SIDNEY — Marvin Ditmer, of Sidney, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved with 4-H.
As a 10-year-old, he was a club member. As a 19-year-old in the military stationed in Alaska, he evaluated the effect of extreme cold on cattle, to qualify for his 10-year participation award. And this year, he marks 59 years as an adviser of the Starting Farmers 4-H Club, based in Hardin.
His wife, Barbara, is not far behind him. A member of the Happy Stitchers club in 1952, she’s in her 56th year as an adviser of the Starting Farmers.
Neither of them, though, can meet Maxine Allen’s record. The Sidney leader of the Paw Prints 4-H Club has been an adviser for 61 years. She is one of just three advisers in Ohio who have 60 or more years of service.
“The first club I started was the Sow and Grow 4-H Garden Club,” she said recently. “We were a branch off of the regular (gardeners). They wanted to start a junior gardeners club.” Then she led the Thrifty Farmers and the Doggone 4-H Club before taking the reins — or the leashes — of Paw Prints. At one point in her long career, she was advising three clubs at once and working full time for the Soil and Water conservation District, a job she held for 32 years.
Starting Farmers, established by John Anderson and Walter Strayer, had been going strong for 10 years when Marvin became its adviser in 1956.
“For a long time, you had only boys in the clubs,” Allen said. Barbara formed Starting Farmerettes in 1959, “because there were so many girls who wanted to be involved. I had it for three or four years. Then we merged with Starting Farmers.”
Starting Farmers club members all raised animals in the early years. Now, members complete all kinds of projects, from raising steers to creative writing, grooming rabbits to woodworking. At each monthly meeting, a guest speaker gives a talk about something pertinent and members take turns presenting demonstrations of what they’re working on.
“So we teach kids how to talk in a presentation,” Allen said. Marvin is a stickler for following parliamentary procedure during meetings. He also stresses public speaking, so that members can talk easily with judges when it’s time for evaluations at the fair.
“We tell them, ‘Talk more so (the judge) will ask less.
Dog club members meet weekly, with their pets, to go through obedience and showmanship drills.
For years, meetings took place in private homes. Then, in grange halls. Now the Starting Farmers meet in a building at the fairgrounds. The Paw Prints members gather at Allen’s house in the summer and at another adviser’s house in the winter. All three long-time leaders have seen big changes in how 4-H runs and in participation levels and attitudes of the kids.
Fewer youngsters want to join the dog club, Allen noted.
“We had all these kids that were the same age and they all graduated. So we were hunting for kids. There are only 10 this year,” she added. One reason for the drop in membership is that children now don’t have to allied with a 4-H club to show a dog at the fair.
The Starting Farmers club has the opposite problem. It has split into other clubs three times because it had too many members.
“The kids who were older would move to bigger clubs and we wee left with all the Cloverbuds,” Marvin said. Cloverbeds, 5-8, are the pre-4Hers.
All the kids seem to have many more conflicting commitments they have to juggle than kids did several decades ago.
“The activities that kids are in interfere (with 4-H attendance),” Allen said.
“So what’s your priority?” Marvin asked, rhetorically.
In addition to changes in attitudes of their charges, the advisers have had to adjust to new rules put in place by the state organization.
“We used to take kids everywhere. We can’t do that now. Parents are responsible now,” Barbara said.
And, after 60 years as a leader, Allen found it ridiculous that just this year, she was required to be fingerprinted and pay for a background check of herself.
“Part of that is because it became our responsibility to report child abuse,” Marvin said. “It’s a different society we have now.”
“I think 4-H has really fallen apart. The kids are different. Oh, yes. There are so many split families. They’ve got three or four stepdads. The kids aren’t interested because the parents aren’t interested,” Allen said.
Barbara recognized what 4-H can do.
“We are the steadying influence in those kids’ lives. 4-H teaches respect and life skills, obedience, listening,” she said. “We’re also proud of what these kids accomplish when they go on. They are doctors, engineers, veterinarians. One became president of the National Soybean Council.”
Members can join at age 9 and can remain members for 10 years. The advisers have seen just about everything that can happen to a child’s project, from cockatiels that get loose and fly into the huge ceiling fans to dogs who take off across the fairgrounds, leaving their young trainers in tears behind them.
“One thing I like to see is a 10-year-old with a dog that doesn’t want to do anything and then by their 10th year, what a change there is,” Allen said.