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Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau, Published August 30 2009

Minnesota 4-H grows even in tough times

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. – Karen Dvergsten reflected on the meaning of 4-H amid noisy sheep at the Minnesota State Fair.

It is more than the literal meaning of 4-H: head, heart, hands

and health.

“It is very important for building a work ethic,” the Roseau County woman said. It adds to a youth’s self-esteem.

And, the teacher from Greenbush said, “It’s a hands-on education for the kids.”

Added Brandon Waage, a 12-year-old Roseau County 4-H member: “It makes me more responsible.”

It is hard to find bad words for 4-H at the State Fair, and in Minnesota, at least, the youth organization is growing in a changing atmosphere that affects most youth groups.

From the down economy to the proliferation of other activities young people can do, 4-H leaders say their organization is adapting and surviving.

“4-H, like all organizations, is trying to figure out how to adapt to changing circumstances,” said the man who heads Minnesota’s 4-H effort, Dale Blyth, director of the University of Minnesota’s Extension Center for Youth Development.

“4-H is healthy,” he added, offering as proof that state enrollment is up 25 percent in the past five years.

More than 130,000 Minnesotans took part in 4-H events last year, and more than 32,000 belong to

4-H clubs.

But there are problems.

For one, some fear government funding may end.

Washington County commissioners pulled their 4-H funding, citing the need to cut $3.2 million in county spending. 4-H supporters there are halfway to their goal of raising $110,000 to keep the program operating for another year.

Blyth said a half-dozen counties are considering trimming their contributions.

“The wild card, if you will, in all of this is the decisions that all 87 county partners have to make,” he said.

Cook and Ramsey counties withdrew financial support years ago.

With dwindling state money being sent to counties, commissioners across the state are deciding how to spend less. County contributions total 41 percent of cash used for 4-H programs around Minnesota.

State officials also are looking at ways to cut budgets, but there has been little talk that those funds will dry up.

“Part of the university’s promise is that we will make 4-H opportunities available to young people everywhere in the state,” Blyth said.

One of the most vocal watchers of taxpayers’ money said 4-H is an appropriate place for some of it.

Former Rep. Phil Krinkie, now president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said he can see state money helping those who otherwise could not afford to be in 4-H.

However, Krinkie, whose daughter has won two 4-H State Fair canning blue ribbons, said suburbanites like himself can afford to pay higher dues to help keep 4-H running.

Blyth said there are no state membership fees, although the idea is being considered. County 4-H organizations and some clubs assess dues.

While many county fairs center on 4-H events, much of their money comes from other sources. And Blyth said that in these tough times, “the economic viability of fairs is going to be threatened in some cases, I would guess.”

In Douglas County, the birthplace of Minnesota’s 4-H movement, things look good, said Jodi Hintzen, university extension educator who oversees the county’s 4-H program.

“We have been steady with our membership,” Hintzen said. “We have increased some of our activities. We do some more after-school programs.”

Across the Red River in North Dakota, things look better than in Minnesota.

While some Minnesota 4-H programs have lost funding and others face cuts, North Dakota added a person each of the last two legislative sessions.

“4-H at this point in North Dakota is in a pretty good position,” said Brad Cogdill, chairman of the state’s Center for 4-H at North Dakota State University. “I am hoping we can stay that way.”

North Dakota’s financial situation helps make the picture rosier. Cogdill said he knows of no counties looking to make cuts.

Still, the North Dakota 4-H program enrollment is facing a gradual decline because the state’s youth population continues to fall.

Most 4-H groups are holding their percentage of available youths, but Cogdill said 4-H leaders are looking into why a few are dropping their “market share.”

Besides the slide in youth numbers, Cogdill said, North Dakota 4-H’ers are looking at another potential problem: The state often trails the rest of the country in economic trends. If that happens and the North Dakota economy goes south, he added, the state 4-H could be in for tougher times.

At this point, North Dakota’s 4-H horizon appears bright for its 7,000-plus members.

“We are putting more resources toward 4-H today than we have in any recent time,” Cogdill said.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com