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4-H Clubs gearing up for Beltrami County Fair

Kids in 4-H clubs across the county take a hectic pace this time of year -- when the fruits of their labor go on display at the Beltrami County Fair.

"The fair is our showcase," says Ann Marie Ward, 4-H Youth Development Program coordinator. "The kids are involved in many different facets. We'll have 1,600 4-H entries just from youth."

The Beltrami County Fair this year runs from July 30 to Aug. 4.

The 4-H program is under the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which contracts with Beltrami County for a number of services and staffing requirements. And the Beltrami County Extension Service is more than just youth programs, providing also nutrition education, parenting information and horticultural education.

Staff briefed Beltrami County commissioners on Tuesday about the services provided, and that for the first time it should be fully staffed for the services needed.

"You now have the full complement of staff, and we're really pleased," said Mardi Harder, U of M Extension regional director from Grand Rapids.

The county took over many functions when in 2003 the University of Minnesota Extension Service ended services in individual counties and instead consolidated into regional centers. Counties that wanted to retain local services had to provide them on their own, but contracted through the Extension Service.

Under intense pressure from parents and youth, the county did maintain a 4-H Youth Development program with some staffing, and made provision to also keep a Master Gardner program with volunteers and contracts for nutrition education and the Parents Forever program, a court-ordered program for divorcing couples.

Ward, a contract for service employee, started her position in May. She's assisted by a summer intern, Beth Holzhueter, and aided by the office's administrative assistant, Lynn Ahern, who started in June and wears many hats.

While the fair is the 4-H highlight, Ward said that "4-H happens all year round.." It also involves a lot of adult volunteers, whom Ward said she wants to document their hours to show their commitment. "They are the magic behind the scenes, but not always acknowledged."

An information sheet Ahern put together shows that there are 13 community 4-H clubs in the county and 11 after-school programs, plus three 4-H adventure programs. There have been in the past year 345 youth involved in 4-H, and 66 adult volunteers.

"These are really motivated kids," Ward said. "For the youth in the future we want to add opportunities for science, engineering and technology. We are looking at projects, and we need to grow and build."

Work is progressing on a 4-H robotics program that hopefully will be tested locally, she said.

Meanwhile, 4-H youth are involved in the variety of programs, from the animal sciences to crafts and fine arts, child and family development and exploring the natural sciences.

"Our shooting sports team is third in the nation," Ward said. "It is exciting to move forward."

The 4-H program "needs to be perpetuated," said Commissioner Joe Vene. "But the state needs more involvement. This is not only for country kids but also town kids."

Nutrition education

Another role of the County Extension Service is to provide nutrition information to youth and seniors, focusing on low-income families.

The service is funded by the federal government as part of the federal farm bill of which two-thirds of the $300 billion five-year program goes to nutrition programs.

The local nutrition information program is funded through the farm bill's food stamp program. Suzanne Rabel, a nutrition education assistant, provides nutrition education to low-income families through day-care providers, the school district's Early Childhood Family Education program and the county's Women-Infants-Children program.

Deb Dilley, another nutrition education assistant, provides the same services to the schools which have more than 50 percent of their students eligible for free and reduced price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Working with families, Rabel said she instructs them on "how to stretch their food dollars, to support local food producers, how to read labels for nutritional value and how to determine portion size."

Participants in the WIC program can receive vouchers to purchase food at local farmers' markets, she said.

Dilley said she works with youth and seniors. She's presented to fourth-grade classes at Kelliher, Blackduck, Solway, Lincoln, Central and J.W. Smith -- all of which meet the eligibility threshold. She's also bringing a program to second-graders.

"The second-grade is a time when they start making some choices," Dilley said, adding that a goal is that what the kids learn they take home and perhaps affect family health. A newsletter is also sent to parents.

She also provides nutrition education classes to after-school programs, 4-H clubs, the Boys & Girls Club, and Northland Apartments.

She plans to present this fall a Blue Cross Blue Shield program, "Growing Up Healthy," to child care providers. "It focuses on both physical activity and healthy food choices," Dilley said. "Bemidji is at the forefront of this, and we hope it to become statewide as part of an obesity grant."

She's also working on establishing community gardens throughout the city, and has one at the Boys & Girls Club.

"A goal is to show the people of Bemidji how community gardens can help stretch food dollars," Dilley said.

According to Ahern's information, from October through May, 161 seniors, 335 adults and 385 youth have completed the nutrition education program.

Other programs

Parents Forever is coordinated by Ahern who does the court paperwork, lines up instructors and sets meeting places. It is a state-mandated program for parents in divorce which must be completed before a judge OKs the divorce.

Classes are offered from January through May and from October through December. There were 49 participants in this year's early program, and Ahern expects at least 30 for the fall program. It is funded through court assessments.

The Master Gardener program is also coordinated through County Extension, with 35 active Master Gardener volunteers. They combined for 1,651 volunteer hours last year June through December and so far this year have 450 hours through May. Ten to 15 classes and workshops were held last year in the period, and 30 were held this January through May.

In the last six months of last year, the Extension office received five to nine calls a day for horticulture information, but has seen only three or four a week from January to May.

The local service also sponsors 15 "learning circles" of a total of 150 people who have attend educational sessions on such topics as rain gardens to how to organize important family papers.

"We have a very positive arrangement with the University of Minnesota," said Commissioner Jim Heltzer. "It is community-building, and I hope those who use it grows in numbers."

Commissioner Jack Frost also praised the program, but remembered the 2003 move to shift funding responsibility from the state land grant university to the counties.

"That was conveniently shifted to us, and that still sticks in my craw," Frost said.