At the helm of Warner’s ag program

| Lauren Lewis laying the foundation for tomorrow’s industry |

After earning her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Alabama and Texas, Lauren Lewis, a graduate of Haines City High School’s class of 2006, has returned to Polk County to head Lake Wales-based Warner University’s new agricultural studies program. The program is expected to help train local youth who might otherwise opt to work or attend school out of state. [emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]

“We’re really looking forward to this,” says Marcia Lightsey, whose husband Cary is a sixth-generation Florida cattleman. “I think it will really keep the kids at home.” Lake Wales-based Lightsey Cattle Company and other area ag businesses will be giving the students practical on-the-job experience while they are attending Warner. Lightsey Cattle, a partnership between Cary and his brother Layne, already is working with students attending the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville. “We do a lot of internships here and work with students for six to nine weeks,” she says.

With stiffer competition for seats at UF, some students attend Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, says Lightsey, who is looking forward to her grandchildren attending the Warner program. “I think we are going to see an increase in the skills and capabilities of our local workforce,” adds Lewis, who began working at the Christian, 1,100-student university last year.

Educating tomorrow’s industry, today

Lewis, age 25, was hired in advance of the program’s start date this fall to prepare the curriculum, recruit students and help raise funds for a new $2 million facility for students. “Once money is raised, we start building,” she says. “It can be built in six months.”

Five students have already enrolled and are taking classes. They have 51 who have applied for next year; some 19 have been admitted, she points out. “We are above what our initial goal is [10]. To me, it shows there really is a demand for an alternative degree in agriculture … in Florida,” she says.

Lewis points out that the program is “very unique” because of its strong emphasis on practical experience. At other schools, internships usually are offered during the summer or for one semester. At Warner, graduates will have more than 500 hours of practicum.

The program offers broad-based instruction, allowing those who aren’t sure what ag career they want to pursue to learn about different types of work. But the practicums also enable folks who know their area of interest to refine their skills in their chosen specialty.

“Florida agriculture is so diverse,” Lewis explains. “Most operations are diversified. Actually, this is the first program that is very reflective of Florida. I think that is what is drawing many students to it.” Besides giving practical know-how, the goal of the Warner program is to build problem-solving skills and teach students where to find the answers they need to be productive. One of the program’s first students, David Dyer of Frostproof says, “This program seemed like a lot more hands-on. That’s really how I learn better.”

He is expecting to help the Highlands County Soil and Water Conservation District with promoting its revised Best Management Practices for water, nutrients and pesticides. “The way it’s set up is very good,” he says of the Warner program. “It gives you kind of general education on everything.”

The program curriculum includes classes in animal and plant science, agriculture mechanics, agricultural policy and law, marketing, managerial finance, natural wildlife and resources management, weed and pest management, and specialty crop production as well as classes in beef, fruit and vegetable production.

About the lady behind the leadership role

Lewis, whose family has run Haines City-based Delane’s Truck Brokerage, a produce trucking business, since 1969, participated in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H in middle school. She served as an FFA state officer in 2006-2007. As Area Four state vice president, she visited 63 schools teaching about ag and leadership development.

She earned her Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Economics and Business at Auburn University. Then at Texas A&M University, she completed her Master’s in Agricultural Education.

When Lewis was looking for a teaching job, Polk FFA District Advisor David Byrd and his wife Shari recommended her for the role as head of Warner’s ag program. “I discovered quickly that Lauren was a very intelligent lady with lots of leadership skills, drive and ambition,” explains Byrd, who has mentored her since high school. “Her intelligence is what sets her apart.”

As a woman in the agricultural field, Lewis may surprise others by wearing a dress and heels to business meetings. While she is more comfortable in jeans and boots, she’s learned to dress for the occasion. “I’m happy to break that stereotype,” she quips.

She believes women’s role in agriculture is evolving — that today women are rising to fill decision-making roles. “I do think women play a vital role in telling the ag story,” she says. Lewis believes there are more opportunities for women in agriculture today, although “a lot of boards still do tend to be predominantly male.”

She is comfortable with the idea of not being able to do everything, or know all the answers. To Lewis, what is important is being able to collaborate. “Nobody is going to know all the answers about anything. I’ll be the first to tell someone I’m not the world’s guru,” she concedes.

When the ag program officially kicks off in August, David Byrd plans to be one of its teachers. After 35 years with the Polk County schools, he’s retiring as district resource specialist overseeing the budget for ag programs and has accepted a part-time job as a teacher at Warner. “She did a great job of putting together a four-year plan,” he says of Lewis. “I call her ‘Boss’ now.”



photo by PEZZIMENTI [/emember_protected]

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