Head, heart, hands, and health are the words that thousands of 4-H members live by. Matias Habib certainly didn’t join 4-H to become a leader in sustainable agriculture — the then 10-year-old’s mom just wanted him to have a sense of community, a place to belong. But, for the now 17-year-old high school student, 4-H has become so much more than that — and earlier this month, it landed him the 2023 4-H Youth in Action Award for agriculture, which is sponsored by Bayer.
Launched in 2010, the 4-H Youth in Action Awards recognize 4-H’ers who have applied the knowledge gained in 4-H to create a lasting impact in their communities while overcoming personal obstacles. Despite childhood challenges, Habib found the connection, inspiration, and confidence through 4-H that helped him to turn his ideas into a reality.
Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the Illinois resident says that he realizes his differences provided him with vital tools to empower his passion and focus on science — and that’s exactly what he’s done.
“4-H empowered me to pursue my passion for agriculture and natural sciences. I learned to conduct scientific research on real problems and imagine real solutions. 4-H gave me the confidence to present my work and turn my ideas into reality. 4-H gave me a voice,” Habib said in an interview with AGDAILY.
In 2019, Habib began a research and entomology project centered around finding organic control methods for the Japanese beetle, an invasive pest plaguing his family and friends’ orchards.
Habib says he “went to battle,” setting up a laboratory in his garage testing beetles. When Habib discovered a combination that worked, he entered his project into the Kendal County 4-H fair, where he won a championship trophy for entomology. He then went on to win the Inspire award — which is given at judges’ discretion to exhibitors who present inspirational, innovative, or unique exhibits — and a championship at the Illinois 4-H State Fair.
It was at the Illinois fair that Habib met the entomologist who was judging exhibits.
The judge told him, “You’re innovating in a billion-dollar industry. Keep it up.”
Those words of wisdom sparked Habib’s continued progress in battling beetles with bio-pesticides.
Soon after the fairs, Habib entered the Celebrating High School Innovators contest, sharing $1,000 in prize money with his competition partner. The money was enough that, with some help from his family, he could start his business, TerraBuster, and begin marketing his formula to surrounding friends, neighbors, and gardeners.
From 2019 to 2020, Habib worked to identify and test natural substances on the beetles. He researched a myriad of substances: spices, plant oils, essential oils, and amino acids to see what worked. His formulas are tested on live beetles — after releasing the insects into a container, Habib observes their behavior and consumption of leaves.
TerraBuster spray is a natural, rain-resistant pesticide that repels beetles like the Japanese beetle, aphids, mites, and caterpillars. In line with his personal commitment to environmental sustainability, Habib uses refillable spray bottles, and sources and distributes his bottles locally.
Now, two years into running TerraBuster out of his home garage, Habib says he isn’t stopping there. While his team of friends helps with some of the heavy lifting, Habib’s research is still underway as he continues to perfect his formula and looks to expand to cover more species, such as pesky squash bugs. Squash plants pose a heightened challenge for the innovator because they’re susceptible to sprays.
Right now, TerraBuster is primarily marketed to local gardeners, but Winding Creek Nursey in Millbrook, Illinoism has been selling Habib’s products for three years. Habib says he is working on a concentrated formula for larger growers.
Habib encourages other 4-H members to try their hand at entrepreneurship, saying, “If someone wants to work on a project or has an idea that you think has a shot at being something, you should just go for it! Even something like inventing a pesticide against a Japanese beetle.”
Although TerraBuster is doing well, Habib expects a busy future ahead of him. The young entrepreneur is applying to universities, where he hopes to continue his education in the agricultural industry while marketing and developing his product over the summer growing seasons. After school, Habib plans to pursue a career where he can continue to create innovative solutions that protect the environment.
As a national 4-H winner, Habib will receive a $5,000 higher education scholarship and spend 2023 inspiring other youth by telling his 4-H story and celebrating his leadership. In addition, he will have opportunities to showcase his story nationally, network with prominent 4-H alumni, and serve as the official 4‑H youth spokesperson for agriculture.
Heidi Crnkovic, is the Associate Editor for AGDAILY. She is a New Mexico native with deep-seated roots in the Southwest and a passion for all things agriculture.