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Giana Biagioni: Leading the Next Generation in Agriculture

In November 2022, Giana Biagioni of Littleton won the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmer & Rancher Collegiate Discussion Meet, earning a $300 prize and qualifying her for the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Collegiate Discussion Meet in Jacksonville, FL in March 2023.

As a Farm and Resource Management Major at Central Wyoming College, Giana learned of the state discussion meet from a professor while in class. She volunteered to participate. “I wanted to learn about current issues in the farm industry,” she explained.

The topics for the meet focused on current farming and ranching issues such as climate change and drone technology. Students gave opening statements, analyzed questions, and proposed solutions involving the Farm Bureau.

“Because I’ve grown up doing Visual Presentations and public speaking in 4-H, I didn’t find the discussion meet difficult,” said Giana. “It was fun to interact with other students my age.” Giana has also shown horses at the 4-H and county levels and participated in community service projects as a member of both the Littleton Hack and Tack and the Pepperell Trailblazers clubs.

After college, Giana hopes to pursue cattle ranching and produce beef cows. Another goal is to own a stock contracting company that would raise bulls and horses for rodeos. For now, she looks forward to the Collegiate Discussion Meet. “I am honored to represent Wyoming at the national competition in March,” she said. “I am very excited to discuss the future of agriculture with other young minds.”


Teens Introduce Agriculture to Teens in Lots to Plots

Hope, 4-H Educator Meg Riley, and Owen enjoy the Ag Summit.

Do you really know where your food comes from?

You may know something about the subject, but most likely not nearly as much as Hope Healy and Owen Weigel, 4-Hers who initiated the Lots to Plots project. Because of their efforts, the teens were recognized by the National 4-H Council earlier this year and awarded a $2,000 grant to combat food deserts in Massachusetts and provide an “on-ramp to agriculture” for teens.

“Their hard work paid off,” said Meghan Riley, a 4-H Educator in Plymouth County who has mentored the teens. “As far as keeping teens as active and engaged as possible, this project hit the nail on the head.”

During the pandemic and the 2020-21 school year, Hope and Owen, along with Sofia Black, Faith Motta, and Hope Motta, decided to address Massachusetts’ growing problem of food insecurity, which impacts 40% of the state’s population. They believed that gardening could not only be a valuable way to address this issue but also become a “bridge” between urban and rural settings. In other words, they could engage teens in agriculture — even those in urban settings —through their project, Lots to Plots.

The teens started brainstorming project ideas while meeting virtually. They noted that lower-income households have less access to healthy food than affluent families, and that they could adapt agricultural practices on a small scale for teens. Lots to Plots was born. “We’re going to put plants in their hands… You live in New York City? You can still have plants,” explained Hope.

An important step along the way: Hope and Owen attended the National 4-H Youth Summit for Agriscience (or “Ag Summit”) in Bethesda, Maryland in March 2022, assisted with support from the Massachusetts 4-H Foundation. Owen, from Rochester, and Hope, from Plymouth, both now juniors in high school, met youth and experts from all over the country at the conference. They took workshops led by industry leaders and managed to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing, touring Washington D.C. monuments at night.

Owen, who lives on a farm where his family raises beef and poultry, had never visited an urban area before. He met teens from New Jersey who wanted to garden but didn’t have enough land or money, reinforcing the importance of Lots to Plots. Owen found learning about other teens’ experiences and building a network to be the most valuable parts of the Summit.

Hope shared Owen’s enthusiasm. “The Ag Summit was incredible… Learning about the ag career exploration was most valuable to me. Hearing from experts, especially the female speakers, and where they’ve gone in their ag careers was really cool to me.”

The teens then submitted a two-page project proposal to the National 4-H Council for a solution to an agricultural issue, and following its approval delivered a presentation via Zoom to industry leaders in late April. Their efforts resulted in a $2,000 grant, one of 12 grants awarded by the National 4-H Council for projects from across the country.

Teens plant sugar snap peas in hanging baskets during the first workshop of Lots to Plots.

