The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Harvest Festival (held on September 30th) was very much what one would imagine when given the phrase “Portland Harvest Fair.” The majority of vendors were local producers who were there to sell their wares. There were not one but two beekeepers selling honey and two door-to-door vegetable delivery services. And what Portland outdoor gathering would be complete without Rogue Brewery selling craft beers in a small beer garden? But perhaps the most popular stall was the one set out in front of the rest of the Festival, where the Clackamas 4-H Club had a quartet of Alpacas on display:
The OMSI Harvest Festival was held in the vacant lot between the museum and the Trimet stop that services it. Positioned well out in front of the rest of vendors was a small enclosure containing 4 Alpacas. Given the presence of a bobcat, backhoe and other construction equipment in the same basic vicinity as the farm animals, I can understand if many young families didn’t actually make it to most of the Festival. And not without good reason. The alpacas on display were from the Marquam Hill Ranch just outside of Molalla, Oregon which boasts of seventy of the animals in their brochures. Alpacas are often confused with their cousin, llamas but the two animals serve different purposes. Llamas have been raised since the times of the Inca Empire to be pack animals and beasts of burden. In contrast, alpacas share more in common with sheep in that they’re bred for their fibers. As such, alpacas are soft to the touch, you really don’t realize just how fluffy they are until you pet them and feel your hand sink almost an inch like you’re appraising a shag carpet. They’re also significantly smaller than you might expect. But that softness is why OMSI had invited these four animals to their Harvest Festival.
The alpacas were part of a small exhibit by the Clackamas County 4-H club. 4-H (whose name is derived for the 4 H’s in its motto “head, hearts, hands and health”) is an international organization which was founded in 1902 in the United States. The goals of 4-H have always been focused on educating young people, especially in rural areas. The best comparison to be made might be to the Boy Scouts of America and the BSA’s international contemporaries, though 4-H is five years older than any permutation of the Scouts. But where the Scouts are focused on wilderness survival skills, 4-H is dedicated to hands-on learning, particularly in the fields of agriculture and husbandry. In 1904, this made a lot of sense. At the turn of the century, the United States was still a largely rural and agrarian nation. When 4-H was founded, the Tennessee Valley Authority and thus, modernization were almost 3 decades away for rural America. An organization that operated at the national and local level to create a curriculum that introduced children to the finer points of farming and animal husbandry was vital. The quintessential image of winning a ribbon at the county fair is even intractably linked to 4-H. But today in 2018, 4-H portrays itself differently.
The Oregon branch of 4-H is operated through the Oregon State University Extension Service. OSU Extension is branch of the Oregon State education program that boasts branches in every county across the state. The purpose of the OSU Extension Service is to connect with communities and solve problems at the local level. So it makes sense for them to partner with 4-H as a youth outreach program. The brochures offered by the volunteers manning the Harvest Festival booth use evocative terms like “revolution,” to describe the current iteration of 4-H. It presents the idea that learning agricultural skills is revolutionary for kids and young people living today. And there’s some logic to that. The high schoolers on hand at the Festival were eager to explain the uses of alpaca fiber to guests and provide demonstrations. They brought products made with the fiber, including a handmade mat that was really quite impressive for a first effort. There’s definitely something to the idea that the ability to turn alpaca fiber into outwear is a novel skill among today’s youth. It’s part of an growing trend of positioning provincial skills as antithetical to urban living. It’s a popular trend, the type that advocates raising chickens in San Francisco. But while that might seem like a Silicon Valley trend, 4-H is far more pragmatic and sensible. While I might not agree about it being “revolutionary,” I can, speaking as an Eagle Scout, acquiesce to the good in young people learning practical outdoor skills.
Museums like OMSI serve the community through outreach and education. OMSI organizes a number of summer camps, including ones outside the city like the Aquatics camp in Newport. What’s more, the Harvest Festival is funded through a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. The Block Grant Program is focused on “solely enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops” and as such, the point of the Harvest Festival should be to display the product of Oregon fields and gardens, which it does. But fruits, vegetables, and seeds aren’t what you’d call marquee attractions even for a museum so you need something to really reel the folks in. So it makes sense to partner with a program that can bring in real live farm animals and help spread awareness of a program that helps kids to work with them. What’s more the enthusiasm for their skills was worn plain on the faces of the young adults who were there. Despite the cloudy skies and occasional rain, the volunteers were happy to be there, beaming with pride as they showed off their creations. Their genuine smiles were a confirmation of the good 4-H provides.
That’s not the say the rest of the Harvest Festival was a bust. There was also a main stage where OMSI volunteers and employees demonstrated food science and most of the vendors seemed to be doing brisk business. There were a few food trucks selling coffee, acia bowls and Mexican food. Quaint was perhaps a good word for it. The Festival didn’t even manage to fill the empty lot OMSI had fenced off for it but nobody seemed to be having a bad time, least of all the alpacas who seemed to enjoy the attention. All and all a fine way to spend a Sunday and come away having learned something.