The official theme of this year’s South Carolina 4-H Congress was “Once Upon a Time in a 4-H Fairy Tale,” but the stories told that night might have been titled “A Tale of Two Gardens” instead.
First, State Teen Council President Aliza Allison recalled to the crowd of 4-H’ers, agents, parents, volunteers and supporters gathered at Clemson University’s Madren Center her experience of trying to grow a small garden early in her 4-H career.
“It was a sad sight to say the least. Everything died aside from a few stubborn cucumber plants,” said Allison, of Lexington County.
While she may not have discovered a green thumb, Allison did learn a lasting lesson: sometimes simply not being scared to try is its own reward.
“(My garden project) did win the Midlands region — this may have been because I was the only one who submitted a record book. But I still count it as a win. That goes to show, regardless of the outcome of trying something new, you’re still doing better than everyone too afraid to get started,” she said.
Allison urged her fellow 4-H’ers not to be afraid to branch out and try new things, even if that means finding out it’s not where your talent lies.
“For the longest time, I never thought I was going to participate in 4-H beyond the horse project where I started,” she said. “It scares me to think about the opportunities, experiences and friends I would’ve missed out on if I hadn’t stepped outside my comfort zone and done something that scared me. Not every step you take will be successful.”
The banquet — the culmination of 2023 State 4-H Congress held June 28-July 1 on Clemson’s campus — continued with a tale of another garden, this one begun years ago by Michael Mills.
Mills was an officer in the Society of American Foresters and Clemson Forestry Club during his time as a Clemson University student, and after earning his degree in Forestry and cutting his teeth in the industry, began Mills Forestry Co. in 2008.
But before his formal training, Mills got his start in the business of growing things by keeping a large vegetable garden — predominately peanuts, tomatoes and okra — in the summers of his youth in Newberry, S.C., which he affectionately calls “the self-proclaimed center of the universe.”
The keynote speaker at the 4-H Award Banquet, Mills was named Clemson University Forestry Alumni Association Outstanding Alumnus in 2017 but, despite operating a bustling business in the forestry industry, still maintains that very same vegetable garden.
“I was once asked if I had lived in Newberry my whole life, and I dryly replied, ‘Not yet,’” he joked. “With the exception of my years in Clemson and my first job in Edgefield as a land management forester, I held firm to the maxim to grow where you are planted.”
Mills told the story of his youth and being a “lost, old soul in a teenager’s body” — wearing bib overalls, hanging out with senior citizens and learning the old ways of gardening, making soap, canning and even a little poker playing.
“But what they taught me was that if I wanted something, I better work for it,” he said. “So, at the age of 12 or 13, I started planting a vegetable garden behind my house — with profit in mind.”
Through meticulous record-keeping and profit calculations, and some sound investments, he expanded his business from peddling vegetables — quite literally — on his bicycle to selling them out of an old Chevrolet pickup truck he equipped with a “Veggies for Sale” sign.
“I did learn that they did not like you to peddle vegetables in front of the grocery store,” he joked.
But Mills noted the theme of this year’s State 4-H Congress was “Once Upon a Time in a 4-H Fairy Tale,” and that those same values he had gleaned from 4-H and raising his vegetable garden as a youth would serve the 4-H’ers of today just as well.
“They say that fairy tales aren’t true, but what I would tell you is that fairy tales are no accident. Fairy tales are all the dreams and aspirations that one has coming true; they are no accident. … They take things like your path in 4-H learning life skills and leadership skills. They take things like 4-H agents, youth leaders and well-chosen mentors. The goals and dreams that you have and set to paper and on your hearts and minds can and will come true. And you, my friends, future influencers and leaders in your communities, are on the right path,” he said.
The 2023 S.C. 4-H award winners were also honored at the banquet, including three Presidential 4-H Award recipients: Mya Chapman of Saluda County, Daniel Marino of Chester County and Macie Thomas of Dorchester. The Presidential Tray recognizes the top senior 4-H members who are National 4-H Congress and/or National 4-H Conference alumni with outstanding accomplishments in 4-H leadership, citizenship and project work. The award includes a $2,000 educational scholarship.
The National 4-H Conference winners were Alethia Johnson of Lancaster County, LaMariya McCree of Chester County, Jacob Owens of Orangeburg County and Alayna Weilnau of Bamberg County. This award goes to senior 4-H members with outstanding achievement in leadership and citizenship and is based upon a 4-H portfolio and panel interview. These awards include a $1,500 scholarship.
State 4-H award recognizes senior 4-H members with outstanding achievement in their 4-H projects and activities and includes a $1,000 scholarship. In addition to Johnson, McCree, Owens and Weilnau, Brianna Woodard of Chester County and Zehra Zaidi of Charleston County also received this honor.
Riley Cotton of York County garnered the Spirit of 4-H Award, which recognizes a 4-H member’s commitment to the 4-H pledge — “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world” — and includes a $1,000 scholarship.
Toya Moore of Greenville County won the Glen Krohn Excellence in Volunteerism Award, which recognizes outstanding volunteer leadership in the 4-H program. Moore “developed a clear vision for how 4-H Youth Development could support and enrich her work by partnering her organization with 4-H. She is so intensely warm and likable that other volunteers, teachers, Extension staff and youth are all drawn to her charisma and enthusiasm for youth development,” it was announced as her award was presented.
South Carolina 4-H Program Team Director Ashley Burns said 4-H State Congress represented an annual opportunity to reflect on how far many of the rising and departing high school seniors have come during their development in the organization.
“Every year when we come together for State Congress, it’s amazing to see what these young people have accomplished and what they’ve been involved with across their 4-H journey,” Burns said. “To create opportunities for those who may not have ever experienced a particular area of interest that sparks a passion and open doors to experiences, relationships for mentoring and coaching, as well as future careers and educational pathways. It’s just so exciting to see those lightbulbs come on, and the energy and enthusiasm around it is just so rewarding.”
2023 SOUTH CAROLINA 4-H AWARD WINNERS
State 4-H Winners — Alethia Johnson, Lancaster; LaMariya McCree, Chester; Jacob Owens, Orangeburg; Alayna Weilnau, Bamberg; Brianna Woodard, Chester; Zehra Zaidi, Charleston
National 4-H Conference Winners — Alethia Johnson, Lancaster; LaMariya McCree, Chester; Jacob Owens, Orangeburg; Alayna Weilnau, Bamberg
Presidential 4-H Award — Mya Chapman, Saluda; Daniel Marino, Chester; Macie Thomas, Dorchester
Spirit of 4-H Award — Riley Cotton, York
Glen Krohn Excellence in Volunteerism Award — Toya Moore, Greenville
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