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4-H clubs make changes over century
DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette Staff Roni Baker, a 4-H agent, talks about the four food groups with preschool students at the YWCA. Later Baker and the children mixed bread ingredients into bags to take home and bake.

The 4-H clubs used to be "sewing and steers," said Roni Baker, Yellowstone County 4-H-youth extension agent.

"People see 4-H at the fair, but that's not all it is anymore."

The 4-H program was part of the 1914 Smith-Lever Act that established the Cooperative Extension Service at each land-grant college.

The youth organization actually started years before as a way to introduce new varieties of corn to American farmers. Because some farmers were reluctant to experiment with the new types of corn, corn clubs were created for farmers' sons to grow the seeds, Baker said.

A few years later, tomato clubs were created for girls to learn new and safer ways to can foods.

This year, 4-H is celebrating its centennial, marking the organization of an agriculture club for youths in Clark County, Ohio.Still strong The 4-H program started in rural America, and remains strong there now, but it's grown beyond farm country.

"There are 4-H clubs in most every county in every state," Baker said. "In the middle of New York City, there are 4-H clubs."

Of the 23 clubs in Yellowstone County, three of them are in Billings.

The 4-H clubs now allow cats, dogs and hamsters to be a club projects as well as cattle, hogs and sheep, which makes the club more accessible to city kids. Other projects, such as aerospace and theater arts, also have a broad geographical appeal.

The 4-H clubs have become more popular among home-schooled children in recent years. Some home-schooling parents also buy 4-H materials such as the aerospace program to use as part of their science curriculum.

As of March, 516 children in Yellowstone County were members of 4-H clubs, and 191 adults were leaders.

In addition to traditional 4-H groups in the county, Baker also takes hands-on education programs to schools, after-school programs and the YMCA and YWCA.

One popular program for younger children is "Bread in a Bag," in which they measure bread ingredients into a plastic bag. After mixing and kneading the bread dough in the bag, they take it home to bake.Camps available Children also can go to 4-H camp, create projects for MontanaFair and travel abroad with international home stays.

Baker was a 4-H member for 10 years and had horses, beef, sewing and cooking projects when she was growing up on a ranch near Belt. A former elementary-education teacher, she also was a 4-H leader.

When asked why 4-H is federally subsidized and youth organizations such as Boy and Girl Scouts aren't, Baker said that 4-H's researched-based curriculum taps into resources at Montana State University-Bozeman.

Through 4-H, for example, a club member can get information on the latest research on the best type and amount of feed to give to steers.

Throughout the rest of the state, 4-H is "green and growing," said David Bryant, vice provost and director of the extension service at MSU-Bozeman.

Last year, nearly 11,500 Montanans belonged to organized clubs, and 22,000 others participated in school, camp or other programs.

A proposal to create a 4-H Center for Youth Development at MSU-Bozeman will be going before the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education this year, Bryant said. The center, which would use existing space and faculty, would oversee and encourage teaching, research and outreach programs about young people.