by Marshall Newman, August 21, 2014
Soon after I began writing these vignettes of my time in Anderson Valley from the late 1950s to the late 1980s I discovered the Anderson Valley 4-H Club no longer existed. I was surprised, but perhaps I should not have been.
Anderson Valley agriculture in my day, especially in my early years, was diverse: apples, sheep, prunes (though almost gone by then), beef cattle, hay and wine grapes (though still tiny). Local pre-teens and teens often worked alongside their parents on local farms and ranches, so it wasn’t unusual for them to join 4-H and have 4-H projects. Families lived in Anderson Valley for generations, each generation taking on stewardship of the family property when its time came.
Today Anderson Valley agriculture is different. The two big crops are wine grapes and marijuana, neither very conducive to a 4-H project. Kids and adults also are different today; both lead busier and faster lives. Last but not least, generational stewardship is mostly gone; a significant proportion of local agriculture is corporate and family ties often don’t include the land.
My brother and I got involved in Anderson Valley 4-H soon after we became full-time residents in 1959. I cannot recall how it happened, but joining 4-H made sense; it was social, we had almost everything we needed to participate and it looked like fun.
We both made beef cattle our 4-H projects. My brother Aaron, older, more confident and more ambitious, raised registered polled Herefords, beginning with two heifers he purchased near Windsor. I raised grade Herefords for beef, one per year.
Usually there was a 4-H supervisor for the each of the various kinds of projects, but I cannot remember one for beef cattle, as my brother and I were the only ones raising them. Various Anderson Valley-ites, including the Hulberts, the Carlsons, the Gowans, the Terwilligers, Jim Clow and others, supervised projects and kept the Anderson Valley 4-H club running. The club met regularly in a meeting room at the fairgrounds office and occasionally at one of the local ranches.
The culmination of the 4-H year was showing that year’s project(s) at local fairs. Anderson Valley 4-H members showed stock at three fairs: the 12th District Fair in Ukiah, the Lake County Fair in Lakeport and the Mendocino County Fair in Boonville. The stock would be at the fair all weekend for viewing but were judged in the show ring either Friday or Saturday. We washed and groomed our project(s) for the ring, wore our mostly white 4-H attire (not very practical for handling livestock), circled the judges in the ring and posed the stock while the judges made their assessments and passed out the ribbons. We also often helped other 4-Hers show their stock when they had more than one in a class: this typically happened with sheep and goats, but occasionally even with cattle. There was a real spirit of camaraderie.
Individual 4-H Clubs also made displays for the fairs, often using agricultural products to create a tableau with an agricultural theme. They were exhibited and judged: virtually all of them won some award, one that included a cash prize later used for club activities.
Being local, showing at the Mendocino County Fair was easy: showing at the 12th District Fair or the Lake County Fair, not so much. While some kids had trailers and campers to sleep in, my brother and I slept on cots under a cattle truck. Fortunately, parents from various 4-H Clubs put together a commissary at most fairs and kept prices at rock bottom, which made life much easier for everyone.
Long-time Mendocino County Farm Advisor Rod Shippey was a big booster of 4-H Clubs. In my second year of 4-H, he got me involved in a University of California Extension “Rate of Gain” trial, which required me to buy a yearling Hereford steer of a certain weight, feed it a precise mix of feed — rolled oats, beet pulp and cottonseed meal — for several months and record its weight on a regular basis. Rod often visited on days we trailered my steer — named Wilbur — to the fairgrounds for his weighing and usually stayed for dinner. He was a man of great charm and humor. Nearly 25 years later, I encountered Rod at a friend’s dinner and was surprised; I remembered him as an adult nearly my parent’s ages, but he must have been at least a decade younger.
The “Rate of Gain” trial culminated at the 12th District Fair. After the judging, all the blue ribbon steers were auctioned. Like a few 4-H Clubs of the era, Anderson Valley 4-H had an “angel,” a person or business that bought our stock at fair auctions. Anderson Valley 4-H’s “angel” was Golden Eagle Milling Company in Petaluma, which purchased Wilbur with the auction’s high bid. I was sad to see my steer go, though both the money and the memory of being dragged through manure and mud on more than one occasion made the loss easier to take!
After we moved from Anderson Valley in 1963 (though returning each summer and many weekends), my brother and I joined Petaluma 4-H, though suburbia limited our projects to things like electrical and welding. Petaluma 4-H continues to thrive today, but Anderson Valley 4-H appears to have gently faded from the local scene; the last mention I can find comes from 2009. However, Future Farmers of America has a strong presence in Anderson Valley and carries on the vital work of educating a new generation about agriculture.