An Interview with Emily Swinyer

Emily Swinyer leafs through a large binder of official log entries dating back to the early 1900s. Since taking over the role of Sheridan County 4-H extension educator last year, she’s been brushing up on the work of her predecessors.

“I’ve really gone down the rabbit hole,” she said.

Among these pages, she’s discovered a legacy of hardworking individuals who carved out an agricultural living in Sheridan County. Although livestock have certainly been an important component of that agriculture, Swinyer pointed out that we shouldn’t overlook the importance of crop production and horticulture.

We visited with Emily to learn more about how gardening helped shape the character of the local 4-H club. What follows are excerpts from our wide-ranging discussion.

The Formation

It was around the dawn of the 20th century, and a lot of changes in Sheridan County were taking place. Many producers were worried that the youth weren’t getting involved and were also concerned about the efficacy of some of their agricultural practices. The land grant universities decided to get involved and do some research to study those practices. In doing so, they came up with some new strategies that were more effective, particularly relating to corn production.

But the farmers and ranchers weren’t very receptive to that. 

“They felt like, ‘We’ve been doing this for a long time. This is the way we are going to do it,’” she said.

So, they opted to talk to the young people to try to get them involved. And the youth bought into it, according to Swinyer.

“They said, ‘Alright, sure, we’ll try it,’ under the notion of ‘let’s see if we can beat our parents.’”

They wanted to see if they could beat them by doing something new and crazy, like irrigating. And it worked. Some of the historic photographs of children sitting on corn piles the size of their houses show that.

At its roots, at its core, she noted, 4-H is agriculture. It’s innovating and trying to find a new way to do something.

4-H is the largest youth program in the nation, by far, and has been for a century.

“So obviously we’re doing something right,” she said. “We need to stay humble and remember our roots, and that way we can stay effective and continue to engage the youth.”

Getting Involved

“The ground is kind of a hopeful shade of brown right now,” Swinyer said. For her, it’s an exciting time of year. 

“We have kids at all levels that participate in the gardening and horticulture through 4H,” she said, “kids who are just beginning, and they are interested and want to learn about parts of the plant, how it grows, photosynthesis and those sorts of things.”

As kids’ skillsets become more advanced, they can start to do their own gardening, planting and maybe see what grows best in the region.

“We know what grows best, we know what has the highest yield,” she said, “but how are we going to use our knowledge?”

All of their meetings begin with a 4H pledge that says, “I will use my hands for larger service, for my club, my community, my country, and my world,” and Swinyer likes to see this oath put into action.

As the spring warms up, she hopes to see their youth getting more involved in the community.  Picking up trash on the side of the road, for example, or painting the fairgrounds.

“This is amazing,” she said, “but also seeing how we can really plug into our community.”

One suggestion is to volunteer with Food Forest in Sheridan.

4-Her sitting on prize corn yield (1912). Source Elsie Carper Collection on Extension Service, Home Economics, and 4-H. Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library.

“They are always looking for help with weeding, cleaning up and just making it nice,” she said. “What a great way for our kids to give back there, and not only give back to their community, but learn about it too.”

She’s hoping to get some of the younger kids involved as the weather thaws, by encouraging them to learn about pollinators and bees.

“I think it’s really important to talk about that when we talk about gardening,” she said, “because you’re not going to have a whole lot of production if it’s not pollinated.”

Bees are here for that, she noted. Let them do their job.

“People don’t think about it, but with our hay and alfalfa, certain plant species are only pollinated by certain species of flying insects. So, they’re pretty important if you want your alfalfa to be sustainable.”

There are ways to get involved beyond just planting, and one mechanism of 4-H is to help the kids get a little outside of their comfort zones to see how they can use what they know to make a difference.

“That’s the end goal we are really looking for,” she said.

By: Kevin M. Knapp

Leave a comment