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4-H: Building the next generation of leaders in rural North Dakota

“To Make the Best Better”: 4-H builds character and provides focus for youth

Summertime in western North Dakota for many kids means hogs, steers, goats, pigs, and showing off all of the projects they’ve been working on. It is fair season, which means 4-H season.

“We laugh that all summer we run from fair to fair,” said Janet Wanek, Dunn County Extension Agent. “It is the time when kids’ projects come to fruition and they can show off the animals they have been working so hard to take care of.”

4-H gives kids, age eight and older, the chance to explore almost any topic that interests them. If a family happens to be really into cats, a child can show their cat. If a young kid is fascinated by robotics, they can build a robot and be recognized for that achievement.

“One of the greatest things about 4-H is that it gives a child focus once they have chosen their projects. The choosing process, though, is wide open for them,” said Wanek.

Western North Dakota has a particularly high number of children who participate in 4-H. Partly because the area is quite rural and lends itself to the 4-H ideals, and partly because 4-H has been a huge part of local culture for generations. Kids who are in 4-H often grow up to be great leaders who support 4-H.

“In Dunn County, I am always overwhelmed at the support that 4-H gets from the community,” said Wanek. “Businesses donate so much, leaders give hours and hours of their time, and when it comes fair time, local people are willing to pay top dollar for the animals that the children have raised.”

When asked why 4-H is so prolific in her county, Wanek quickly points out the need that their rural communities have for youth activities.

“If we take the community of Marshall for instance,” said Wanek. “There is no community pool, or baseball diamond. Homes are widespread. 4-H brings kids together and gives them great options of what to do with their time.”

Wanek points out the emphasis that 4-H places of civic duty. They teach parliamentary procedure, how to run a club, how to keep a record book, and encourages the kids to get out in the community and serve.

Kari Hepper shows her steer at the McKenzie County Fair. Photo by Judy Jacobson

While 4-H participation begins at eight years old, children as young as five can join what is called the Cloverbuds. The goal of Cloverbuds is to get young kids excited and involved, so they are ready to eventually join 4-H

“We recently re-opened a club in Halliday, N.D., last year was their first year as a club,” recalled Wanek. “Halliday happens to have quite a few young families. So, when it came time to look at the numbers, we realized that we only had 4-5 kids that were over the age of eight and we had 15 Cloverbuds sign up to be in the Marshall club! What a young club!”

When the county achievement day rolled around, Wanek was overcome by the massive amount of adorable Cloverbuds who showed up to present their projects to the judges.

“I will never forget walking into that room and seeing those little Cloverbuds, all lined up, projects in hand, wearing matching white shirts with green emblems. They had cookies and birdhouses and all kinds of projects. They were all smiling and their faces were beaming with eagerness,” said Wanek. “There was a bit of chaos as they all proudly talked and held up their projects to each other. Most of them though, when they got in front of the judges, just froze up and stood there. We couldn’t help but laugh at how cute they were. It was so fun to watch the next generation of 4-H’ers all ready to go.”

Sisters Amelia and Esther Jaggi have been involved for several years in 4-H in Grassy Butte, N.D. They are members of the Sagebrush Wranglers club lead by Gwen Roffler.

Esther’s favorite event is judging livestock.

Livestock judging consists of carefully analyzing a group of animals and measuring them against a standard that is commonly accepted as being ideal. Students are judged on their ability to analyze and rank animals.

“It was really overwhelming at first because there are so many terms and so many things to remember,” Esther, age 14, said. “But, once I got the hang of it, I was surprised at how fun it is. It has become my favorite event.”

Esther’s father, Jared Jaggi, said that he is impressed with the skills that his daughters are learning through 4-H.

“I didn’t grow up in a rural area, and the rural lifestyle in Grassy Butte is new to me,” Jared said. “So, to have the community totally take my daughters in and teach them the parts of the culture and industry that are so integral here has been really special. Watching Esther be able to analyze livestock so well has been very fun for us. I am so impressed by her.”

While 16-year-old Amelia has raised hogs and shown several animals, this year she is focusing on photography.

“I think my interests are turning more toward photography and it’s nice that I can bring that into 4-H,” Amelia said.

Esther feels like 4-H has taught her some life lessons.

“4-H has pushed me to memorize a lot of things, which is hard, but a good skill,” Esther said. “I also feel like 4-H does a good job of teaching us skills that we will need later in life. Those skills will help us to have a family and run a household of our own.”

Wanek feels like 4-H helps to perpetuate the lifestyle and values of western North Dakota.

“Nothing pleases me more than when I see a family who raises steers tell their children to pick a steer and take sole responsibility for that animal,” Wanek explained. “It helps children participate in the family lifestyle and feel ownership, it involves them in the process. It teaches children how to be good stewards of the land and contributors in their families.”

Don’t miss the chance to visit your county fair to see the great work of your local 4-H youth.


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Written by Betsy Ryan

Betsy Ryan

Betsy Ryan resides in Watford City and is a recent transplant to Western North Dakota. She is learning to navigate her new landscape along with her husband and their two boys. Betsy writes for the McKenzie County Farmer and also shares her experiences in North Dakota on her blog,

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