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Youth Embracing Agricultural Innovation Grows a Three Leaf Clover into 4-H

Posted by Jim Kahler, National Program Leader with the Division of Youth and 4-H, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Initiatives
Oct 19, 2016
A group of people near computers
Since its creation more than 100 years ago, 4-H has expanded its focus from the field to the lab to keep pace with developments in agricultural techniques and technologies. Photo courtesy of 4-H.

National 4-H Week happens each October, a time when nearly six million youth celebrate their participation in 4-H.  Every year, clubs around the country showcase the great things that 4-H offers young people and highlight the incredible things they do to make a positive impact in their communities.

The 4-H clover is one of the most recognized icons in the country, but it wasn’t always that way.  Like most things, it grew – this case from three leaves.

The seeds of 4-H were planted at the start of the 20th century by several adults in different states who were concerned about young people. Clark County, Ohio, claims credit as being the birthplace of 4-H, although the initial groups were called “The Tomato Club” or the “Corn Club.”

The times were ripe for a new youth innovation like 4-H. During the late 1800s, public universities’ researchers saw that adults in the farming communities did not readily accept the new agricultural discoveries being developed on campuses, such as hybrid seed corn, milk sanitation and home canning procedures. However, they found that young people were open to new thinking. Rural youth programs became an innovative way to introduce new agricultural technology to their communities.

In 1907, Iowa school superintendents Jessie Field Shambaugh and O.H. Benson developed a 3-leaf clover pin with an “H” on each leaf to signify “head,” “heart,” and “hands.” In a 1911 meeting, club leaders approved the design of a 4-leaf clover with an H on each leaf, adding “health.” By 1912, the groups were becoming known as 4-H clubs.

Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, creating the Cooperative Extension System at USDA, which included work of various boys' and girls' clubs involved with agriculture, home economics and related subjects. This action effectively nationalized the 4-H program. Between 1915 and 1920, clubs were formed at some historically black land-grant colleges in Southern states opening up 4-H to more African-American youth.

As 4-H grew, its focus moved beyond the translation of science to include personal growth so that youth could gain skills to help them transition to adulthood in a contributing, productive and self-directed manner.

With its national headquarters located within USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), today 4-H serves nearly 6 million youth in rural, urban and suburban communities in every state and many U.S. military installations around the world.

Today’s 4-H’ers tackle the nation's top issues, from global food security, climate change and sustainable energy to childhood obesity and food safety. To improve the nation's ability to compete in key scientific fields and take on the leading challenges of the 21st century, 4-H programs offer a wide variety of science, engineering, technology and applied math educational opportunities, including agricultural sciences, rocketry, robotics, environmental protection and computer science. Find out more at

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges. NIFA is the home of National 4-H Headquarters.

Category/Topic: Initiatives