The Clover and the Oyster


by Heidi Broadhead
photo courtesy WSU extension

Around the turn of the last century, experimental field stations at land-grant universities were having trouble getting local farmers to accept new technologies. In 1902, A.B. Graham, a school superintendent in Ohio, set up a “Boys’ and Girls’ Agricultural Club.” The hope was that the 85 kids who signed up would get excited enough about agriculture to recruit their parents to the new methods. Soon, corn clubs and canning clubs started popping up throughout the Midwest and the South.

“Those canning clubs were as attuned to the latest technology as we are today,” says Pat BoyEs, Washington’s State 4-H Director. “They were leading edge back then.”

These corn and canning clubs evolved into what we know today as 4-H. From a primarily rural tradition of animal projects and horticulture, 4-H has evolved into one of the most active youth organizations in the country, with seven million members nationwide. In Washington, only 8 percent of 4-Hers live on farms, with 38 percent living in small towns (those with populations of less than 10,000). The remaining 54 percent live in bigger towns, suburbs, or cities.

Each county in Washington has a 4-H program as part of its WSU Extension office, and coordination with horticultural and ag experts in the Extension offices keeps 4-H clubs tied to the science of food. In King County, for example, 4-H clubs manage gardens at schools and at the Garfield Community Center. In Pierce County, experts from the popular Master Gardeners extension program teach 4-H club members in their demonstration garden, and they have 4-H after school programs focused on cooking and nutrition.

“We focus on life skills development for youth from 8 to 19 years of age,” says BoyEs. “Animal science is still popular, but kids are also moving more to weather and water quality and technology clubs, like robotics, statewide as well as nationwide.”

One of the most promising of these food science projects is in Jefferson County, where a 4-H club and oyster business called Big Quil Enterprises is changing the perception of what 4-H can do for kids and for the towns they live in.

“Big Quil is exciting because it combines everything that we try to do in youth development—sustainability, renewability, community involvement,” says BoyEs. “They are a resource in their own community. They’re adding to their community, not just to themselves.”

Located on Hood Canal in the southern part of Jefferson County, on the border of the Olympic National Forest, Quilcene was built on the Kitsap Peninsula’s early timber industry.

“Quilcene and Brinnon became so economically crunched in the 80s with the timber industry [collapse],” says Pamela Roberts, Jefferson County’s 4-H Director and former school principal, who has been instrumental in bringing the Big Quil vision to fruition. “Then people said, hey, we have this other resource, we have a huge oyster industry.”

The idea of kids working with oysters started in the mid-90s, with a small shellfish 4-H club run by the local science teacher, which focused on oyster planting and harvesting and environmental stewardship. After various incarnations, the project was funded by a 4-year grant to Quilcene school district and WSU extension from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which allowed them to form Big Quil Enterprises.

“The initial idea was that the students would manage a strip of beach,” says Roberts. “The focus was community-based learning.”

WSU extension recruited a start-up group of kids to be officers (the “popular” kids—according to Roberts—which helped raise 4-H’s cache). Then the kids hired Joe and Joy Baisch, long-time school volunteers and owners of the Elk Meadows Bed & Breakfast and Nursery in Brinnon, to be their coordinators. The Fish and Wildlife department leased the beach to Big Quil for free, and they found a corporate partner, Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has played an integral role in the club’s ongoing success.

“It was a natural thing to try to get involved with.” says Bill Taylor, President of Taylor Shellfish. “We are trying to educate more people about our industry. The kids get involved and they realize: ‘Hey, this is something I like.'”

According to Joy Baisch, the Big Quil program starts as early as second or third grade—when the kids learn the basics of how to clean the beach, how to identify different types of shellfish, how to measure a square meter, and how to dig, count, measure, and move oysters. In the middle grades and high school, they can plant and harvest the beach, test water quality, learn GIS and GPS mapping from the Conservation District, or work at Taylor Shellfish’s hatchery, which is just a couple miles up the road from Big Quil’s beach.

When they are not working on their own beach, they have a chance to work for other small growers, help clean up other beaches, or help seed beaches for the local tribe as a community service, a huge part of the 4-H program.

“They get to participate as an equal,” says Baisch, which may account for what Roberts calls their “can-do attitudes.”

“I saw the seeding, harvesting, storing, shipping,” says Liz Hodgson, former Big Quil president who is now working on a food science degree at WSU. “I got to see how this whole oyster business works.”

Students even had a chance to go through coast guard training, which has helped at least one student land a job on a dive boat.

“You teach the kids the basics, and give them a practical application so they can internalize,” says Baisch, who says that the Big Quil members have easily been able to find jobs in the industry.

As a business entity, Big Quil relies on a coordinated effort with members of the local shellfish community. “We can’t get access to the kids for the hours of work that are required on the beach, and we don’t have all the equipment we need,” says Baisch, “We partner with small growers who have their own businesses. We’re growers, and we hire pickers and shippers, so it’s profitable for them, too.”

“Some kids have also been hired to work at the visitor’s center for the Forest Service on Highway 101,” says Roberts, who explains that tourism is the next area of focus for Big Quil. “It’s not directly connected, but the project was never meant to be just an oyster business.”

All Big Quil students spend some time working directly on the beach, but they also have a chance to learn marketing skills by working with salespeople from Taylor Shellfish. They have designed shellfish boxes for their products. They also sell oyster products (that they’ve raised or that Taylor has donated) at Brinnon’s Shrimpfest and other Puget Sound festivals, county fairs, events, and farmer’s markets to raise funds for their club and for scholarships. Many of the Big Quil kids have worked directly with Taylor’s chef, Xinh Dwelley, cooking and catering for events. They all have their food handler permits, which help them get summer jobs at various local restaurants. Another group of Big Quil 4-H kids have learned web production and they’ve created a blog for Big Quil as well as publicizing their club and their oysters on the 4-H Network News, Jefferson County’s kid-run video news blog.

“It’s not like a straight line,” says Roberts, “but if we immerse them in enough experience, we feel they eventually hit on something that gets them jazzed, then we can help them work toward that goal.”

To find 4-H clubs or get involved in County Extension programs around the state, visit

Look for the green 4-H clover at state and county fairs and ask them about their projects. Kids show vegetables, baked goods, art projects, and animals from cattle to cats.

Heidi Broadhead writes for Amazon’s books blog, Omnivoracious, and Fantagraphics’ BEASTS! series. She showed her first lamb at the fair in Malad, Idaho when she was seven.

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