Cultivating Character in Our AgriYouth

Cultivating Character in Our AgriYouth
Why 4-H, FFA, and Other Programs Are More than Just Ag Projects

Training tomorrow’s leaders is a big job. But working together, Agri-Fest, 4-H, and the National FFA Organization along with countless volunteers are doing their part to cultivate character in the next generation.[emember_protected custom_msg=”Click here and register now to read the rest of the article!”]

4-H leaders Nicole Walker (left) and Amanda Squitieri are two of the many local experts on a mission to help cultivate our leaders of tomorrow. photo by PEZZIMENTI

Each in their own style, the groups teach children more than just where food comes from. “We try to reach them young at Agri-Fest,” says Carole McKenzie, Polk County Farm Bureau’s executive director. “The duty that falls upon growers and ranchers to feed the world is a huge responsibility. You can’t do that without character.”

The Farm Bureau partners with University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension in Polk County, the Polk County Youth Fair, and others to teach agriculture basics at Agri-Fest for some 6,000 fourth graders every year.

“Farmers and ranchers have to be tenacious by character, because every season is a risk. There are no guarantees with the weather or the market, pests or disease,” McKenzie observes.

4-H builds life skills. “Here’s an educational tool where the kids don’t have to mold themselves to the program. The program molds itself to fit the kid,” explains Nicole Walker, 4-H youth / community development director of Polk County’s UF/IFAS Extension. Growing something teaches responsibility. “If they’re going to grow something, they’re going to raise something, if they don’t take care of it, it will die,” she points out.

Children can learn about a wide range of skills, however. Walker spends a lot of her time working with neighborhood associations and church groups to form new 4-H chapters. With some 95,000 school age children, there is plenty of room for growth.

Meanwhile, the FFA expands on agriculture instruction in the classroom. “I’m a product of the FFA and the agriculture classroom. What I’ve found is the skills and the knowledge that’s taught through FFA and ag helps makes those academic subjects more concrete,” says Paul Webb, who supervises Polk County’s FFA chapters and volunteers on the Youth Fair board of directors and executive board. “We’re reaching kids where they want to be.” FFA serves about 3,000 students in the sixth through 12 grades, or about 60 percent of the ag students, Webb shares.

With increasing urbanization, youth are less aware of how food is grown. Agri-Fest, 4-H, and FFA have stepped in to create greater awareness about agriculture. “Everybody needs to know that their food doesn’t just come off the shelf in Publix,” Webb says. “A lot of sweat and labor went into growing and harvesting that food.”

Yet, they also help youths find their niche in life. Seventeen-year-old Allyson Polston, who joined 4-H six years ago, started showing Brangus cows in 4-H. Now a senior, she sits on the board of International Junior Brangus Breeders’ Association. “I’ve learned about the ag industry and the beef industry. I’ve learned how to show my animal, as well as how to present myself.”

Polston, who is homeschooled, is planning to earn her associates degree at Hillsborough Community College in Plant City, before possibly heading to UF to major in animal science. “It [4-H] has basically just made me the person I am today. I honestly don’t know where I’d be without it,” says Polston, president of Polk City 4-H Club.

Ag organizations help students broaden their vision about agriculture, beyond the stereotypical image of the farmer on his tractor. “That’s a big part of it,” McKenzie concedes. “We also want them to be thinking about the many facets that contribute to the industry . . . there are many different careers that are directly related to agriculture that don’t involve actual farming.”

They include being a researcher, a critical field in light if the citrus greening threat to the citrus industry, along with geneticist, nutritionist, biochemist, biological engineering, climatologist, food safety specialist, florist, plant pathologist, toxicologist, science writer, and more.

Whatever career path they choose, young students are learning leadership. “FFA has not only educated me on agriculture, it has sculpted me into a young leader. That will help me be successful in life,” says Moriah McCullers, a 16-year-old junior serving as vice president of the Frostproof FFA Chapter.

Her sister, Scarlett McCullers, went through the program and now teaches agriscience at Frostproof Middle-Senior High School. “My FFA career started in the very classroom that I now teach in. I learned how to speak publically, run an orderly business meeting according to correct parliamentary procedure, and set goals to reach my full potential,” she says.

Amanda Squitieri, Polk County 4-H agent with UF/IFAS Extension, says leadership and citizenship are two qualities 4-H tries to develop in its 900 members aged five through 18. Through local club meetings, to mentoring, to 4-H leadership positions, the group fosters leadership. It also promotes giving back to the community through service projects, and includes a mock legislature where students learn about government.

“The agricultural community does a good job of embracing youth and wanting to encourage them and be aware of agriculture,” she says. “Everyone is really committed and dedicated to their jobs, to the community, and to the youth.”

Erica Curtis, a 17-year-old junior who is homeschooled, is mentoring as a 4-H project leader on rabbits for Clovers on the Ridge Club in Lake Wales. On Friday nights, 11 girls—most between eight and 10 years old—meet with Curtis to learn how to take care of rabbits, prepare for show, and play interactive games.

It began when she was walking through the Youth Fair. “I saw the cute rabbits and I thought, ‘They’re really adorable. I really want to do the rabbit project,’” recalls Curtis, president of her 4-H Club. “I kind of taught myself. After a few years of doing the project, I decided to become a rabbit project leader.” Curtis also coordinated rabbit showmanship at the Youth Fair, an event that drew 38 competitors.

Other qualities 4-H fosters are a sense of belonging, mastery, generosity and independence, Walker observes. Belonging is especially important to autistic children served through St. Paul’s Lutheran 4-H Club in Lakeland, who are learning through a hydroponic garden.

“They have to feel safe,” explains 4-H leader Debra Wagner, who teaches fourth and fifth graders science and reading. “They do well and they love it out there. That’s a good place for them to shine.”

Wagner teaches 4-H members the “extra things” she can’t teach in the classroom through the 4-H club. The class has a hydroponics garden; the 4-Hers learn to can. The class raises tomatoes; the 4-Hers make salsa.

Not only does it teach teamwork and leadership, but it teaches the children to eat vegetables. “They’re eating them raw just like they should,” Wagner says.

4-H also teaches basic skills they will need in life, like sewing, cooking, and handling money, she explains.

At Our Children’s Academy in Lake Wales, Meg Jessee also is working with disabled children, teaching them to make ketchup, recycle crayons, create centerpieces, and other crafts. A senior at Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School, Jessee will be training a successor, Erin O’Halloran, a junior. “They’re always happy to see me and ready to work,” Jessee says of the students. “I’ve learned so much from them. They’re so nice to each other. I’ve learned you should really be nice to everyone.” She’s also learned to be optimistic and not “let the little things get you down.” Of her experience as a 4-H group leader, she adds, “They’ve taught me to look at life from a new perspective.”

CREDITS

story by CHERYL ROGERS
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