To kickoff Lots to Plots, the 4-Hers held a series of three workshops this past summer for teens at the Plymouth County Center for Agriculture. They focused on youth from urban areas. The 4-Hers guided the teens in planting, harvesting, and achieving soil health, and used window boxes and other techniques so the attendees encountered few barriers to entry in exploring agriculture. “I think it’s great for people in urban areas, because they don’t get as much exposure to agriculture,” said Owen. “It’s so important for society and our planet.”

It also put the 4-Hers firmly in the role of educators; they shared the knowledge they have gained through their years in 4-H. “The biggest value of this project is the teens’ confidence and understanding that they know so much about this subject… They are already leaders in this field. They are at the point where they can share this knowledge with kids who haven’t had their experiences,” explained Meghan.

Most of the funds from the grant were put toward consumables such as seeds, soil, and compost, and the participants kept seedlings to take home, explained Meghan. The 4-Hers will survey the attendees for feedback following the three workshops. They hope that Lots to Plots continues beyond the summer and that its attendees eventually join 4-H.

Hope, Owen, and the other teens are still astounded at how far their idea has gone. “If you could get involved in something, do it,” advised Hope. “You don’t know how big it will get.”

Creating Urgency Around Climate Change

Good Shepherd 4-H Club Members Joshua, Katie, Sofia, and Justin pose with the sheep they raise and use for sustainable projects.

Throughout 2022, the Massachusetts 4-H program, Community Service Learning Initiative introduced youth to ways they can make an impact on a current issue, beginning with youth mental health and followed by food insecurity. From May to August, 4-Hers explored the theme of climate change, with the goal for youth to learn and become motivated to make changes locally. The participants listened to the experts, evaluated resources, and implemented improvements in their own backyards. “The youth are taking it more seriously than a lot of adults, “said Angelica Diaz-Heyman, a 4-H Educator.

At the kickoff Zoom meeting to the Climate Change Community Service initiative, Dr. Justin Gay, an ecologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave 4-Hers a talk entitled “Global Climate Change: The Science and Emerging Solutions.” Dr. Gay opened the talk with a short NASA video of the progression of Earth’s surface temperatures over the last 150 years through a presentation of satellite data. “This is just one of the multiple lines of evidence that unequivocally supports the fact that humans have drastically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, and this has led to global climate change,” says Dr. Gay.

Shealyn Malone, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, highlighted one of the many ways climate change impacts global ecosystems by presenting a case study about forests. Healthy and functioning forests remove large quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis and store it in their biomass. However, high temperatures, more frequent drought, and increased pressure from herbivores, like bark beetles, may hinder the ability of trees to store carbon and contribute to climate change. The two scientists also shared with 4-Hers resources from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the United Nations, and Youth Climate Action Now (YCAN) on how to reduce their own carbon footprints.

4-H youth have started to take action in a variety of ways.  Madelyn, 16, a member of the Horse Feathers 4-H Club in Norfolk, initiated a project that addressed climate change as well as youth mental health. She collected old sneakers to keep them out of landfills and sent them to GotSneakers, a sneaker recycling company. She then donated the proceeds to an organization that helps people who suffer from eating disorders. Madelyn has also made small changes in her daily life to help climate change. She turns the lights off before exiting a room and tries to walk or take public transportation instead of driving. “Climate change is important…I do things to make a difference,” she explained.

The Good Shepherd Sheep 4-H Club in Littleton has also taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint. In addition to caring for sheep they own, club members raise chickens and grow vegetables, according to Lisa Besse, the club’s leader.  During the pandemic years of 2020-21, the youth donated vegetables — 85 pounds in 2021 —and eggs to low-income residents in their town, enabling those residents to access local, healthy food. Good Shepherd members have also brought sheep fertilizer to be used at Littleton Community Farm. Most notably, club members have submitted a proposal to a local corporation to have the sheep “mow” around and below its solar fields, to avoid sending harmful gasoline mower emissions into the air. These sustainability practices center around helping others. “The 4-Hers learn to help other people, that the world is bigger than themselves,” said Lisa.

AmeriCorps engaged youth in “Love Your Local Water” activities at the Barnstable Fair.

This past summer, 4-H participated in the Barnstable County Fair and engaged youth in activities that illustrated the importance of water, such as using a coffee filter with markers to show how water travels. 4-H invited AmeriCorps to run fair activities about the water resources on Cape Cod.

