The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America

The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America

The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America

The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America


4-H, the iconic rural youth program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has enrolled more than 70 million Americans over the last century. As the first comprehensive history of the organization, The 4-H Harvest tracks 4-H from its origins in turn-of-the-century agricultural modernization efforts, through its role in the administration of federal programs during the New Deal and World War II, to its status as an instrument of international development in Cold War battlegrounds like Vietnam and Latin America.

In domestic and global settings, 4-H's advocates dreamed of transforming rural economies, communities, and families. Organizers believed the clubs would bypass backward patriarchs reluctant to embrace modern farming techniques. In their place, 4-H would cultivate efficient, capital-intensive farms and convince rural people to trust federal expertise. The modern 4-H farm also featured gender-appropriate divisions of labor and produced healthy, robust children. To retain the economic potential of the "best" youth, clubs insinuated state agents at the heart of rural family life. By midcentury, the vision of healthy 4-H'ers on family farms advertised the attractiveness of the emerging agribusiness economy.

With rigorous archival research, Gabriel N. Rosenberg provocatively argues that public acceptance of the political economy of agribusiness hinged on federal efforts to establish a modern rural society through effective farming technology and techniques as well as through carefully managed gender roles, procreation, and sexuality. The 4-H Harvest shows how 4-H, like the countryside it often symbolizes, is the product of the modernist ambition to efficiently govern rural economies, landscapes, and populations.


Fretting about the countryside is a great American pastime. And contemporary anxieties about the state of rural America run as high as ever. Current worries range from industrial meat production and use of pesticides to depopulation and the scourge of methamphetamines, and they issue from across the political spectrum. Despite this anxious mood, politicians of all stripes and most voters are still deferential toward agrarian political rhetoric: the Jeffersonian ideal of the small, independent yeoman farmer and the belief that a virtuous rural past offers a model for a better future. In a time when increasing globalization pushes people to focus on local and small-scale action, the rhetoric of family farms is appealing. Yet that rhetoric sidesteps how, when, and why the current rural idyll came to such prominence. This book revises that political mythology by providing an overdue history to a key piece of agrarian Americana: 4-H, the homespun youth clubs that, over roughly a century of existence, taught millions of rural children how to be farmers and homemakers.

For my own part, rural places have rarely been a source of anxiety. Growing up in the Midwest, I was never a member of 4-H but was also never far from farms. Many of my most cherished experiences with the countryside, however, were linked to family vacations. Every summer, my parents hauled my siblings and me to a remote rented cabin near the western shore of Michigan for a week or two of swimming in frigid lake waters. We drove in the family minivan on U.S. 31 to a little town called Montague, cutting through endless fields of corn and soy on the way but missing any cities larger than South Bend. Travel with young children being what it was (and is), my parents made ample stops in the towns and businesses scattered along our route. We ogled an enormous stuffed steer in Kokomo—the world’s largest!—and paused for ice cream in Rochester. My mother still swears that we stopped . . .

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