Protests greet 4-H policy of 1 ribbon for all Iowa experiment canceled amid howls of 'socialism'


LE MARS, Iowa -- Kari A. Beitelspacher has been bringing home blue ribbons for years from 4-H club competitions at the state fair in Des Moines. But this year, even her well-received homemade salsa did not win first place.

The 16-year-old was disappointed, but then so were thousands of other children who belong to 4-H, a rite of passage in rural America.

In an experiment this year, 4-H gave 3,500 Iowa State Fair competitors the same multicolored ribbons recognizing participation, rather than awarding the traditional first-, second- and third-place ribbons.

From small cities like this one to the state capital, the reaction has been nearly hysterical. While the children were unhappy, the grown-ups were really riled.

One critic successfully introduced a plank in the state's Republican Party platform assailing "the encroachment of socialism" in 4-H. The Des Moines Register carried articles about the controversy on its front page, prompting a slew of letters to the editor.

Here in the heartland, where radio stations list corn prices as often as urban radio stations report rush-hour traffic tie-ups, the changes in 4-H -- which stands for head, heart, hands and health bTC -- seemed to many to challenge not just a cherished program, but also a way of life.

Linda K. Mohning, a former 4-H leader, said, "To us, 4-H has been a microcosm of traditional American life and values -- values that have worked for 200 years."

Mohning, author of the Republican plank on socialism, said, "Free enterprise is a bedrock value of America and we would be concerned about any move to stray from that." She and her husband grow corn and beans and raise hogs and cattle on their farm near Remsen, a small town in northwestern Iowa.

Some opponents of the move even said it would undermine the work ethic and make it harder for children to learn how to prosper in today's global economy.

"This is a competitive world," said Evan Rayl, who breeds Angus cattle at his farm in Bridgewater, in southwestern Iowa. "How in the world is a 4-H leader supposed to explain to an 18-year-old why we didn't all get the job?"

Faced with such an uproar, Iowa 4-H leaders have now declared the ribbon experiment over. At next summer's state fair, they plan to award blue, red and white ribbons for first-, second- and third-place finishers.

"The whole issue surrounding whether 4-H is socialist is a ridiculous discussion," said Joseph R. Kurth, the state 4-H director. "There is certainly no basis in truth for that."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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