4-H sets high bar

Garrett Lesch presents his "All Aboard" train project for 4-H.

A family tradition, commitment and affair. This is what 4-H has been for the John Lesch family for several generations in Chautauqua County.

In about 1935, John’s grandmother started the Canadaway 4-H Club, and the family has been involved ever since. Ten years ago, Heather Lesch “inherited” the club from Linda Harris after Heather and John’s eldest son Jacob became a member. Ever since, the whole family has worked tirelessly to make 4-H a part of life for many young people in the area.

The 4-H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands and Health. All four are part of the programming and efforts of club members as they follow in the tradition of the founders whose purpose was to instruct rural youth in improved farming and farm-homemaking practices.

Initially, researchers from USDA and those at experiment stations at the land-grant universities, such as Cornell University, saw that adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural discoveries, but educators found that youth would experiment with these new ideas and then share their experiences and successes with the adults. So rural youth programs became a way to introduce new agriculture technology to the adults.

By the 1970s, it was broadening its goals to cover a full range of youth, including minorities, and a wide range of life experiences. From the beginning, the goal of 4-H is to develop citizenship, leadership, responsibility and life skills of youth through experiential learning programs and a positive youth development approach. Though typically thought of as an agriculturally focused organization as a result of its history, 4-H today focuses on citizenship, healthy living, science, engineering, and technology programs. The 4-H motto is “To make the best better”, while its slogan is “Learn by doing” (sometimes written as “Learn to do by doing”).

Jacob Lesch shows a prize pig at the Chautauqua County Fair in July.

Today, 4-H clubs and activities are no longer focused primarily on agricultural activities, instead emphasizing personal growth and preparation for lifelong learning.

Lessons in life

Unbounded enthusiasm for the experiences gained in 4-H seems to be inherent in the Lesch sons’ personas. The three I met, Braden, 16, Adam, 12, and Garrett, 8 all had intense positive feelings to share about their 4-H projects and work during the past year.

Braden spoke eloquently about his work in public speaking, a skill he has perfected during the years he presented speeches on a wide variety of topics. This year he presented his findings about beef genomics, involving a branch of biotechnology concerned with applying the techniques of genetics and molecular biology to the genetic mapping and DNA sequencing of sets of genes or the complete genomes of beef. Although selected to attend the 4-H State Conference this year, he chose not to attend because “I had too much other work to do on the farm and I had already gone last year.” Braden seems to be a young man who is “older” than his years.

Adam brimmed over with excitement about the catapult he built for his public speaking presentation. Although it was not a complete success as a catapult, Adam made the most of his experience and enthused others too. In addition to this project, Adam also completed a sewing project that he proudly displayed, along with a second project he made last year. “I like all of the projects that we can do, and I especially like sewing because my grandmother is the project leader and she helps me out.”

Braden Lesch shows his 1,400-pound steer at the Chautauqua County Fair.

This was Garrett’s first year showing a pig that he raised by himself, and he is now fully invested in raising more animals for the Chautauqua County Fair next year. “I had to make sure that the pig ate the right amount of feed, and then I had to make sure that it looked great for the judges.” Quite a bit of work for an 8-year old who also was involved in a project about trains that he presented to his audience at the Cassadaga Valley Central School.

‘Enthusiasm’ abounds

Their mom, Heather, is behind each of them, all the way. Her role as the leader of the Canadaway 4-H Club is to organize each monthly meeting, held on the second Saturday of the month at the First United Methodist Church in Fredonia. She must find volunteers to be project leaders for the variety of projects that are offered to each member, and make sure that each member is working on at least one project at a time. She has been assisted by her sons, as Braden was president this last year, Adam was secretary, and Jacob was treasurer.

Most people think of animal husbandry as a primary aspect of the club, but there is so much more, according to the three boys, and as reflected in their brother Jacob’s record book that I viewed at the house. Jacob is now attending Ohio State University, his parents’ alma mater.

Each club member maintains a record book which is much like a portfolio of a club member’s work throughout the year. It holds photos, medals and ribbons earned, and personal comments about each project that the member completes. It is quite a compendium of accomplishments.

Heather Lesch, leader of the Canadaway 4-H Club, is seated on the bench her son Jacob made for his woodworking project.

Club members can select projects in the following areas: foods, sewing, woodworking, electricity, ceramics, photography, watercolor, STEM and drone projects, and public speaking. “Actually,” said Heather, “other projects could be included so long as we have a project leader for them.” In other words, volunteers are welcome to contribute in many ways. According to Heather, “Once people see the enthusiasm of the kids, they dive in and recognize how they can benefit the learning and development of these terrific kids.”

Major attention

The projects that always receive the most public attention are the animal husbandry projects. This past year, each Lesch boy raised one or more animals destined for the Chautauqua County Fair, after which the animals are sold. Most of the proceeds go to the youth who raised the animal, but a small commission also goes to 4-H.

Braden noted, “Each of us uses the money we earn from the sale of our animals for a college fund and for next year’s animals.” There is even a learning component involved in the proceeds!

Jacob raised a steer that weighed in at more than 1,500 pounds. Braden raised his personal largest steer at over 1,400 pounds; Adam showed his first steer, and Garrettt raised a pig. To do this, each boy had to pay attention to the feed mix being fed to the animals. “Each one gets a ‘show mix’ and we try to get them to an ideal market weight,” explained Braden. “For pigs, we aim for between 220 to 290 pounds for the fair, while the ideal market range is from 250 to 280 pounds. We also try to have each animal achieve the qualities they will be judged on, such as muscle, structure, appearance, including skin and body fat.”

As Heather explained, “4-H teaches kids so much about life, including how to take a problem and overcome it. Each project has its own set of difficulties and experiences. Kids must fix and overcome the problems, with guidance and support, and sometimes direct assistance, so there are many opportunities for parent involvement. Ultimately, though, it’s the kids who solve the problems.”

Youth from all over the county will have an opportunity between Oct. 2 to 8, National 4-H Week, to sign up for a 4-H club, and to view 4-H projects in a large window display at Fredonia Hardware Store on East Main Street in Fredonia. For the Canadaway 4-H Club, youth from ages 5 – 8 (but not in third grade) can register for Clover Buds, the group for the youngest 4-H’ers, and those from ages 8 (in third grade) to 18 can register as regular 4-H’ers. The registration event will be held at the Fredonia First United Methodist Church on Thursday, Oct. 5 where parents and their children can come to see participants’ projects, talk to those involved, and complete the paperwork that is needed for the registration. Dues are $50 per year per child, with a maximum of $200 for a family.

“We do receive some funding from the United Way, and the dues go to cover some of the cost of the insurance we must carry for the program,” said Heather. Chautauqua County no longer provides funding as is done is many other counties. “As a result of limited funding, we must run some fund-raising projects. Our members sell items such as candy and nuts, and at the Chautauqua County Fair, each family that has a club member involved in an animal project must work at the Snack Shack.”

When you think of all of the benefits the youth gain from their 4-H experience, the cost is truly minimal.

Said Braden, “Our organization serves to educate kids in agriculture and teaches them how to be a successful agricultural person and how to succeed in so many other aspects of life. The projects get kids involved in a hands-on way with things that will help them forever. 4-H also educates the public about the best practices in agriculture. As club members, we also benefit from the community projects we do, and they help us give back to our community too.”