Kids and goats

4-H returns to Martha’s Vineyard after 25 years.


A sign on North Road in Chilmark invited motorists to stop at Native Earth Teaching Farm for a 4-H Goat Club fundraiser last month. At the farm stand, young people in green 4-H T shirts gave presentations to visitors as they arrived. They had handwritten posters with the 4-H pledge, goat information, and fun facts about goats.

The 4-H youth I spoke with all talked about how special it was to be able to learn about and help raise pet goats from infancy. Runar Finn Robinson said that the best thing about being part of the 4-H Club was “holding the baby goats… you can feel the life in them.” Ada Chronister and Koko Capece both mentioned interacting with the goats as a highlight of their experience. Olive Corcoran, who spent considerable time at home working on her poster for the day’s event said, “It’s unbelievable how much we learn.” Her sister Lavinia Corcoran talked about the fun experience of taking care of goats in a group.

Down a meandering path under a mulberry tree heavy with ripe red berries is the hoop house where the baby goats are kept. At the entrance are signs reading, “Go low and slow so you don’t look like a predator,” “Don’t chase goats,” and “Please ask a volunteer to show you how to pick up a baby goat.”

Rebecca Gilbert, the farm’s owner, and Sam Greene, Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School teacher, lead the 4-H Goat Club. Gilbert spoke about why she wanted to start the club. She said working with goats teaches important values such as community, leadership, and responsibility.

In the beginning the young people would chase the goats, says Gilbert. “We told them to watch the goats, see how they react to you when you approach them in different ways. If you chase them they will think of you as a predator. If you go low and slow, they will think of you as a friend.” Most 4-H Goat Clubs nationwide either raise goats for meat or for milk and cheese. On Native Earth Teaching Farm, goats are raised for pets, and must be taught to interact gently with humans. The 4-H Club members are an important part of the goats’ training. The kids are learning real responsibility, says Gilbert: “The goats are depending on them.”

The young people are also learning about the environment and teamwork. Greene described how after learning how to identify plants on the farm during a meeting, the club members worked together to create a “Goat Café” by picking things they can eat and making a restaurant for them.

The club also provides an opportunity for young people to engage with the larger Island community. Dr. Dave’s mobile vet came to Native Earth Teaching Farm recently during 4-H meeting time. The kids had to catch the goats, and Dr. Dave taught them how to check the goats for parasites, allowing the youth to go into the office and look through the microscope.

At the start of every 4-H meeting around the country, kids recite a pledge. “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to longer service, my health to better living for my club, my community, my country, and my world.” Gilbert and Greene approached the pledge with the kids in a serious way. “We pulled the pledge apart line by line,” says Greene. “We talked about the meaning of all the words, and that a pledge is like a promise,” says Gilbert. In the end, all the club members agreed that the pledge was important, and they say it before every meeting because they have made it theirs.

The 4-H Goat Club is one of several other 4-H Clubs around the Island that are part of the organization’s return to Martha’s Vineyard after an absence of more than 25 years. Elizabeth Bonifacio of First Light Child Development Center is starting an “In Nature” group, a 4-H horse club is starting, Island Grown Initiative is working with the high school to start a Garden Club, and Clover Buds, 4-H for 5- to 7-year-olds, is starting at Herring Creek Farm. More groups are sure to come.

Brian Athearn, the new president of the Agricultural Society, is driving the return of 4-H. When Athern was elected last November, bringing 4-H back to the Vineyard was part of his platform to make the Agricultural Society the agricultural epicenter of the Island. “We just got funding for a part-time organization position from a grant from the state that Bill Wilcox secured,” Athearn said. That person would help support the 4-H clubs on the Island. “The society worked hard to bring this back, and the community support and involvement has been amazing. I think we are on to a good thing here, and with some financial support, we can go far with it.” Athearn, vice president Julie Scott, and executive director Sally Rizzo of the Agricultural Society have teamed up to restore the program on the Island. The first thing the team did was to get in touch with the 4-H extension service agent in Barnstable, Judy Volmer. Volmer helped with the paperwork necessary for Martha’s Vineyard to get an official 4-H charter and get curriculums and other materials to group leaders.

Last April the team organized a meeting for people interested in seeing the clubs return. “I was impressed with people’s interest,” says Rizzo. “Fifty people came and talked about community service, teamwork, working with animals, and the tremendous benefit 4-H brought to their lives. There was more interest than we anticipated.”
Julie Scott says that the clubs will be represented at the Agricultural Fair. “4-H clubs will have a section of the animal barn, and there will also be an information table for people who would like to be leaders, and for parents of children who are interested in joining a club,” she says. The 4-H Goat Club members will be leash-training the goats while they walk around the fairgrounds.

The Martha’s Vineyard that 4-H has returned to is different from the one it left. Today opportunities for young people to connect with plants, animals, and one another in meaningful ways are fewer than they were when more Vineyarders were agriculturalists. Martha’s Vineyard 4-H is working to change this. Young people are now working with innovative Vineyarders like Rebecca Gilbert and many more, who are reinventing Island agriculture and creating new ways of connecting with the natural world.