In generations past, 4-H was a Boy-Scouts-for-farm-kids organization that helped young people learn how to show calves or pigs at the local country fair. Man, have things changed!

Although the area where I grew up is now paved-over suburbia, 50 years ago my little western New York hometown was surrounded by several small farms, with dairy cows, chickens, an apple orchard or two, and several fields of row crops and sweet corn, which us neighborhood kids weren’t averse to sneaking into to snag a shirt-full of ripe ears.

We went to grade school with quite a few farm kids — one of whom famously drove his dad’s tractor to school in eighth grade one day, a story worth telling at a later date. All were familiar with the 4-H Club. That was a Boy Scouts-type organization for kids who wanted to show a calf or pig at the county fair.

That’s as far as any of us who didn’t have to feed a bunch of pigs or collect eggs every day ever cared about the program.

But talk about positioning. Today’s 4-H looks nothing like it did back then, as even a cursory review of its website messaging reveals. Check out how the group is selling itself in 2015.

“4-H is nation’s largest youth development organization, empowering six million young people throughout the United States with 11,800 volunteers, 3,500 professionals, and more than 25 million alumni. 4-H supports young people . . . with programs designed to shape future leaders and innovators. Fueled by research-driven programming, 4-Hers engage in hands-on learning activities in the areas of science, citizenship and healthy living.”

Anything in there about farming? Livestock? Anything about agriculture at all?

Instead, 4-H talks about how its programs “help youth become responsible citizens leading healthy and productive lives and discovering critical science-focused innovations.” The 4-H “Healthy Living” initiatives are designed to engage youth in positive behaviors; the 4-H Science program aims to increase the number of students pursuing science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) fields in high school, college and careers.

A new look at agriculture

Of course, once you dig a little deeper, the 4-H curriculum still offers plenty of agricultural modules, including “learn-by-doing” activities on such themes as “Plant Detectives,” “All about Agriculture,” “Fast Food Agriculture” (huh?) and a unit called “Mystery Agriculture.”

And although there are far fewer of them, 4-H doesn’t neglect farm kids who are raising livestock, offering an “Exploring Beef Health and Husbandry” learning module for middle schoolers with such topics as:

  • Bio-security risk assessment and mitigation strategies
  • Budgeting decisions associated with raising and housing cattle
  • Dietary needs of beef cattle at different life stages
  • Elements of beef cattle conformation

The agriculture section also includes the “Bite into Beef” series, in which kids learn to identify breeds, recognize a healthy animal, select feed ingredients and learn to show a calf in competition.

According to its curriculum guide, the series includes “a variety of group learning activities, including skillathons, quiz bowls, games, presentations, beef bingo and several management skill activities.”

Along with such classic 4-H activities, the curriculum also offers plenty of animal science-related units about cats, dogs, and other pets, such as rabbits, ferrets and amphibians.

As if all that isn’t enough to engage this current generation of kids, most of whom will never even set foot on a farm, unless it’s features a petting zoo or a corn maze, 4-H also focuses on such critical educational priorities as financial literacy, civic engagement and community service.

A decade-long study done at the Tufts University Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development revealed that 4-H youth are:

  • Four times more likely to make contributions to their communities
  • Two times more likely to be civically active
  • Twice as likely to make healthier choices
  • Twice as likely to participate in STEM programs after school

Perhaps the most important finding of the Tufts study, given the need to engage young women in scientific or technological career tracks if we’re to fill the jobs of the future, 4-H high school girls are nearly three times more likely to take part in science programs, compared to girls in other after-school activities.

That stat alone underscores the impact the “new” 4-H is having on young people.

These days, I doubt if too many kids would even have access to a tractor, much less the wherewithal to drive one to school, but they still need to get connected to food production and to get engaged in the science and technology that is driving today’s — and tomorrow’s — economy.

There are plenty of options, should one be moved to contribute time or treasure to a worthy cause during the holiday season. But for anyone who participates in animal agriculture, few are more appropriate than 4-H.

To contribute to 4-H, click here.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.