4-H Educators also have encouraged more gardening and composting in 4-H clubs, with the goal of these activities “informing the youths’ projects over the course of the year,” said Angelica. Small changes add up!


Massachusetts 4-H Program to Reopen

Today, the Massachusetts 4-H program, following the guidance of the state of Massachusetts, announced it will be reopening to an in-person mode of delivery.

This decision gives clubs and groups the opportunity to meet again, work on their projects, and participate in fairs. This document includes all of the details about the reopening.

First Ever Virtual State 4-H Fair Held in Summer 2020

Massachusetts held its first ever Virtual State 4-H Fair in August 2020. 230 4-H members submitted more than 1,200 projects! While a virtual fair meant that it was unfortunately not open to the public, the quality of the projects remained every bit as high as in any “regular” year.

4-H members demonstrated the spirit of Heart, Hand, Health and Head, even with the background of a tumultuous year.

Sample projects included a Breeding Beef (Senior Yearling; picture at right), an elegantly costumed rabbit; and a beautiful quilt (pictured at left).

“Sewing” Hope, One Mask at a Time

Participation in 4-H builds life skills such as compassion and resilience, and no 4-H project demonstrated these qualities better this year than sewing masks. 4-H members in two Massachusetts clubs, the Thimbles club of Cotuit and the Montague Stitchers in Montague, put their skills to work while helping their communities stay safe.

Led by Lisa Martin, Thimbles members began stitching after receiving a request from Jen Pacheco, a nurse at Cape Cod Hospital who is also a former student of Martin’s from Cape Cod Regional Technical School. After supplying the hospital with cloth masks, “word got out,” said Martin, and a movement was born.

While Thimbles club members Jennifer and Lydia, both currently high school seniors, found the first mask or two tricky to stitch, their skills soon grew expert. Jennifer even uploaded a “how to” YouTube video on mask making.

More important than the hours spent sewing were the lessons learned by the young women during this unprecedented time. “It was good to see how we were helping,” said Jennifer. “We can see how this project is helping communities around us.”

Lydia saw the impact of her efforts first-hand when she met (via social distancing) a healthcare provider from New York who wore a mask she made. “It means I’m making a difference,” said Lydia. “It means a lot to me that I’m helping people on the frontlines.”

Thimbles has donated nearly 1,000 masks to more than 22 different groups, including hospitals on Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard; assisted living facilities; local fire departments; and the Joint Base of Cape Cod. Candy LeBlanc (pictured at right), the Youth Program Coordinator on base, received 220 children’s masks from Thimbles!

The Montague Stitchers started a collective effort of making masks following inspiration from club members’ families. Three members sewed masks with their mothers and grandmothers, and the rest of the club caught the spirit!

Led by Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy and two other leaders, the club learned to make masks when Kathryn distributed a tutorial, 4-H fabric, and elastic to the girls (pictured below). Kathryn also loaned sewing machines to club members, including one purchased by the Massachusetts 4-H Foundation.

Like Thimbles, Kathryn admits that the club members found stitching the masks difficult initially. While the girls echoed this sentiment, they also took pride in the growth of their skills. “I’ve gotten better at sewing straight seams, better at sewing through multiple layers and better at sewing around bends and curves,” said Jyn Rankin, a 9th grader and member of the club for two years. “It’s really nice to be able to help out the community, to help people stay safe. It definitely feels good to be part of a larger movement that is helping to make the world a better place.”

The Stitchers have sewn hundreds of non-medical grade masks for volunteers at community food distribution centers, employees at a local hardware store, family and friends, and for a mask drive led by the city of Greenfield. They even made masks for 4-H Educators Tom Waskiewicz and Carrie Chickering-Sears!

So many are grateful for the efforts of these 4-H club members. “The Stitchers saw the opportunity to sew much-needed masks to keep their family, friends and community safe,” said Waskiewicz. “They are to be commended for their initiative, selflessness and support of others.”



STEM Ambassadors Provide Launch Pad to Science

The program pairs college students with children attending the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). During the program, the young adults introduce a science theme to the youth; in 2019, the theme is aerospace.

