Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 10, Issue 1 - June, 2017


Promotion of Specialty Crops Through Demonstration Gardens and 4-H Youth Programs

Francis, D., State 4-H Youth Development Specialist, Utah State University
Beddes, Taun, Regional Horticulturist, Utah State University Extension


Cooperative Extension utilizes demonstration gardens to educate the public in a variety of horticulture topics. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program presents an opportunity to showcase how to grow specialty crops and raise awareness of their use. The 4-H gardening programs provide a vehicle for the upkeep of the garden and an education opportunity for the younger generation about the care and use of specialty crops. 


Need for Specialty Crop Promotion

Specialty crops can be new crops that have not been commercially grown in a particular region, or new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Ranging from exotic purple potatoes to more commonly known crops like lettuce, specialty crops have the potential to diversify producer offerings and introduce consumers to new products that can be grown and purchased locally. The purpose of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) is to solely enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops, defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture)” (Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, n.d.).

In Utah, the SCBGP is administered through the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. The request for applications includes:

  • Technical research on growing specialty crops
  • Marketing and promotion plans
  • Projects that raise awareness of specialty crops


Most projects focus on working with producers on tasks like conducting research for variety selection or creating marketing strategies or value-added options for the product. Utah State University Extension 4-H utilized the SCBGP as a strategy to engage youth in growing specialty crops, develop horticulture skills, and raise awareness of specialty crops in the community.

Utah 4-H has its roots in horticulture education for youth. The first Utah 4-H experiences were 4-H potato clubs organized in 1912. James C. Hogensen, an agronomy professor, toured the state to begin the task of organizing boys’ potato clubs in each county. Each boy pledged to grow a half acre of potatoes under the direction of the Utah State Agricultural College (USAC).

This project of the Extension Division of the USDA helped to fulfill a requirement that the division should "provide agricultural and home-science information to anyone not attending a land-grant institution," including young people. By 1914, Hogenson, as state club specialist of the Extension Division, reported that clubs were growing a number of what are referred to as specialty crops, including potatoes, apples, mangels (a beet variety used for cattle feed), and flower gardens (Murphy, 1996).  

Although the potato clubs are long gone, and 4-H youth now have many program options, garden projects continue to be popular, thanks in part to the launch of the 4-H Junior Master Gardener Program in 1999. Youth are able to participate in these garden projects largely through Cooperative Extension demonstration gardens.

The use of demonstration gardens as an educational tool in Extension programming is commonplace. Public demonstration gardens have provided authentic teaching classrooms as well as a place for self-directed learning. The purposes of these gardens have grown as issues have expanded. They vary from water conservation, pollinator preservation, food production, sustainable maintenance practices, and water-wise landscaping (Glenn et al., 2013). Cooperative Extension in Utah is a collaborative partner in various types of demonstration gardens across the state.

The reasons to incorporate gardens into Extension programming are compelling. In an educational setting, gardens make possible the type of sensory, exploratory experiences recommended for Extensions’ educational delivery systems (Richardson, 1994). When combined with a traditional classroom experience, visits to demonstration sites, such as gardens, have increased learning and affected attitude change more than a classroom experience or site visit alone (Harmon and Jones, 1997).

In 2014, Utah 4-H took steps to blend the concepts of youth gardening, demonstration gardens, and specialty crops. The intent was for youth to

  • Be more aware of growing specialty crops through hands-on gardening
  • Maintain demonstration gardens that focus on specialty crops
  • Prepare food from the garden
  • Sell produce at farmers’ markets

Two different grants were applied for and received, providing funding assistance to engage 4-H youth in the work of raising awareness for specialty crops. A total of four 4-H programs/locations were involved in gardening projects and demonstrations. 



Youth Gardening Program

The programs utilized a variety of youth gardening curricula to assist in planting, caring for, harvesting, and preparing food from the garden. The largest resource was the Junior Master Gardener Leader Guides developed by Texas A&M University. The “Learn, Grow, Eat & GO!” (LGEG) guide was the newest research-based, evidence-based curriculum project of the International Junior Master Gardener® program. It was selected because it provided an excellent framework to encompass activities that encourage youth to garden and then prepare fruits and vegetables to eat.

Gardens where the specialty crops were grown were either located at community gardens with dedicated beds for youth or a working farm with a youth garden managed by a 4-H Junior Master Gardener Club. One garden location installed a passive solar greenhouse to assist with seed starting and season extension. Youth were responsible for the planning, planting, upkeep, and harvesting of crops in the garden. Extension staff and volunteers assisted with a variety of tasks. 

Planting, maintaining and harvesting crops from the demonstration gardens was a spring, summer and early fall commitment. Both garden locations used teen leaders (approximately 3 for each location) to assist throughout the growing season. One garden location conducted a series of teaching workshops led by the teen leaders (supported by a paid staff advisor) for younger youth, while the other location utilized teen leaders (supported by paid staff) and an ongoing 4-H Junior Master Gardener Club that met once a week for 3 hrs throughout the summer. With the exception of family vacations, the Garden Club Group found that most youth attended the weekly club meetings that included working the garden, preparing healthy snacks and a variety of hands on learning activities. A club fee of $150 was charged to assist in paying for education supplies, club t-shirts and the materials to prepare snacks from the garden when possible.

