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Interest in 4-H remains high in Dakota County

When the Dakota County Fair kicked off Aug. 10 there were the expected displays of cattle and sheep from local 4-H members. But there were also a few displays not typically associated with the traditionally agriculture-based organization.

There were projects on aerospace. Or global positioning systems.

That kind of diversity has helped the local 4-H organization to thrive in a changing atmosphere that affects most youth groups.

From the down economy to the proliferation of other activities young people can do, 4-H leaders say their organization is adapting and surviving.

"4-H, like all organizations, is trying to figure out how to adapt to changing circumstances," said the man who heads Minnesota's 4-H effort, Dale Blyth, director of the University of Minnesota's Extension Center for Youth Development.

"4-H is healthy," he added, offering as proof that state enrollment is up 25 percent in the past five years.

The program is certainly health in Dakota County. According to Cathy Johnson, a 4-H program coordinator in the county, there are about 1,200 kids currently involved in the local program. That is up from recent years, and it doesn't count about 660 involved in an out-of-school program and another 3,500 in Youth Teaching Youth, a program in which teens teach younger children about the dangers of alcohol and tobacco.

As many as 800 4-H members exhibited at last month's Dakota County Fair, and while many of those were in traditional livestock categories more than 600 were in non-livestock categories. About 250 exhibitors moved on to this week's Minnesota State Fair, and a Dakota County team took first place in a consumer decisions competition that asks teams to evaluate similar products and make the smartest buying decision. That team will now move on to a national competition in January in Denver, Colo.

4-H members can still participate in livestock-based categories if they don't live on a farm -- it's possible to rent a cow for the year, Johnson said -- but as farming becomes less important as a part of everyday life in Dakota County program leaders have to look beyond the barnyard to keep kids interested. In recent years 4-H has added categories in robotics, electricity and food and nutrition, among others.

"We're constantly changing as the need grows with the kids, because they're changing too," Johnson said.

The local 4-H program has programs on dog obedience and agility and recently added an activity that asks kids to produce hula hoops. Local 4-Hers went through 1,600 feet of hula hoop pipe this year and 5,600 feet last year.

Johnson said the key is to find new ways to deliver the same messages 4-H has always taught about decision making, leadership and communication.

"They also build self-confidence through the mastery of their skills," Johnson said. "They learn a lot about citizenship and government."

Johnson, who grew up showing pigs with 4-H, said she still uses many of the skills she learned through the program.

Money troubles?

The Dakota County 4-H program is able to stay strong thanks in part to strong participation and a lot of help from parents. But it also gets financial support from Dakota County. Johnson said Dakota County Commissioners have been very supportive of the program.

Other counties aren't as lucky.

Washington County commissioners pulled their 4-H funding, citing the need to cut $3.2 million in county spending. 4-H supporters there are halfway to their goal of raising $110,000 to keep the program operating for another year.

Blyth said a half-dozen counties are considering trimming their contributions.

"The wild card, if you will, in all of this is the decisions that all 87 county partners have to make," he said.

Cook and Ramsey counties withdrew financial support years ago.

With dwindling state money being sent to counties, commissioners across the state are deciding how to spend less. County contributions total 41 percent of cash used for 4-H programs around Minnesota.

State officials also are looking at ways to cut budgets, but there has been little talk that those funds will dry up.

"Part of the university's promise is that we will make 4-H opportunities available to young people everywhere in the state," Blyth said.

One of the most vocal watchers of taxpayers' money said 4-H is an appropriate place for some of it.

Former Rep. Phil Krinkie, now president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said he can see state money helping those who otherwise could not afford to be in 4-H.

However, Krinkie, whose daughter has won two 4-H State Fair canning blue ribbons, said suburbanites like himself can afford to pay higher dues to help keep 4-H running.

Blyth said there are no state membership fees, although the idea is being considered. County 4-H organizations and some clubs assess dues.