Kim designed the curriculum, which progresses the children incrementally from building helicopters to gliders and finally rockets. They learn how weight and building materials can affect the flight of each and can return at later date to launch their rockets outside. “I see it as strengthening our community partnerships,” says Kim. “It’s a fun way of learning science.”

Sean, age 10, concurs. “It was amazing! The adults were great, the kids were friendly and the stuff we did was so much fun.” Just as amazing was the reaction Sean’s mom noticed from her once-reluctant scholar. “Yesterday after the 4-H Aerospace event, he explained every piece of material he brought home and how it worked.  He continued to talk about all the activities that he did.  You have no idea how pleased I was to see him so intrigued and excited about the whole day.”

The program targets elementary school aged children, as data shows STEM interest needs to be piqued before middle school, especially for girls, says Kim. As underserved children may not have access to STEM programs to the same degree as their wealthier peers, STEM Ambassadors fills a crucial need. Kim also shares these STEM programs with local libraries, so they can implement them.

To become a STEM Ambassador, applicants must be a rising college freshman or current college student, either attending UMass-Amherst /UMass-Amherst-Mount Ida or be a 4-H alum at another university. STEM Ambassadors don’t need to be science majors and often pursue fields such as psychology. They typically deliver the program about 15-20 hours per week, often pairing it with another summer job, says Kim.

Though the children’s eyes light up as they build and launch their rockets, Kim believes they benefit most from the “soft skills” they learn, like teamwork, which they need to “set them up for success in the future,” she says.

Plans for the 2020 program are already underway, with a theme of plants and animals tentatively titled Tales and Tails. “We’re going to ramp it up and change some activities going forward,” says Kim.

Massachusetts 4-H Receives Google Grant

One of 21 state chapters to receive part of the $6 million grant, Massachusetts 4-H’s goal will be to create access to computer science education for all, focusing on youth in rural or underserved areas.

The grant will be used to contribute learning resources and tools to 4-H leaders and educators in Massachusetts, including:

  • Professional development for 4-H educators
  • Teen mentor training
  • Connected devices, including Chromebooks and Expedition kits
  • Access to Google’s computer science expertise

The Google grant builds upon 2017 funding from the company, which helped create the 4-H CS Pathway, reaching more than 325,000 youth through 3,000 adult volunteers in the past two years. The collaboration combines the reach and educational expertise of 4-H, the nation’s largest youth development organization, and the power of Google’s CS products, educational programs, and employee volunteers who have dedicated more than 1,000 hours to support 4-H youth as they explore CS.

“Being a part of this collaboration allows Massachusetts 4-H to step up as a CS Pathways Launcher and bring computational thinking skills needed today not only into our existing 4-H programs but also to new audiences,” says Kim Pond, UMass Extension Educator and 4-H S.E.T. Liaison.  “4-H has over 100 years of bringing science from the Land Grant University System to the people …The great thing about this program is you don’t have to already be involved in Computer Science.  You don’t even have even have to have access to a computer lab or devices as there is a whole realm of unplugged activities that are exciting and hands-on.”

Computer science promotes life skills such as computational thinking, teamwork, and problem solving, preparing Massachusetts youth for career opportunities in a technology-rich state.

To learn how to get involved with programs originating from the Google grant, contact Ms. Pond at: [email protected]

4-H Profile in Courage: Briyanna Henry

Four years ago, Briyanna’s view of herself in the world was very different. She says she was always thinking about the worst possible outcome to any situation. She wasn’t happy with her behavior and that negative self-image seemed to be unshakeable. Inside, she wished to change and become the person she wanted to be, but was just too afraid to do it. Then Briyanna’s sister introduced her to 4-H.

“I joined the Springfield 4-H after-school program when I was in the 6th grade,” Briyanna says. “My sister introduced me to Lauren DuBois, the 4-H educator. At first, I was very quiet” and felt uncomfortable. When Briyanna realized that everyone else was interacting freely and her isolation was self-imposed, she began speaking up more and just “being herself.” Within months, she had developed friendships, visited UMass Amherst for campus tours and hands-on science projects, and was talking with people in all kinds of situations; from the Dean of Agricultural Sciences at UMass to the Governor of Massachusetts.

