Families, 4-H and the fair: more than it seems





By Daniel Bobinski


I admit it, I was ignorant. Two years ago, if someone would have asked me what 4-H was, I probably would have said, “I think it has to do with farm animals.” If the person didn’t know about the organization, they might have nodded and moved along. But if someone in 4-H heard my response, they probably would have said, “It’s that, and SOOO much more.” 

The phrase “so much more” is really an understatement. When you look at everything that 4-H offers families, you will be amazed. 

Let me start by telling you what happened in our household. When my daughter was 5, she had a guinea pig. She took good care of it, but eventually the creature left to meet its maker. We said our goodbyes, and then my wife and I decided we were done with rodents for a while, so we put the cage in the attic. 

Around the time my daughter turned 11 she had a track record of being super-responsible. To reward her, we took her to the Humane Society, where she picked out another guinea pig — Mr. Squeakers. Thus, the cage came down from the attic, and we had an adorable rodent living comfortably in our home once again. 

Not long after that, one of my daughter’s friends — a fellow guinea pig owner — suggested that my daughter get involved in 4-H to learn more about guinea pigs.  

Little did I know that guinea pigs are a gateway drug into 4-H, but I have to say, I’m actually glad they are. After showing her pig (also known as a “cavy”) at the Western Idaho Fair last year, my daughter got the bug and jumped into 4-H with both feet. Since she has interest in becoming a veterinarian, she plugged into the 4-H vet science program. She also acquired some rabbits, and she’s learning all about them, too. I am impressed with how much she’s learning, and my wife and I are learning right alongside her. Frankly, it’s pretty cool. 

So how does 4-H work?

4-H started in the early 1900’s, with universities reaching out to youth to teach them the new farming technologies of the day. Clubs were formed, and in 1914, a “Cooperative Extension System” was created that nationalized 4-H through more than 100 land-grant universities and more than 3,000 county offices. In our state, the University of Idaho Extension is our resource. 

Today, 4-H is not only about agriculture. As I said, it’s SOOO much more. Today you’ll find 4-H clubs that offer rocketry, robotics and computer sciences. You’ll also find archery, hunting and fishing. Want to learn photography? They’ve got clubs for that. Baking and cake decorating? Those too. Leather crafts?  Needle crafts? Dutch oven cooking? Scrapbooking? Yes, those too. And so much more. 

Of course, the traditional animal categories remain. There are clubs that focus on horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, and some focus on small animals: dogs, cats, cavies, rabbits, pygmy goats and poultry. Think about it. If you have backyard chickens and you have kids, a local 4-H club could be just what the doctor ordered. Your kids would like it, you would like it, and the chickens would probably like it too. 

According to Kristi Mire, 4-H Program Coordinator for Ada County, the small animal clubs allow any child aged 5-18 with a pet to participate — even if it’s a goldfish! She told me that when she was young and showing her guinea pig in 4-H, there was a boy in her club that had a tarantula. Dianne Hobbs, 4-H Office Administrator for the Ada County Extension office, says that clubs have all kinds of animals, from reptiles to parakeets, from hedgehogs to hermit crabs, and everything in between. 

According to the 4-H website, the purpose of small animal projects is for children to learn how to raise a small animal or pet in a home, how to select the right small animal for their circumstances, the proper housing, care, and health needs of urban pets, and how to show a small pet.

But, like I said, with 4-H, there are now clubs for just about anything. If you have hobby, there’s probably a club for it.


Club Structures

One of the things that impresses me most about 4-H is the growth opportunities for kids. For example, if children participate in a club with their dogs, they have to learn about dogs so they can answer questions about dogs asked by a judge. Mire says the questions are always age-appropriate, but the slogan of 4-H is, “To make the best better.” In other words, kids are always challenged to grow. Mire also says there are project books that guide the kids through what they need to learn for each project. 

4-H kids also participate in monthly organization meetings in which they can fill leadership roles for the club. There are always parents present who’ve been through 4-H’s leadership training, but it’s the kids who decide what projects they’re going to offer and what community service projects they will do. Service projects can be anything the kids decide, including going to the animal shelters to clean kennels and take dogs for walks, singing Christmas carols at a retirement center, or even making baby blankets for new moms. 

Michele Detwiler, founder of the Spikes and Fur 4-H Club (named after hedgehogs and other small animals), says her club took all their animals to a retirement home and created a petting zoo for the residents. 

Kristin Boehm, founder of Little Explorers 4-H Club, says that “Community service is a big component.” She says, “The kids decide what those activities will be, then we all work together for a common goal to help the community.” 

For other leadership experience, kids 15 and older can serve as camp counselors at the many 4-H camps. Boehm’s 17-year old son, Justin, said he started training for a counselor position several months before the camps. “They were eight- and nine-hour trainings, sometimes twice a month,” he said. “We learned what to do in various situations.” When I asked Justin what he liked about being in 4-H, he said it was, “The sense of community. We’re all there for each other. If someone needs help, there’s another 4-H family there to help.” 

Justin was also excited that he gets to teach STEM classes to his group.


The Fairs 

County fairs are viewed as the pinnacle climax for those in 4-H. It’s at the fairs that kids get to show their stuff. Everyone who has done a project gets to display it or demonstrate it. All you have to do is walk through the exhibit halls and almost everywhere you look you see 4-H projects.

Most county extension offices operate independently and use their own county fairs as the grand finale of their 4-H year, but Canyon and Ada counties have developed a unique, reciprocal relationship. In the Treasure Valley, Canyon County kids can show in the Western Idaho State Fair, and Ada County kids can show in the Canyon County Fair. (The Canyon County Fair took place in July, but the Western Idaho Fair will take place August 18-27. Go to ShareMyFair.com.)

So when you walk through the exhibit halls at any of the fairs, take a look at all the cool 4-H stuff. Like I said, you will be amazed. Yes, there are the animals, but there’s SOOO much more. 

But be careful. If your children get involved in 4-H, there’s a good chance that your family will get a little closer as you all learn some new things together. 


4-H Facts


4-H = Head, Heart, Hands and Health


Main Program Areas:

STEM & Agriculture

Environmental Science
Alternative Energy
Engineering & Technology
Plant & Animal Science

Healthy Living

Nutrition & Fitness
Social & Emotional Well-Being


Leadership & Personal Development
Community Action
Communication & Expressive Arts


To learn more: 

Ada County 4-H Open House
October 2, 6-8 p.m.
Expo Idaho     

Call 208-287-5900


Canyon County 4-H Open House

Carrie Johnson




Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is the CEO of Workplace-Excellence.com, helping teams and individuals learn how to use Emotional Intelligence. He’s also a homeschooling dad, a best-selling author, and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (208) 375-7606.