Rural Rite

4-H endures as agriculture changes

By Sharon J. Riley

The day starts at the Cow Palace. Kids wearing shirts emblazoned with “Eat, Sleep, 4-H, Repeat” sit at round tables in white plastic chairs arranged on the arena’s concrete floor. Outside in the rain, a man in cowboy boots and dirt-spattered jeans is grilling sausages on a portable barbeque in the muddy parking lot behind a concession called Grandma Donna’s Kitchen. The air smells like meat and rain-soaked dust, and the anticipation is palpable.

This is the annual 4-H Beef and Sheep Show in Olds, and 19-year-old Shaelynn Beattie has been here before. I find her eating a pancake breakfast with her parents in the Cow Palace, waiting for the day to get started. She’s wearing blue jeans with bedazzled rear pockets—somewhat of a fashion staple in the beef world—and is preparing for another day in the show ring. The day before, she got fifth in senior showmanship, which garnered another ribbon for her collection. I ask her how many she has back home. “Oh gosh,” she says, giggling. “Like, over 200.” Her mom, Pauline, nods emphatically. “Too many,” she says. “Ribbons, banners, everything.”

Beattie is one of the older 4-Hers in the arena, and she has a clearer idea of where rural life will take her than do many of her younger fellow participants. She wants to own her own farm one day—she’d like to have 150 head of cattle, including a short-horn herd. She has just finished her first year of agricultural management at Olds College. It was pretty good, she tells me with a teenager’s shrug, but what’s really exciting is next year. “I get to do AI!” she says, her eyes lighting up with enthusiasm.

Olds College offers “hands-on” artificial insemination (AI) as a course for its agricultural students, in which students “practice correct semen handling and artificial insemination techniques and procedures,” as well as learn about the estrus cycle, the bovine reproductive system, and good sire selection. Coveralls and rubber boots are required, and long fingernails are prohibited. It’s not a class for a squeamish city slicker, which Beattie is clearly not.

Later in the morning, Beattie shows two of her calf bulls—muscular red-coloured ones, both born in January. Dressed in a green blouse and a big belt buckle with turquoise in the centre, she’s calm as she leads her calf around the ring. Her calf is the biggest of the class, and after some deliberation the judge—another young 4-Her—names it grand champion. “He’s the deepest bull,” says the judge, adding, “I like the testicle development and I love the front of this bull.” Beattie’s other bull calf takes home reserve grand champion, and also gets enthusiastic praise, though the judge does note that he “lacks development in his hind quarters.”

Beattie walks out of the ring with two more pleated ribbons to add to her collection, each adorned with a green 4-H clover emblazoned with the four Hs from which the club gets its name—Head, Heart, Hands and Health.

“A lot of traditions stay the same—things my dad did, my aunt did. The difference is now livestock get better hair treatment than most people.”

The 4-H clover was recognizable in rural North America well before logos swept the prairies, where it’s now commonplace for corporate brands to emblazon jackets, jerseys and the backs of pickup trucks. The 4-H clover was created in 1924, cementing an emblem of rural identity into the minds of North Americans as agriculture flourished and small towns boomed. At the time, 4-H was a fledgling organization—the club traces its roots back to youth agricultural clubs started in Ohio at the turn of the 20th century, with groups focused on tomatoes and “corn-growing.” Alberta’s first 4-H club followed not long after, in 1917, with the introduction of the Junior Pig Club in Olds. That first club had 48 members, and each borrowed $30 from a local bank to buy two registered sows to be shown at the town fair.

“It just grew from there,” says Susann Stone, the executive director of the 4-H Council of Alberta, who comes from a long line of 4-Hers—her family has been involved in the club for four generations. Stone notes that 4-H members also participate in public-speaking competitions and volunteer programs and have access to scholarships and leadership camps—all of which, Stone says, enable 4-Hers to “learn to do by doing,” and which make these more than just agricultural clubs.

Although 4-H is most recognizable as a North American institution, clubs flourish across the world—from Australia to Sweden, Bolivia to China. And while 4-H has deep roots in agriculture, its scope has expanded in recent years to an array of programs. “Rural Alberta has changed since 1917,” says Stone. “Populations and town demographics and what people are able to access in those small communities… have changed dramatically.” Alongside those changes, 4-H has also evolved, and Stone says the goal is that the program itself is the “carrot” to get kids interested in the broader 4-H philosophy. “4-H has broadened considerably to work with its audience,” says Al Mussell, an agricultural economics researcher. In Alberta, 4-Hers can also learn about quilting or small engines or drama.

Elsewhere, 4-H clubs focus on filmmaking, dog training, theatre arts and rocketry. And some 4-H clubs now focus on robotics—in partnership with National Geographic—and coding, in partnership with Google. The latter recently announced a $1.5-million grant for 4-H computer science programs—the partnership was announced at the Illinois State Fair, where Google also announced a donation of virtual reality equipment. This contribution will enable 4-H to begin a new VR program called “Expedition,” in which students can take virtual tours of farms. “The 3-D goggles give students the feel that they are actually on the farm,” one 4-H youth development specialist told a local newspaper.

