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Houston County celebrates 100 years of 4-H

Kaitlyn Riley

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Photo Credit: Houston County Historical Society

Celebrating 100 years of 4-H is no small feat, but doing so in a pandemic is another impressive accomplishment for Houston County 4-H.

“It is fantastic to look back and see all of the different activities that have happened since the beginning,” Rebecca Paulson said. Paulson works as an extension educator for 4-H youth development in Houston County.

Her roots run deep in the organization. So deep the very first meeting to form the 4-H Federation in the county took place at her great-great-grandparent’s farm.

“We have minutes from that first meeting, so it is fun to be able to 100 years later be able to be in this position to celebrate what my great-great-grandfather helped start,” Paulson said.

Culture and interest in activities have changed in the past century. The county has had a total of 100 clubs in 100 years. In past decades, more than 800 members were active in nearly 30 clubs at one time. Looking back on history, Paulson recognized the loss of Playday which was a large softball tournament that happened every year with hundreds of youth participating from all across the county. There also used to be communications contests and consumer education projects.

“As time has changed and things have changed, we’ve pretty much lost most of these activities, or they just haven’t been as popular,” Paulson said. “But we’ve gained things.”

Examples included more regional activities such as a tri-county camp and regional project days.

“Things have changed,” Paulson said. “They’ve grown in different ways, but I don’t think the goals and the purpose have changed. It has always been about helping youth learn, educating youth, and providing opportunities for youth.”

Made up of 19 clubs and 400 members today, there is active participation in not only county projects, but also regional and state programs.

Paulson explained how the organization has expanded beyond traditional clubs to include after-school offerings in partnership with school districts.

“Those youth join 4-H, and they can still participate in everything, but their club looks just a little bit different,” Paulson said. “They are mostly concentrated on after-school activities versus during the nights or weekends. They’re still getting a lot of education, and they even periodically will have opportunities to do outreach in the community.”

Other clubs have a specific focus in certain areas such as horses, shooting sports, or wildlife. A teen exchange club offers travel exchange opportunities between counties in the United States.

Despite COVID-19, Houston County 4-H is working to maintain as much normalcy as possible. Clubs on a local, regional, and state-level quickly pivoted to virtual activities.

“We’ve seen some successes with that,” Paulson said. “There’s been mixed feelings, especially when schools went online as well. There’s just so much focus on online.”

One success story was this year’s annual cake decorating contest. Held over Zoom at a time when most people were staying home, the competition had more participation than in years past.

Photo Credit: Houston County 4-H

“We’ve made it work,” Paulson said. “We have continued to move forward.”

Part of moving forward was building new activities. That included hundreds of kits that were mailed to anyone who expressed interest in a 20-county southeast Minnesota radius. They included fishing lures, horse halters, embroidery, and more.

“We were pleasantly surprised with that response,” she said. “Some other counties are doing how-two videos. We’re just trying to adjust. I’m really happy with 4-H in the way that we have not stopped. We continue to innovate.”

Some of their new ideas will likely be carried over after COVID-19 passes because of the recognized desire in the community.

Although the Minnesota State Fair and Houston County Fair both were postponed until 2021, leaders are trying to establish ways for youth to still exhibit their projects and livestock this summer. Houston County usually sends around 100 youth to participate at the Minnesota State Fair in various project areas each year.

Paulson said there are still many ways to show support for 4-H, especially in its centennial. Volunteers are welcome to help with educational programming and partnership. Additionally, Houston County 4-H collaborated with Spring Grove Soda Pop to create a commemorative green soda for a century of activities. The flavor is lemon sour and will be in stores soon. Other commemorative items will also be available.

Photo Credit: Houston County 4-H

Kaitlyn Riley’s passion for communications started on her family’s dairy farm in Gays Mills, Wis. Wanting to share agriculture’s story, she studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college, she held officer positions with the Association of Women in Agriculture and Badger Dairy Club while volunteering as a news reporter for the college radio station. She also founded the university’s first agricultural radio talk show, AgChat. In her professional career, Kaitlyn has worked in radio, print and television news doing everything from covering local events to interviewing presidential candidates, and putting back on her barn boots to chat with farmers in the field. Today, Kaitlyn can be seen covering local stories that matter to you in the La Crosse area.