“Joining 4-H was a big step for me and seeing how well I was doing in the program made me feel more confident in my social skills,” Briyanna writes in her biography. At her school, that confidence carried over as she tackled special academic projects and extracurricular activities. Explaining how she was able to take advantage of opportunities and extend her abilities, she states that “In my head, I saw myself getting good grades and interacting with a lot of new people.” This was a very different mindset for her.

Before 4-H, Briyanna says, “I wouldn’t have been able to give minitoursor play sports, or even work with other people to create something cool.  I wouldn’t have had a mindset where I could jump into something new. I definitely wouldn’t have had the courage to talk to important people about a major topic.”

She goes on to say, “There is still that thought in my mind that forces me to think about the worst situation, but I’ve learned not to be afraid to try new things because they can often lead to great experiences. I feel myself becoming the person I want to be.”

4-H Educator Lauren Dubois has also seen a dramatic change in confidence since Briyanna first walked into the 4-H afterschool program.

“She was shy at first and then she blossomed,” says Lauren. “4-H has guided her in a positive way, giving her public speaking, leadership, and skill mastering opportunities.” Briyanna has been hired for two summers to assist Lauren in facilitating the 4-H programs for community centers in Springfield. During the past two years, she has been a Youth Leader at the three-day overnight Summer of Science program.

Briyanna also gives back to 4-H through community service, working with afterschool programs in Springfield and Holyoke. As a tutor/mentor, she helps younger 4-Her’s with homework and creates fun projects for them, like balloon-powered cars. Briyanna says she didn’t see herself as someone “who would work with kids but, surprisingly, I enjoy myself every time I go. The kids are so excited to build things and they always make me laugh.”

“Briyanna is very professional and hard-working,” says Lauren. “She is passionate about making everyone who comes in contact with her a little better than before they met her. Just by being around her positive energy she has made me a better 4-H Educator and person.”

When talking about her, Lauren is quick to point out that “Briyanna has always been this incredible person, but 4-H provided the opportunity for that turning point, that light bulb to go off, and the skill sets that are necessary for such growth to take place.” Through 4-H, adults bring consistency and commitment into young people’s lives. That stability allows for positive changes.

“Opportunity is a huge word. It’s why I love working for 4-H,” says Lauren. “I’ve met many young people like Briyanna, who thrive on opportunity. The young people love the 4-H science program because, in a very hands-on, and often messy way, it adds an educational component to their afterschool activities. Funding is so important to the success of our program, because it allows us to bring young people on college visits, to talks and events. More money equals more opportunities.”

Through its funding support, the Massachusetts 4-H Foundation helps create opportunities for young people to blossom. One activity that the Foundation is involved in is writing grant proposals to ensure the sustainability for the Improving 4-H Science program. Grants from the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Esther B. Kahn Foundation enabled the hiring of a program assistant, Lizmarie Lopez. A resident of Springfield, Lizmarie is a graduate of Smith College, fluent in three languages, and skilled in creating and teaching STEM curriculum. We just learned that the Beveridge Family Foundation is awarding a significant grant that will ensure the science program will continue for the next school year. Also, the 4-H Foundation has committed to providing substantial in-kind contributions.

Collaboration with community partners is a key element of many 4-H programs. The Improving 4-H Science: Focus on STEM program has an eight-year history of working with four community organizations in different neighborhoods. It reaches 80 youth annually in Holyoke and Springfield within the 32 weeks of after-school programming. STEM programming is an urgent priority for the communities and the school systems: the national juried 4-H science curriculum provides hands-on and “minds-on” science for young people to develop their observational, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

Lauren continues to work with the community partners in a long-term relationship. The resulting shared knowledge and access to 4-H curriculum have a ripple effect through the community, making the positive effects sustainable. For young people like Briyanna, the effects are lifelong.

“I feel so fortunate to be a part of Briyanna’s life, seeing all she has accomplished,” says Lauren. “She is exactly what 4-H strives to createa motivated and confident young person who contributes to the betterment of herself, her community, her country, and her world. She wants to go to college and become an engineer. I am so looking forward to the day that I get to watch her walk across the graduation stage and receive her engineering degree.”

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