If you didn’t know, you might think Shelby Christian-Boyer is a full-time teacher in Van Buren County.
As she walks through the halls of the middle school, students in classrooms wave and say, “Hi, Mrs. Shelby!” She enters a science class with her lesson supplies, a large plastic bowl and one leg of pantyhose. The eighth graders look both eager and nervous to find out what she has in store.
The UT Extension logo embroidered on her shirt gives her away. She is not a school employee, but she is integral in the education of the students during and after school.
Christian-Boyer is among the UT Extension agents now able to focus solely on 4-H and Youth Development, thanks to a $2.2 million increase in legislative funding for UT Extension approved in 2021. Many of the new agents hired or whose duties shifted to 4-H work in 32 counties, which were or are still considered economically distressed.
UT Extension is the University of Tennessee’s literal presence in all 95 counties, helping fulfill the land-grant mission to provide education, research and outreach to all Tennesseans. In each county, there is a county director and agents assigned to handle agriculture/natural resources, family and consumer science (FCS) or 4-H programs. In these targeted 32 counties, the agriculture and FCS agents used to split their time with 4-H, which was difficult to manage and oftentimes meant people and programs were stretched to meet needs.
“Now that I’m 100 percent 4-H, I can devote 100 percent of my time to students, add more programming and introduce things,” Christian-Boyer says. “Before, the agents didn’t have time.”
4-H and Youth Development is a big deal in Tennessee.
The 100-year-old program is the largest youth organization in Tennessee, with more than 152,000 youth participants in grades four through 12, and Tennessee’s 4-H is one of the largest 4-H programs in the United States.
It is important in a state where agriculture is the No. 1 industry, and 4-H provides something for everyone, on and off the farm. Today’s 4-H experience includes what previous generations gained from character building and hands-on learning combined with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Ashley Stokes, dean of UT Extension, says it is inspiring to see the progress made in 4-H and Youth Development because of the addition of the agents.
“We have really grown 4-H in those counties. In thinking about how we strengthen STEM and workforce development, we can literally reach tens of thousands more youth,” she says. “We are thankful the governor and legislature saw the importance of adding those positions. Data shows the benefits of 4-H for youth in being more confident, pursuing education for career readiness and being more engaged. We know the long-term benefits for individuals and their communities.”
Hancock County, located along the Virginia border and east of I-75, has one of most recent 4-H hires. Jason Brian Lawson earned his degree from UT Knoxville in agricultural leadership, education and communications in the Herbert College of Agriculture in December 2021 and was back to his home county in January 2022, heading up the 4-H program. He completed his master’s degree in August. Lawson’s career was inspired by the 4-H agent who taught him.
“I remember being on the judging teams, practicing in the office after school. He was funny, and I liked the way he explained things and cared for us,” Lawson says.
4-H is not a 40-hour-a-week job.
“Sometimes it’s 70 to 80 hours,” Lawson says several days after a recent land-judging contest—Hancock County had the highest-scoring individuals in all divisions—followed by the annual fall festival and barbecue chicken fundraiser.
“You have to know your students and each stage of learning to bring the information to their level,” he says. “I tell them that you learn by doing, and if you mess up, you learned something.”
Hancock County is one of the least populated counties in the eastern part of the state, but Lawson brags it has a high rate of 4-H participation. That may help explain how the county has produced five current UT Extension agents. Lawson is the first to come back to Hancock, and he got some help from Jacob Boone, the former county director now in Cannon County who urged Lawson to apply for the job.
“I saw right off the bat he would fit in,” says Boone, who was glad to see an agent dedicated fully to 4-H in Hancock. “This way, they get to see the same face every time.”
On the other side of the state, Lake County, bordering the Mississippi River, revived its 4-H program when Maggie Goodman was hired in December 2021. She was promoted to county director in 2022 and has a full staff, allowing her to focus on 4-H. The program was last active in the 1960s.
“We’re trying to build from the fourth grade and up,” she says. “Lake County is a place with a lot of talent but not a lot of resources.”
Still, she has started a grilling club, poster contests, a speech competition and traditions for each grade, like making Christmas ornaments for the county courthouse. Lake County sent four students to 4-H Congress for the first time in the county’s history in March 2022 and three more in 2023.
“Lake County, for the exception of a few grant-funded FCS agents over the last few years, only had an ag agent over the course of its history. We’re thrilled when our clients get excited about having a fully staffed Extension office with agents in all programming areas available,” she says.
Goodman participated in 4-H as a student in Fulton County, Kentucky.
“4-H set me on the path I landed on,” Goodman says. She was into public speaking and once played the part of Minnie Pearl in a variety show fashioned after Hee-Haw, a precursor to her career as a freelance writer and comedy performer in New York City and Chicago before returning home to Kentucky during the pandemic.
“4-H requires a lot of humor, and I’m lucky to have funny kids,” she says. “You never know what a middle schooler is going to say.”
Christian-Boyer can vouch for that every time she enters the classroom. On this day, she is teaching a lesson on the digestive system, but she waits to unveil the big finale. She explains how food travels through the body, describes the anatomy and even has the students wave their hands and arms in the air to simulate peristalsis, the muscle movement that helps in digestion. Finally, she asks for volunteers to help show what happens in the colon.
She mashes up a Swiss cake roll and has students pour in 7-Up, the stand-in for stomach acid, and another volunteer holds open the leg of the pantyhose while Christian-Boyer scoops in the goo. She squeezes out the liquid as students comment on the process—some more grossed out than others—and then produces the end result. “OK, let’s review one more time, and then you’re going to lunch!” she exclaims gleefully.
Van Buren County, located between Chattanooga and Cookeville on the Cumberland Plateau, has fewer than 7,000 residents and no traffic lights anywhere to be seen. 4-H is a hit here. The highest elected student position in 4-H is president of the state council, which is currently held by Van Buren County High School senior Cade Simmons.
“We had 13 kids go to 4-H Congress and 10 to 12 go to all-stars. People joked everyone was from Van Buren County,” he says. And Simmons, whose interests include agriculture and public speaking, quickly adds how much Christian-Boyer’s full-time 4-H work helps.
“We recently had a chili cookoff and auction and raised $8,000. That provides half-scholarships for 60 kids to go to 4-H camp. —Is that right, Mrs. Shelby?— Yes, so for the second-smallest county, we have such good support,” he says.
Simmons’ mother, Katina, who is the school principal, has seen the benefits of being a 4-Her herself and for her son and the larger community.
“4-H changed his life,” Katina Simmons says of her once-shy son. “4-H enriches their education and provides leadership skills they can bring back to the school.”
Christian-Boyer also participated in 4-H. Previously, she was an FCS and 4-H agent in Trousdale County but returned to her home county in 2021.
“She hit the ground running, and our programs show it,” says county director Chris Binkley, who uses much of his time now to focus on working with cattle producers and others in the agricultural sector. “We believe in 4-H. That is our future.”
Counties that added dedicated agents since 2021:
- Van Buren