March 12, 2014

4-H Made Me Do It

This is part of the Tales of an Aspiring Food & Farm Leader series.

About a month ago I was sitting in front of the Kentucky House Agriculture and Small Business Committee Meeting talking about leadership within the farm community, and I was thinking to myself, how on earth did I – the child of low income, blue collar parents – get here?

The answer is quite simple: 4-H. It is amazing to look back at the course of my life to realize that one factor has had so great an impact.

My parents purchased a small farm just outside Louisville, KY when I was seven years old. We had horses, goats, chickens, and rabbits. I spent most of my days outside with the animals and enjoyed time on horseback. Despite my chores, life was great fun.

 A few years later, my mom wanted to get serious about her horses and develop a training and boarding business. Going to shows was part of that plan, but we had no experience. So the fateful question was posed to us: Do you want to join the 4-H horse program? It was a no-brainer. I would get to enjoy the horses and learn more about them in the process.  I was twelve years old when we joined the East Jefferson 4-H Horse Club.

At 17, I showed a 3-year old appendix Quarter Horse (half Thoroughbred) named Copper Cat Can that we bred and raised. I was primarily responsible for training him, and we placed in the Top 10  in every class that year at state.
It was his second show ever.

Now I may have already had a competitive spirit in me, but 4-H sent it into overdrive. I participated in judging, quiz bowl, arts and crafts, public speaking, hippology (the study of the horse), and of course, horse show competitions. It was my goal to become better and better at the task at hand, and it translated to my school life as well. I began participating in school clubs and academic competitions, many times taking on leadership roles. 4-H gave me the confidence to do many things in my young life.

Also before heading off to college, I earned State Champion in the English Horse Judging Division and 2nd place in the Hippology Contest. My hippology team earned first place in the state. We were able to compete at the Eastern National 4-H Horse Roundup that year for our accomplishments. I later devoted 13 years to that national contest as a volunteer. 
Once it was time to look at college and consider my future from a practical point of view, I ended up at the University of Kentucky. After all, UK was the land grant institution that provided me my 4-H experience, and it seemed like a wonderful place to make my home for the next several years.

My passion for learning, gaining experience and leadership continued through school, preparing me for the meaningful and successful career I enjoy today.

The reason I am writing this is to bring some attention to the youth and agriculture programs we have for future generations and encourage you to give that $10 donation when you renew your Kentucky farm plates. Proceeds are shared by 4-H, FFA and the Kentucky Proud program.

I also believe FFA is an outstanding program and is vital for the future of agriculture. Unfortunately, not every high school has an FFA program. So my second plea is to not forget the value of 4-H for producing the leaders within our industry. I am absolutely amazed at the poise and intellect of the young people I have met over the years, and am certain our future is in good hands.

While at the Capitol for my speaking engagement, I ran into 2012 Kentucky 4-H President Ryan Halligan. He was there as an intern, and I am convinced he will do many great things in his lifetime. Seeing him reminded me that I wanted to share what 4-H has done for me.

This is my public thank you to the supporters, volunteers, and staff of Kentucky 4-H for all they provided to me, are providing for my children, and will provide to our future citizens and leaders. I appreciate you more than you can know. 

Jennifer Elwell is the Communications Director for the Kentucky Corn Growers Association and Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association and manages the Kentucky Food & Farm Files web site. 

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