When Johnson County 4-H leaders head to local schools to talk to children about their programs, they rarely talk about animals.
Instead, they talk to them about past projects and contests that have used Legos.
If they are trying to interest older children, they mention the 4-H recycling project, which incorporates ideas from crafting websites, such as Pinterest.
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And while visiting schools is still important, 4-H leaders are also finding that social media is also key to promoting their program and recruiting members.
The 4-H program has changed since Youth Development Director Ashley Schultz was a member in 2003, she said.
Pitching 4-H as more than raising farm animals requires continually modifying project ideas to keep kids interested, Schultz said.
“We really try to stay relevant,” Schultz said.
“I think we do a good job of adapting with the times. The perception is still raising farm animals, but we really try to give them an idea about other things 4-H offers beyond that.”
Schultz relies on a counsil that includes youth 4-H’ers for feedback and ideas to stay up to date on what interests kids most.
Meetings have generated new projects that reflect current trends and introduced new marketing and recruiting schemes, including using the Internet and social media.
One of the most popular projects is photography, which is open to all ages and requires one to 10 photos. This year, the photography project had 269 participants, she said.
When Schultz and other 4-H leaders go to elementary schools to speak to and recruit new members, the first approach is displaying and speaking about activities and projects, like photography, that aren’t farm related.
When they speak to third graders — the earliest a child can join 4-H — they show them projects and contests they have that used Lego building, an activity that all kids can relate to, she said. This year, 125 4-H’ers are participating in Lego model building, she said.
This year, 1,281 kids are participating in 4-H contests and projects at the fair. Last year, that number was about 1,200, and had stayed the same for several years, officials said. Gaining nearly 100 participants this year is a sign that interest in 4-H is growing, Schultz said.
Other projects that don’t involve traditional farming activities are scrapbooking, cake decorating and model building. And for older kids, the 4-H recycled crafts project incorporates a lot of ideas from websites like Pinterest, Schultz said. Schultz and 4-H leaders use social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, for fun, side activities like a photo booth at the fair, she said.
The photo booth, along with tweets and posts, will be tied with the “4HJoCo” hashtag on social media, she said. That helps 4-H reach new audiences, she said.
“The hashtag is just one of the things we are doing to reach and attract new audiences that aren’t generational,” she said. “We have members whose grandparents and parents were 4-H, so (social media) is a way to go out and get new families.”
But 4-H still faces struggles with recruitment, including schools moving to balanced calendars where children go back to school earlier in the summer, which makes it difficult for kids to have time to participate in 4-H projects and contests, she said.
Students in middle school and high school also have to balance their time between 4-H, sports and other activities, such as band. But she recommends children try to find that balance for the experience they gain, she said.
The week leading up to the fair can be stressful for 4-H’ers, she said. Kids often don’t get a lot of sleep because they’re up late working on their project, or they’ll have a last second issue they have to fix. Learning how to handle adversity, finishing what you started and managing multiple tasks at once are all benefits of being in 4-H that haven’t changed since Schultz was a 4-H’er.
“The most important thing 4-H can offer is giving members a lot of opportunities to be in leadership roles,” Schultz said.
“They get so many life skills, like communication and public speaking. And this is all preparing them for college. They get used to juggling a lot of things at once and if they’re involved in 4-H, they’re typically involved with other things at school and the community.”
Saturday Fair Schedule
8:30 am: Baby Contest (Indoor Arena)
4:00 pm: 2015 Johnson County 4-H and Agricultural Fair Parade, downtown Franklin
6:00 pm: 4-H Horse & Pony Individual Performance Events Show (English and Western Divisions)
9:00 am: 4-H Dog Show (East side of Fitzpatrick Hall)
1:00 pm: Pet Parade (Indoor Arena)
3:00 – 4:30 pm: 2015 Little Miss and Mister Johnson County Contest (Indoor Arena )
5:00 pm: Midway opens
7:00 pm: 2015 Miss Johnson County Fair Queen Contest (Indoor Arena)
Dark: Fireworks Display