-H because of the opportunities it provides for kids.

"There are so many places 4-H can take you," he said.

Booth grew up in western Montana, near Noxon. Although his parents weren't involved in 4-H, they owned a feed store for a handful of years, which helped introduce Booth to the program. He participated in 4-H for nine years as a youth and continued in the program throughout college, first at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., and then at Montana State University-Northern in Havre.

Ultimately, he said, 4-H expanded his range of opportunities and provided significant financial benefits.

"4-H allowed me to go on trips across the country while I was in high school and college," he said. It also helped him fund college, both with money he earned from lamb projects and with a scholarship.

Now, as a parent, Booth loves that 4-H teaches his own kids about discipline and responsibility. He said it also teaches them skills that will be helpful in the future, such as recordkeeping and marketing.

"I get to watch my kids grow with the animals," he said. "Being part of 4-H helps raise them to be more courteous, upstanding people."

At the Park County Fair in early August, Booth also got to watch his kids' hard work pay off. Kodie's lamb Buddie won Grand Champion market lamb, while a lamb that Dalton had purchased at the Smith sale won Reserve Champion.

As in the Booth family, 4-H is often a family affair and encourages the involvement of the family on many different levels, according to Martz.

"The entire family is often involved with sharing knowledge, teaching skills and passing on values," Martz said. "As one generation learns from another, they see the benefits and are eager for this process to continue. In many families the younger youth can't wait until it's their time, because they have had so much fun watching their older siblings and heard the many stories passed down from one generation to another."

Dale Booth works in the Bakken oil fields, driving a water truck. That job is about six hours east of his home, so he has limited time with his family in Livingston. Still, 4-H is important enough to him that when he returns, he volunteers to help out with activities, such as a lamb weigh-in held at the Park County Fairgrounds in early May.

"4-H really helped me when I was younger," he said. "Now it's time to give back."

The spirit of giving back is precisely what 4-H aims to encourage, Martz said.

"We have a strong tradition in 4-H of youth providing service back to the community," she said. "If you grow up in a culture of giving back, you will probably continue in that culture in the future."

In addition to numerous service projects that clubs and individual 4-H members complete in their communities, there are also touching stories about club members helping one another.

Justin Korpi began participating in 4-H in Beaverhead County when he was 8 years old. When he was diagnosed with cancer during his freshman year of high school, a fellow 4-H member organized an event to help raise funds for Korpi's treatments in Salt Lake City. Other friends, who served as livestock judges, raised a pig and sold raffle tickets for it as another fundraiser for Korpi.

Korpi, now 23, works in Helena and has been in remission for six years. Still, those gestures, as well as numerous phone calls, gifts and visits from other 4-H'ers, are not soon forgotten, said his mother, Trudi Korpi.

"They really showed us the spirit of family and generosity that is part of 4-H," she said.

Martz said there are many stories similar to the Korpis', in which involvement in 4-H has changed lives of Montanans. She said that especially given 4-H's link to land-grant universities, the culture of helping others and giving back to one's community is an important part of the program. The university also provides important resources.

"Our connection with the university enables us to stay abreast of the latest research in youth development, and we have an obligation to tailor our programs accordingly. The association also allows us to provide opportunities in lots of different areas and benefit from the support and expertise of faculty members."

The best part, she added, is that there is an office that serves every county across Montana. Whether a child lives on a ranch with the nearest neighbor 20 miles away, or a kid is being raised in one of the state's largest cities, 4-H is available as a resource to them.

"No matter where a child is, they have the opportunity to be part of 4-H," Martz said. ■

Learn more about Montana 4-H online.

Watch 4-H: Six Montana Stories, MontanaPBS' 2012 documentary about 4-H or learn more at

Watch 4H: Six Montana Stories on PBS. See more from KUSM.