Back at the Beef and Sheep Show, the experience of being “actually on the farm,” is everywhere, and many families have a long tradition of attending events like this one. As I wandered, I was told time and time again there was one family in particular that I needed to speak to. “We often say 4-Hers bleed green,” an event organizer told me. “This family bleeds a really deep shade of green.”

I eventually tracked down Bill Dietrich on the side of the show-ring, taking a break from the announcing he’s been doing for the past two days. It’s his job to sit at a table overlooking the show-ring and announce each participant, their heifers and the results. When he looks down at his papers, his face is entirely shielded by his white cowboy hat. Dietrich joined 4-H in 1977. He met his wife through 4-H, and his dad was in a 4-H grain club in the ’50s. Each of his kids has been in 4-H, and he lives with his family on a farm near Forestburg, where they birth roughly 230 calves each year. Dietrich’s youngest daughter, 13-year-old Lexy, is his only child still in the program.

When I meet Lexy, she has a big smile on her face. She just placed fourth in intermediate showmanship with her heifer, also named Lexy, who was born in January 2017. Lexy the heifer has already been named a “grand champion senior heifer” and the “grand champion Angus heifer calf,” which makes Lexy the 4-Her immensely proud. I meet Lexy—both of them—back at the family’s stalls in the barn, a large, high-ceiling arena where everyone hangs out between their stints in the show-ring. Stalls are arranged in long rows, and families have brought in all the gear they’ll need for the week. Many of them are camping in their RVs, just down the road, but this is where they’ll spend the bulk of their time. 4-Hers get their cattle ready for shows here while adults sit in lawn chairs, chatting and drinking coffee, their slow-cookers bubbling with the pulled pork they’ll serve for lunch, when everyone balances paper plates on their laps. Families bring signs bearing their farm names and brands and hang them proudly above the melee. Massive fans hum above the plaintive brays of hundreds of cattle.

The Dietrichs’ stalls are in a far corner, and Lexy (the heifer) is resting in sawdust, her halter tied to the back of the stall. Lexy the 4-Her proudly opens up a large cabinet where she stores halters and at least three dozen different sprays and conditioners.

Many local families have a long tradition of being part of the club, whose logo is a green clover:
“We often say 4-Hers bleed green.”

Getting an animal ready for a show is no small feat, and Lexy’s supply closet is stocked with products such as Powder’ful, which Lexy tells me “smells really good,” and which is marketed as adding “depth and dimension to each hair follicle during the hair building process… great for legs, bellies, flanks, top-lines and tail heads.” You can’t put the Powder’ful on until you’ve applied the EZ Glue—“basically like hair gel,” says Lexy—to help accentuate the heifer’s rump by making a spiky ridge of hair over the animal’s back end. The glue dries with a whitish tinge—a no-no in the show-ring—so on top of that you’ve got to apply some Doc Brannen’s Black Magic, which “adds a deep, natural black appearance to hair, leaving it rich and full” and “tames hard-to-hold hair.” It doesn’t stop there: Preparing an animal for a show isn’t limited to gels and sprays. As Lexy explains, you’ve also got to shampoo your animal, then blow-dry it, then use an assortment of combs and brushes to “fluff up their hair.” “It’s expensive,” Lexy says, “but it’s definitely worth it.”

These sorts of efforts are rewarded in the show-ring, where an average animal can come out on top with the right preparations. In addition to the animal’s appearance, 4-Hers are also very conscientious about their animal’s demeanour. Each participant carries with them a showstick—a long prod resembling a fire poker that’s often taller than they are. The showstick, Lexy says, “keeps them calm,” and they use it to gently scratch the animal’s underside.

I asked Matthew Trefiak, a 17-year-old 4-H ambassador about whether 4-H has always involved such a big investment in hair care. “Livestock 4-H has a lot of traditions that stay the same—things my dad did, my auntie did,” he tells me. “The difference is there weren’t 20 different kinds of glue back then. Now they get better hair treatment than most people.”

The industry has changed—there’s little doubt about that—and it’s not limited to the array of hair-styling sprays. According to Statistics Canada, the size of the average farm increased 30 per cent between 1991 and 2001, while the number of farm operators saw a 25 per cent decline. “The number of farms peaked in the 1941 census and has been in decline ever since,” explains Al Mussell, the agricultural economics researcher. “At the same time, the arable land base hasn’t increased—so what does that say? Farms are getting bigger.” According to Mussell, large farms (those with sales over $1-million annually) now account for well over 50 per cent of agricultural output but make up only 5 or 10 per cent of the farms.

The trend is well known: bigger farms and fewer of them. “We’re in a bit of a struggle to not have competition and pure economics of agriculture empty out the countryside of people,” says Mussell. This is where he sees an opportunity for 4-H to thrive. “If it’s done right, [4-H] actually complements a market-based and free-enterprise system.” 4-H can “foster a culture where people know one another,” he says, and the essential philosophy of 4-H—learn to do by doing—can help kids learn to work together.

