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4-H clubs hang on

After adapting to life off the farm, the organization in Bay State must find way to replace UMass funds

Bobby Ferrant has never sheared a sheep, milked a cow, or dug a potato. His backyard in Gloucester is too small for a horse -- and the grown-ups on his block are more likely to ride lawnmowers.

But the sixth-grader is a convert to 4-H, the century-old group whose legends include a plucky farmer who harvested an astonishing 229 bushels of corn from a single acre in 1910. This fall in Ferrant's house, his 4-H project can fit easily in the corner of his bedroom: two guinea pigs, named Fizzle and Petunia.

As farms have faded into suburbs, 4-H has transformed itself into a group that reaches kids who are captivated by PlayStation, not ponies. In Massachusetts, 4-H clubs are devoted to building robots, debating politics, and hosting parties for elderly residents of housing developments.

Although many 4-H clubs in Massachusetts and around the nation still coach kids who raise heifers and can green beans, others immerse themselves in suburbs and cities. The national 4-H Council has rallied against teen pregnancy. One Washington, D.C., club helped provide educational information and temporary shelter to young prostitutes.

In Los Angeles, 4-H workers targeted children who might otherwise join gangs. And a local group called the Boston 4-H Urban Stewards surveyed trees on Mission Hill last spring and wrote a guide to their care.

"We've evolved through the years," said Bonnie McLaughlin, Ferrant's leader in a Topsfield club, the largest in Massachusetts. "We're not just cows and sheep."

But as the group responds to the challenge of changing demographics, the clubs in Massachusetts are now facing a greater threat. The University of Massachusetts Extension Service, which funds the program, cut the entire budget for 4-H clubs and field operations, closing some regional offices and laying off 10 staffers.

UMass wants the group to do what no state 4-H program has ever done: become financially self-sufficient. A group of 4-H leaders meets weekly and hopes to create a business plan by early December. Changes to the program could include the group's first-ever membership fees.

"A lot of these kids don't have the money, and that's the tragedy we face here -- we're going to be cutting out the kids that need help the most," said Peter Bentinck-Smith, chairman of the board of trustees of the Massachusetts 4-H Foundation.

Some 4-H officials question whether UMass, created in 1863 as Massachusetts Agricultural College, is reneging on its mission as a land-grant school. The federal government gave land to colleges in exchange for programs related to agriculture and mechanics. Now, the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the 4-H program, will review the UMass budget plan.

About 3,700 children in Massachusetts belong to 4-H clubs, but officials say nearly 50,000 children in the state are touched by the group's work, including many who participate in after-school programs. Nationally, 4-H leaders say they reach children in every county across the country, a total of 7 million youngsters.

As much as the group has changed, some things have stayed the same. Members today still mind the four H's: They pledge their heads to clearer thinking, their hearts to greater loyalty, their hands to larger service, and their health to better living.

Massachusetts 4-H leaders were stunned this summer when the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where the extension service is based, announced the severe budget cut to clubs and other 4-H outreach. The university split off a part of the program devoted mainly to research and teaching, which it agreed to continue funding.

Recently, UMass officials softened the cut slightly by contributing $150,000 to 4-H clubs. But they've stood by one mandate: that 4-H needs to become financially independent.

In their budget trimming, officials followed the directive of UMass-Amherst chancellor John V. Lombardi, said UMass Extension spokesman Wesley Blixt. "We, like the university at large, had to look at preserving the aspects of UMass Extension which are closest to the teaching and research core missions," he said. Officials determined that the 4-H clubs were farthest from that mission.

University officials would like to see more 4-H clubs mimic one of the state's most unusual groups: the Middlesex County 4-H Fife and Drum Corps, a group dedicated to playing Colonial military instruments. Their motto: "Remembering our history . . . and playing it loud!"

The corps, which practices weekly in Bedford, is largely self-sufficient because its members are often paid to perform at parades and musters around the state. The group once played at the opening of a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop.

Beth Humphreys, 13, the corps fife sergeant, is discouraged by news of budget cuts. She fears that if 4-H diminishes, children like her will spend less time on community service. In addition to playing the fife, Humphreys volunteers with other 4-H members, raking leaves for the elderly and baby-sitting at her synagogue.

"I'm not very happy about [the budget cuts] because 4-H is a great group," she said. "If you're in 4-H, you do community service but you don't think of it as work. You think of it as a lot of fun."

In the rabbit and guinea pig barn of the Topsfield Fair last week, Bobby Ferrant and Petunia were surrounded by children with outstretched arms, like groupies clamoring to touch a rock star. Ferrant tried to keep the animal from scampering off the table and patiently answered questions -- mainly, "Can I pet her?"

"Yup," he answered politely, again and again.

A few hundred yards away, past carts selling candied apples and cotton candy and beside the racetrack for Robinson's Racing Pigs, Joan Lagasse was monitoring the fair's 4-H barn. This year, there was a whiff of revolution at the information booth, where 4-H leaders have posted a petition railing against the budget cuts. Like other 4-H leaders, Lagasse, a member of the state 4-H advisory council, fears that charging fees to participate will alienate some potential members. As a club leader, she has bought craft materials for children whose families couldn't afford the cost. Those youngsters, she worries, are the ones who need 4-H the most.

"Suburbia has kids at risk," she said. "It's not just an inner-city problem."

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com

Fife players Adam Hodges-LeClaire (left) and Leif Harder, both 10, before the Middlesex 4-H Fife and Drum Corps performed yesterday in Shirley. Fife players Adam Hodges-LeClaire (left) and Leif Harder, both 10, before the Middlesex 4-H Fife and Drum Corps performed yesterday in Shirley. (Globe Photo / Logan Wallace)
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