Dust settling on 4-H dispute


Casey Mull, assistant director, Purdue Extension and 4-H Youth Development Program leader with the Purdue University College of Agriculture, speaks in the exhibit hall at the Hancock County Fairgrounds on Jan. 31. Mull was joined by Julie Gray, Purdue Extension Area 6 director, left; and Barry Loftus, a lawyer representing Purdue.

Mitchell Kirk | Daily Reporter

HANCOCK COUNTY – The Hancock County 4-H Club Agricultural Association and Purdue University are understanding one another more in the wake of a letter warning of potential legal action from the university.

Parts of the relationship remain strained, however, as they work toward determining the future of a youth program in the county.

Representatives of Purdue gave a presentation to the county agricultural association’s board and membership and answered questions from attendees earlier this week.

Casey Mull, assistant director, Purdue Extension and 4-H Youth Development Program leader with the Purdue University College of Agriculture, pointed to the Hancock County 4-H Club Agricultural Association’s organizational documents indicating its mission is to support a 4-H program in the county. He noted the oversight of 4-H falls under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that the program is managed and implemented by land grant universities across the country, which in Indiana’s case is Purdue University.

Barry Loftus, a lawyer representing Purdue, referred to an effort late last year from the Hancock County 4-H Club Agricultural Association to vote on draft amendments that would have removed 4-H from the association’s name and eliminate the corporate purpose.

That prompted a letter to the agricultural association from Loftus warning of Purdue’s legal right to maintain all assets generated in the name of 4-H and ensure that they’re held in the name of 4-H. In Hancock County’s case, that would include the fairgrounds in Greenfield, as they’re owned by the county agricultural association.

But the agricultural association explains it was merely contemplating a change in structure, and that it thought it had to change its name in order to do that.

There are three primary types of 4-H coordination in counties throughout Indiana, Mull said. One is that the function of a 4-H agricultural association is both a 4-H fair board and a 4-H council, which is how it currently works in Hancock County.

Another, Mull continued, consists of a 4-H council with a separate 4-H fair board.

The third consists of a county fair board completely independent of the 4-H program that may own and operate a separate facility. The 4-H council would work with that county fair board and would have somewhat of a subcommittee of the 4-H council working with the county fair board and Purdue Extension educators to have a county fair.

That third setup is what the Hancock County 4-H Club Agricultural Association was contemplating changing to late last year, explained Mike Elsbury, association president. He said those considerations were not motivated by ridding the county of 4-H, but rather improving the current structure or transitioning to another.

“We thought we had to take 4-H out of the name to make the separation acceptable, but apparently that was totally wrong,” Elsbury said.

Loftus said it does not matter to Purdue which arrangement the county agricultural association ends up with.

“None of those structures are better or worse, but there are legal consequences to transfers of assets and changes of corporate status,” he said.

Loftus added the agricultural association would have to look at the pros and cons of which composition works best and the motivation for changing. He said he’d regard any transition as a transactional proposition with Purdue, and that ideally the association would have a lawyer who would work with the university on those exchanges.

Mull said the statewide Purdue Extension budget is about $30 million and that it’s approximately split into thirds from federal, state and local governments.

Hancock County pays about $130,000 a year to Purdue for services from the university’s Extension, which is staffed by three educators in Greenfield. That includes Amber Barks, 4-H youth development educator for the Extension in Hancock County.

During the Q-and-A period following Purdue’s presentation, questions were submitted that were critical of the Extension’s vetting process for 4-H volunteers, including accusations of personal bias.

Mull explained that after an aspiring volunteer completes an application, a process follows to ensure the individual is safe to interact with young people that includes checking references, completing national and state criminal and sex offender checks, and conducting interviews.

Attendees also expressed frustration toward the lack of local input in choosing county Extension educators, as well as a desire for educators to be evaluated better.

Julie Gray, Purdue Extension Area 6 director, said county Extension boards have the opportunity to provide feedback and participate in presentations by potential candidates.

“They do not hire, they do not evaluate staff, they do not terminate staff,” she said. “That’s my role.”

Amid criticisms of the Extension’s performance in the county, a comparison was made to a longtime predecessor of Barks’ viewed as superior.

“I think one of the biggest challenges that any educator coming into any county has is when they are being compared to another educator, particularly somebody that comes into the county after spending an extended career there,” Mull said. “I think that does the county a disservice to always compare staff members.”

Kent Fisk, a Hancock County Council member, attended the presentation and noted 4-H is not growing in step with the county’s growth.

“That worries me,” he said. “…We need to start figuring out how the 4-H program can expand to include the thousands of new homes we’re going to get in the next eight years.”

Mull acknowledged that 4-H enrollment has been going down from a community-based club model in Indiana for many years.

“Part of that is we’re not adjusting with how young people can be involved in the 4-H program,” he said.

He noted how in the past, kids involved in sports often participated in them during certain parts of the year, but now ample opportunities exist for them year-round.

“We’ve got to be flexible in what 4-H involvement looks like in order for our young people to have ease of access to our programs,” Mull added.

Mull said he’d be happy to participate in efforts to determine why 4-H involvement has been dropping in Hancock County as well as exploring ways to increase it.

The Purdue representatives emphasized that currently nothing about the situation with the university and county agricultural association endangers a fair from returning to Greenfield this year.

“There’s nothing preventing that,” Mull said. “And that’s my hope – that we will have a successful fair here in the summer.”

The next county fair board meeting is 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20 in the exhibit hall at the fairgrounds, 620 Apple St., Greenfield.