Teen leaders and program assistants (typically one per location) filled in the gaps to keep the gardens maintained through the season. One location found a “kickoff event” in the late spring that encouraged families of the garden club members to attend to get the garden planted for year and an end of year volunteer day to clean up the garden and plant tulip bulbs helped to address the workload associated with the demonstration garden. 

Figure 1. Demonstration garden and passive solar greenhouse located Juab County, Utah. The garden includes demonstration boxes with specialty crops maintained by 4-H youth and community garden boxes for use by the public.

The National JMG Teacher/Leader Survey and Evaluation reports that over 63% said youth tried new fruits and vegetables (Cummings and Boleman, 2002) in the Junior Master Gardener Program. Growing specialty crops was an opportunity for youth to taste common fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden as well as grow things they may not have ever consumed or even seen (such as kohlrabi, kale, and beets). Having the youth grow the food, coupled with providing them an experience to learn how to prepare it, raised the interest and adoption of the use of the specialty crop. 


Figure 2. Youth in 4-H work in a demonstration garden harvesting specialty crops. This garden, located at a museum complex, had the largest variety of specialty crops highlighted to demonstrate to the public the wide range of growing options available in the local area.


Produce not utilized or taken home by youth in the program was sold at local farmers markets or given to shelters. Youth were responsible for harvesting, pricing, displaying, and selling produce. Youth found that even when there weren’t large quantities of any one item, customers appreciated the variety of produce for sale.

Demonstration gardens were used as a classroom and learning laboratory. Throughout the duration of the 4-H Club meetings for the year, youth were taught how to select, grow, and harvest specialty crops. In some cases, older youth led healthy-living workshops for younger youth in the garden.

In addition to growing crops, youth demonstrated a variety of trellising, irrigation, and planter/grow box options to the public to explain a variety of successful growing techniques. To educate the public about specialty crop engagement, 4-H youth placed signage in the gardens featuring facts about the crops. Signage topics were chosen that would raise awareness, from labeling plants (to enable the public to identify varieties of fruits and vegetables that can grow in their community) to notes on when to plant these crops.


Figure 3. Specialty crop signage used in the demonstration garden to explain frost-free dates.



Figure 4. Specialty crop signage describing the concept of cool-season crops. The sign was located in the area of the garden that grows a variety of cool-season crops, including kale, lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower.



A Valuable, Multifaceted Youth Experience

Concerning the specialty block grant initiative, over half of the program participants reported eating a fruit or vegetable that was new to them because of their involvement in the garden. Every program participant reported helping their family with some aspect of yard care, but only 14% expressed that they had a fruit/vegetable garden they had responsibilities to care for at home, showing the importance of these types of youth gardens. Fifty-seven percent expressed the activities they enjoyed participating in were harvesting and hands on cooking experiences with the new fruits and vegetables. Not surprisingly, only a quarter of the youth participants expressed that working in the garden was an enjoyable experience.

To determine if the youth were applying lessons outside of the garden club program, over half expressed that they did prepare snacks or meals with fruits and vegetables they grew or the same produce from a store. Half also reported that they applied at least one Junior Master Gardener concept lesson in the home garden/landscape. Finally, youth were asked to share a memorable experience or lesson learned through your involvement in JMG Program. Answers varied and included: “I liked going to the restaurant to give the chef garden produce and getting fresh soup”; “Volunteering at the farmers’ market”, “Harvesting produce and taking it home”, and “I felt happy to give my mom a bag of basil because she loves it.”

Youth garden projects have demonstrated locally and nationally to have a positive impact on youth through increased garden knowledge and healthy living. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program was a new funding stream for youth gardening and garden demonstrations in the state. The funding worked well to expand the scope of youth gardening, to encourage young gardeners to use their garden plots as education demonstrations for specialty crops, and to sell produce at local farmers’ markets. This project also demonstrated basic business practices to youth that could be useful to them in future careers. Both agricultural and financial aspects added value to the youth garden experience and aligned with the goal of enhancing competitiveness of specialty crops by raising awareness of different foods that could be grown locally.


Literature Cited

Cummings, S., & Boleman, C. (2002). Junior Master Gardener Program Coordinator Implementation Evaluation. Available at:

Glenn, C., Moore, G., Jayaratne, K. S. U., & Bradley, L. (2013). Characteristics of Extension Demonstration Gardens. Journal of Extension 51(2). Available at:

Harmon, A. H., & Jones, S. B. (1997). Forestry demonstration: What good is a walk in the woods? Journal of Extension 35(1). Article 1RIB3. Available at:

Murphy, M. (1996). Boys’ Potato Growing Clubs. History Blaze. Available at:

Richardson, J. (1994). Learning best through experience. Journal of Extension 32(2) Article 2FEA6. Available at:  

Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. (n.d.)