As 4-H participation grows locally, state lawmakers want schools to excuse program-related absences

After 11 years in 4-H, the hopes of Emmit Cates’ final year showing pigs at the Clark County fair come down to his prize piglet: Amy Swinehouse.

Raising Amy is hard work. Cates, 18, is up early every day tending to Amy, as well as cows and other pigs, before attending classes at Clark State College and shoving off to his job in Springfield.

When he gets home, he, his siblings and his girlfriend work together to feed their animals and take them for walks to give them exercise. Hours of work go into preparing the animals for the Clark County Fair each year; his 4-H club is called the Barnbusters.

“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s so much fun and I want to do everything I can so that my animals are taken care of,” he said.

4-H was created in Clark County more than 100 years ago. Today, participation is growing and the thousands of area students who take part in the program have to balance it against schooling and other aspects of their life. A new bill in the Ohio House aims to make that easier by requiring school districts in the state to excuse absences related to 4-H as well as the National FFA Organization.

“Agriculture is a major part of Ohio’s culture and economy and we could all benefit from learning more about its role in our state,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp. “I will continue to support student participation in 4-H.”

Hall and fellow southwest Ohio lawmaker Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, introduced House Bill 135 in March. This month it was referred to the Primary and Secondary Education committee. It would allow students in kindergarten through the 12th grade excused absences for these activities as long as their 4-H or FFA educators submit proof of student participation in the event.

The district will then give the student the opportunity to make up assignments missed during their absence. The excusal would only not be granted during state assessments and if the student has been suspended or expelled during the requested absence.

4-H participation growing

“(Students) are having to choose between school activities and 4-H, and that’s the reality of the situation,” said Montgomery County 4-H educator Betty Wingerter. “Some schools have been really great to work with, though.”

Wingerter said more than 300 students in her county often have to make difficult decisions about their commitments. There are years when she walks through county fair buildings and sees students seated near their pins, working on homework between events.

“There’s a lot of juggling,” she said. “But 4-H is such a positive group for youth development.”

In Greene County, 4-H is booming in popularity. 4-H educator Rebecca Supinger said her county witnessed its largest enrollment since 2014, coming in at 730 members.

Supinger said the bill would mostly allow students excused absences during county fairs if passed.

Montgomery County’s Fair is slated for July 9-15, and Greene County’s Fair will take place from July 30 to Aug. 5.

Participation remains particularly strong in Clark County, the birthplace of 4-H. In 2022, Clark County 4-H clubs had 1,156 youth enrolled, a nearly 10% increase from 2021. Enrollment grew again this year to 1,193.

Clark County 4-H also had more than 1,000 more kids involved in camping, in-school and after-school programs.

School policies

Most local school districts say they accommodate students in 4-H. Cates is a Northwestern High School graduate and said his school was very flexible with students for 4-H and FFA actives.

Officials at districts like Kettering City Schools, Centerville City Schools, West Carrollton School District and New Lebanon School District said they already excuse absences related to 4-H and FFA.

Other district officials, like at Oakwood Schools, said they do not have FFA participants and have never received requests for excusals related to 4-H.

Valley View School District and Northmont City School District, too, have FFA programming that is co-curricular with the Miami Valley Career and Technology Center.

Anna Moeller, a senior at Talawanda High School, says she has missed at least 30 days of school this year because of FFA activities.

Earlier this school year she traveled to Massachusetts and Indianapolis for competition. Last week she went to Columbus to compete in a horse judging competition. With her teachers’ permission, she is allowed to make up the missed school days through remote learning and homework.

“I’ve been in 4-H since I was eight years old … and I’ve been incredibly active in FFA and those organizations has been some of my greatest passions,” said Moeller, who will start freshman classes in the fall at Wilmington College where she plans to study agriculture education.

“School, of course, is about learning in the classroom, but there is so much to be learning to be done outside of school at different organizations. This bill would help to make that possible,” said Moeller.

In the Miami Valley, 4-H and FFA programs offer more to students than animal-related projects, Wingerter said. Montgomery County offers a robust program geared toward firearms safety and shotgun discipline. The program has more than 40 students enrolled in it.

Beyond the farm

Cates said he has learned a lot about raising pigs through 4-H. For example, he takes his family’s four pigs out into the sunshine to help them have a darker color; this is favorable among judges during fair time.

“I just love pigs,” he said. “They have so much personality, and they really have a special place in my heart.”

He said raising animals through 4-H also allotted him the opportunity to learn more about where food comes from, how it’s produced and more.

Along the way, he also learned about the importance of community. When he was 10 years old, two of his pigs floated away during a major flood in the Enon area. A local farmer provided pigs to his family so they could still participate in the fair that year.

“It was devastating at the time, but it also was really cool to see people want to help us,” he said.

Lessons like this — as well as responsibility, leadership and teamwork — he carries into his young adulthood. He said he recommends the organization to other young people who want to make friends and learn new skills.

“It’s really brought me out of my comfort zone and taught me how to work in a team, how to lead,” he said.

Staff Writer Michael Clark contributed to this report.

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