Agritechnology Academy teaches youth of the suburbs

Polk County Farm Bureau’s Ag Program of the Year award goes to Auburndale High School

AGRICULTURE IS IN NEED of young people interested in stepping in and picking up the tools of the industry — both on the farms and in the research labs — and working hard. It’s something Kimberly Shaske knows well. She has 20 years of experience teaching agriculture, and her latest project — four years as the head of Auburndale High School’s Agritechnology Academy — has been chosen to receive Polk County Farm Bureau’s Outstanding Ag Program of the Year award. “We will have over 9 billion people to feed by 2050, and we need everyone we can to help in doing this,” Shaske says. “With most children leaving the farm for other job interests, we need to find the students who are coming to us from the nontraditional farming backgrounds and get them prepared to help feed our future.”

Growing up in Winter Haven, Shaske understands what it’s like to have a youthful interest in agriculture. Her family had a 40-acre citrus grove, but she attended a private prep school and “did not have much exposer at school regarding agriculture.” However, her parents saw her interests and found ways to help her explore them. “My father taught me about construction, gardening, hunting, and citrus, and my mother taught me about fishing, canning/preserving, and hiking, as well as sales.” With their blessings, she decided to study Agricultural Operations Management at the University of Florida. It was there that she was encouraged by a professor, Dr. Byron French, to consider agriculture education. “He told me I had a great talent for helping and teaching others and felt that would be a great calling for me,” she recalls.

Shaske’s own introduction into agriculture mirrors that of her pupils; she estimated that 85 percent or more of the program’s students live in local suburbs and have little experience with raising crops or farm animals at home. Her program is tailored to reach students of all backgrounds. “This is a general agricultural program that allows students to learn about many areas of the industry, rather than just one focus,” using both classroom and hands-on learning, she explains. The Agritechnology Academy is a single-teacher program with 138 students. Shaske adds, “I teach all the courses offered and serve as the FFA Chapter Advisor.”

The program has had some major highlights. Last year, program participants consistently placed in the top five or 15 for speeches and other contests with the Polk County Youth Fair and Florida State Fair; two passed the Agritechnology Certification Exam, and they also held a Spring Farm Day for elementary students as part of Agri-Fest. Furthermore, they received a Rural Youth Development–Hunger Cohort grant for a Hydroponic Vertigro system and laying hens. “We were able to donate over 430 lbs. of fresh vegetables and 25 dozen eggs last year,” Shaske shares, and she maintains they plan to continue. Additionally, there are more innovations in the works for this year as well. For one, Shaske points out that she’s able to offer a 10-hour OSHA Safety Training course that area employers (i.e., Publix) like to see on resumes.

At the end of the day, Shaske says that it really is a group effort. “Everything that we have accomplished so far has been a part of rebuilding a sleeping program that I came into four years ago … without this support, we could not be where we are today.” She notes that local businesses contribute, and that individuals can also help, such as by donating toward the $25 fee for the OSHA class that many students can’t afford.


article by ERIKA ALDRICH

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