And while some aspects of farming have changed dramatically, some skills have so far persisted. “The basic job of a farmer—you find yourself on a plot of a land, maybe with some livestock, and you have to find a way to make this work,” has stayed the same, according to Mussell. But today’s farmers also increasingly need a diverse array of technical, managerial and information-management skills—not to mention knowing about artificial insemination and optimizing your herd’s genetics.

And while 4-H has sought to expand into urban communities, in Canada 4-H remains a rural club. More than 80 per cent of 4-H members are from farm or rural backgrounds. Though a wide range of programs is available to members in Alberta—anyone can start a club based on their interests, and Alberta has chapters focused on activities such as bicycling, drama and quilting—the three most popular programs are still those focused on beef, horses and sheep. Accordingly, many 4-H programs have continued to focus on agriculture but seek to educate youth in a new, more business-focused industry.

In its fundraising, 4-H has embraced big agriculture companies, forming partnerships with corporations from around the globe. In one arrangement, 4-H receives money from SeCan, Canada’s largest seed supplier, when producers buy Roundup Ready soybean seed. Semex, a global semen and embryo provider, is another funder. Syngenta, a global agri-business company, and Saputo, a Canadian dairy conglomerate, are 4-H “platinum clover” partners, as is Coca-Cola. McDonald’s is a “silver clover” partner.

For many young farmers a future in agriculture may also mean a blend of corporate partnerships—and a pragmatic career that goes beyond animal husbandry. Throughout my time at the Beef and Sheep Show, I asked countless 4-Hers what they wanted to be when they grew up. Every single one of them told me they wanted to stay in agriculture—but their answers were surprisingly practical. A few younger kids shrugged and offered vague answers about working on the ranch or being a farmer, but many were exceptionally specific.

Trefiak, the 4-H ambassador, told me enthusiastically that he’s already taken a course in artificial insemination, but his “big dream is to do embryo implants.” He wants to study veterinary medicine. “My passion is for genetics,” he says, saying that his family sells semen as far away as Denmark and Australia, the latter of which he’ll be visiting over Easter break. “4-H is really how I got started,” he says. “I went from a kid who didn’t know how to fit a heifer, and now I’m flying internationally to talk about agriculture.” (“Fitting” is 4-H-speak for the shaping of an animal’s hair with glues and paints and combs and blow dryers.) Lexy Dietrich has another idea for staying in the industry. When she told me she wanted to be a photographer, I thought she was the first of her peers to suggest a career outside of agriculture—then she clarified her ambitions. She wants to photograph champion cattle for trade magazines.

This pragmatism about the future of farming isn’t necessarily something the kids are coming up with on their own. It seems to be a unanimous feeling—though often expressed with regret—that making a living as a small farmer is increasingly difficult in Alberta, and 4-H leaders are training a new generation of agriculturalists. They may not be getting up early to milk cows on bucolic farms, but they’ll still be in the industry.

Carey Kopp is one of the pragmatists. I meet him ringside, where he’s shooting the breeze with other 4-H adults. Kopp is the chair of the 4-H Beef Advisory Committee and the leader of the John Ware beef club in Brooks. He’s always looking for ways to improve 4-H, he tells me. Recently, his club introduced a carcass competition. The key, he says, is to “start ’em when they’re young.” So the club is shifting some of the focus away from the traditional animal husbandry approach, to the introduction of a project that focuses more on how to maximize an animal’s desirability for the meat market—evaluating it on the size of the ribeye, the colour and thickness of fat, the warm carcass weight. “Instead of showing something live, we show it on a hook,” Kopp explains, describing how 4-Hers bring carcasses to a modified show-ring, rather than live animals. “We’re training kids to be feedlot operators.”

Despite his long history with the program, Bill Dietrich is visibly worried about the future of 4-H, tracing the root of the problem to the decline of the family farm. “It’s getting increasingly difficult to keep kids on the farm, because farms keep getting larger,” he tells me, noting that the cost of participating in a 4-H beef club is high if you don’t have a family that already has many of the resources on hand. “It’s nearly impossible for any young people to get involved in farming unless they have a father or an aunt or uncle to get them started. So many people have left the farm. I hate to say it, but the family farm is pretty much done. It’s all big business now.”

There are still smaller, family-owned farms, of course—just fewer of them. Near the end of my time at the Beef Show, I meet Scott Cuthbertson. 4-H, he says, has been critical to his own ranch education—and to that of his sons, now 12 and 14, who want to work on the ranch when they get older. They’ve been sleeping in combines since they were babies, Stuart says, and they’ve had jobs on the farm since they were “this high,” he says while gesturing to his knees. 4-H teaches them about caring for animals and about life on the farm. “That’s our livelihood,” he says. “It’s how we pay the bills.”

“Back in my day… so many kids were farm kids,” says Dietrich. “It was a way of life.” The times have changed, and 4-H is changing too.


Sharon J. Riley reports for The Narwhal. She grew up on a goat farm in rural Alberta and now lives in Edmonton.


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