Spring 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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4-H Contributes to Farm Success Study Explores Long-Term Impact


Richard C. Maurer
Associate Extension Professor,
Department of Sociology,
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY

Janet L. Bokemeier
Associate Professor,
Department of Sociology,
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY

Long-Term Impact

Part of the recent emphasis on evaluation in Extension is to demonstrate how its programs affect participants, both immediately and overtime. Warner and Christenson discuss the need to evaluate the "impact on people's lives within a larger environment."1 Others have called for studies to show how Extension is "making a difference in the lives of people and communities, "2 including "program results and social or economic benefits and costs to clientele and society. 3" Obviously, the long-term impact is more difficult both to study and to document, but is clearly important. Such evaluation would be especially relevant to the 4-H program,4 where one major goal is for youth to acquire knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable them to become "self-directing, productive members of society. "5 The underlying objective is for youth to carry this acquired skill and knowledge into their adult lives. However, studies demonstrating what 4-H has contributed to the adult lives of its former members are virtually nonexistent, primarily because it's so difficult to conduct research on long-term program impacts.6 This study explores possible long-term benefits to farmers who are former 4-H members. One special problem is showing direct cause and effect relationships between the program and present situations or characteristics. However, by using comparison groups,8 relationships can be examined, even if cause can't be proven. Consistent with the stated goals of 4-H, we expected to find that farmers who had 4-H experiences as youth were more successful and innovative than farmers without 4-H backgrounds.

Study of Farmers

The reason for studying this group was to assess a traditional 4-H agricultural program area among some traditional Extension supporters-farmers. Farmers who weren't 4-H members as youth were used as a comparison group. We wanted to see to what extent farmers had been involved in 4-H programs when they were growing up and whether this related to their current farm situations. Data were collected in 1982 by mail questionnaires from a statewide survey of Kentucky farmers. The sample was randomly selected from all county lists of farmers receiving benefits from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. A total of 2,004 farmers returned questionnaires, for a response rate of 71 %.


We found that 27% of the current farmers in Kentucky were 4-H members as youth, with an average of 41/2 years membership. When asked to evaluate their 4-H experience, nine out of every 10 former 4-Hers rated their experience as worthwhile. In comparing farmers with and without 4-H experi ence, former 4-H members tended to be younger, with an average age of 43 years compared to 52 years for non-4-Hers. Because age and length of farming are related to farm success and innovativeness, we controlled these factors by examining 4-Hers in four age categories. As shown in Table 1, regardless of age, farmers who were 4-H members had more education than non-members. Differences also existed in the characteristics of the farms operated by the two groups. Former 4-H members had higher gross farm sales and higher net incomes (except those under 30 years old) from farming than non-4-Hers. However, no significant difference existed in the number of acres owned,, implying that former 4-Hers make more effective use of their farm resources. Another interesting finding relates to the use of innovative farm techniques. The farmers were asked if they'd ever used reduced-tillage or no-tillage techniques on their farms. Nearly half of former 4-Hers had used these techniques, compared to fewer than one-fourth of non-4-Hers. This difference was found in all age categories.


Many significant differences in farm characteristics were found between the groups. Again, it must be emphasized that the evidence isn't sufficient to conclude that 4-H involvement directly caused higher education, incomes, or use of innovative farm techniques. Although the specific extent of 4-H's contribution can't be determined, these results show that former 4-Hers are more productive farmers and are in a preferred position, thus, suggesting that 4-H was of benefit to these farmers. In addition to the differences in farm characteristics, productivity, and practices, the farmers indicated that their earlier involvement in 4-H had been a worthwhile experience. Thus, the farmers themselves also give 4-H credit for contributing to their current farm operations. This reinforces the conclusion that long-term benefits of 4-H do exist. Obviously, society as well as individual farmers share in such benefits. This study only begins to examine long-term benefits of 4-H. Many more studies are needed to answer questions about how it influences people throughout their lives and to what extent adult characteristics can be attributed to it. Those involved in Extension programs generally feel that 4-H has definite positive effects on youth that carry over into adulthood. Evidence that supports these claims will establish the continuing need for 4-H programs, but more evidence is needed to back up this assertion. These are positive results. Farmers who were 4-H members have higher educations, higher farm sales, higher farm incomes, and are more likely to use innovative farm techniques than farmers who weren't members. The characteristics of the farmers with 4-H backgrounds are consistent with the longrange goals of the 4-H program.


1. Paul D. Warner and James A. Christenson, The Cooperative Extension Service: A National Assessment (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1985), p. 144.

2. Mary Andrews, "Evaluation: An Essential Process, " Journal of Extension, XXI (September/ October 1983), 11.

3. Connie McKenna, "Evaluation for Accountability, " Journal of Extension, XXI (September/October 1983), 23.

4. ECOP Subcommittee on 4-H, Extension's 4-H: Toward the `90s (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office), p. 13.

5. Joint USDA-NASULGC Committee on the Future of Cooperative Extension, Extension in the `80s (Madison: University of Wisconsin, Cooperative Extension Service, May 1983), p. 13.

6. Kenneth E. Pigg and James M. Meyer, Social and Economic Consequences of the 4-H Program, Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Extension Service, October 1980), p. 71.

7. Warner and Christenson, The Cooperative Extension Service, p. 145. 8. M. F. Smith and A. A. Straughn, "Impact Evaluation: A Challenge for Extension, " Journal of Extension, XXI (September/October 1983), 62.

Table 1. Comparison of 4-Her and non-4-Her farmers by age, education, and farm characteristics.
Age Total 18-29 30-44 45-64 64 or older
Number 106 526 810 239 1,681
Percent who are former 4-Hers 36.8% 39.9% 23.7% 9.2% 27.5%
Education At least high school graduate * Former 4-Her 92.3 88.1 77.7 77.4 83%
Non-4-Her 91.0 71.5 42.9 29.5 50
College graduate* Former 4-Her 33.3 27.2 16.2 31.8 23
Non-4-Her 29.9 16.5 7.6 6.9 11
Farmer Characteristics
Average farm acres owned Former 4-Her 166 178 224 289 202
Non-4-Her 297 146 228 160 198
Average net farm income * Former 4-Her $ 4,749 $13,489 $ 7,105 $ 8,449 $ 9,823
Non-4-Her 11,489 10,376 5,987 3,786 6,990
Average gross farm sales * Former 4-Her $46,228 $52,529 $71,650 $48,579 $58,800
Non-4-Her 32,618 35,911 28,241 10,594 27,594
Have used reduced-tillage or no-tillage techniques* Former 4-Her 50.0% 48.0% 49.5 % 38.9% 48.4%
Non-4-Her 40.3 27.6 21.3 11.4 22.4
* Significant difference (p < .05) using chi-square tests.