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4-H prepared Harden for executive leadership roles, life

Mark O'Keefe
USDEC
While Krista Harden earned trophies and awards during her 4-H experience, she says the values she learned during the journey have served her well in the future.

Growing up on a Georgia peanut farm, Krysta Harden knew from an early age that she would be part of 4-H and that 4-H would be part of her.

As a third-grader, Harden paraded 1,000-pound steers in front of judges at 4-H competitions.

“I was the littlest one out there,” Harden told Mark O'Keefe of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “I looked like a skinny little ant next to these big, big animals that ended up being very gentle and very kind. That’s how it really started. My parents thought it would be good for me to learn about discipline and focus by taking care of something.”

Harden didn’t know it back then, but childhood lessons learned in 4-H would prepare her for leadership positions in the federal government, business and the nonprofit sector in Washington, D.C.

In 2021, Harden became the first woman to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council when she was named president and CEO in February. More than a year ago, Harden was elected board chair of the National 4-H Council, which supports nearly six million 4-H children and teens with a focus on fundraising and telling the 4-H story.

She says she was taught to give back to honor those who had helped her along her journey. She credits county agent Clifford Lee for inspiring her.

"He was an adult who had time for me. And maybe it was just his job. But it was just so much more than that. I just started paying forward," Harden explained. "I want to give back to an organization that helped shape me in so many different ways."

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As a leader in the agriculture industry, Harden encourages women to take the industry seriously and to be involved.

"4-H definitely did that to me, it broke down barriers for me," she said.

A family affair

Harden says that her entire family was involved in 4-H, traveling across Georgia showing steers and horses together. 

"It was something that brought us all together. And it was connected to my livelihood, my parents' livelihood on the farm," she said. "They had the wisdom and knew about the benefits of 4-H and brought that into our home. It was a way for us to be together without it being so forced. We were working together, helping each other and learning from each other. And I think that that was kind of the beauty of 4-H for us."

Krysta Harden

Becoming a leader

After overcoming a bout of homesickness at a horse camp, Harden began connecting with and learning from other kids from across the state.

"I could start to see kind of the leader that I wanted to be. I didn't go to 4H thinking I'm going to be a leader one day. But somehow it challenged you to find those places and ambitions inside you," she said. 

Lessons learned

Harden says the person she is today is built on a foundation of values learned during her 4-H experience.

"It really built into me that sense of responsibility. Mama would never let us quit anything that we started. We had to see it all the way through and 4-H was a big part," Harden said. "(4-H instilled in us) many basic values that you don't realize you're learning. It's like you wake up and you realize,I know this because I was in 4-H."

Harden says later in life she really began to appreciate those lessons and learning to be open-minded.

"4-H got me out of my little dusty dirt roads, small town comfort area where I was surrounded by a lot of family who had deep, deep roots in that little county and still do," she said. "I felt really safe and comfortable there. And for 4-H made me explore as I went to camps and competitions where everybody didn't look like me."

Looking ahead

As the new national chair, Harden hopes to make a difference to the 6 million youth involved in 4-H across the country. Today's demographic of members hail equally from rural, suburban and urban settings.

"We really have a cross section of the country's future, the world's future," she said. "I want to make sure they are equipped to deal with the next crisis, that they have the skill set, the confidence, the character and those values to be able to deal with the next set of challenges."