Agri-Fest Has a Strong History of Introducing Youth to Florida Agriculture
by TERESA SCHIFFER
In 1988, a new idea emerged in Central Florida for a method of engaging young people in agriculture. The goal was to provide interactive agricultural education to students in Polk County. Agri-Fest was born. What started as a one-day field trip for roughly 600 area youth in 1989 has blossomed into a 10-day program that caters to more than 6,000 Polk County fourth-graders with more than 300 teachers. This cooperative venture of the Polk County Farm Bureau, Polk County Public Schools, the Polk County Extension Office, and the local agriculture community is sponsored by Florida’s Natural Growers Foundation and The Mosaic Company. This year’s Agri-Fest took place in March at the Polk County Extension Office in Bartow, but unfortunately it was cut short because of coronavirus concerns.
During its inception, planners looked at current school curriculums and resources to determine what age group would best be served by interactive exhibits and workshops on citrus, beef cattle, phosphate, beekeeping, horticulture, forestry, aquaculture, blueberries, and small farms. It was determined that fourth-graders were the ideal audience for this venture. Not every child is involved in 4-H or other agricultural activities, so Agri-Fest was designed to introduce young kids to agriculture and generate interest through various hands-on activities and takeaways.
Shreemoyee Ghosh is the local 4-H Youth Development Agent involved with Agri-Fest, and she is an employee at the Polk County Extension Office. She spoke to us about the importance of getting kids involved with agriculture at an early age, and how Agri-Fest accomplishes this mission. Ghosh led the small farms station at the most recent Agri-Fest, and in past years was the “chicken lady” in the small farms station. She emphasizes the value of having the support of the community and the local agricultural industry to make this fantastic, free event possible for children throughout the county.
“Basically, Agri-Fest is a partnership between Florida Farm Bureau, the Polk County Public Schools, and the Polk County Extension Office. That’s where I come into play, and other Extension agents,” Ghosh explains of her involvement. Community involvement and volunteers are what make Agri-Fest possible. Besides the Extension Office, volunteers are enlisted from among 4-H members, FFA students, citrus growers, ranchers, and other local agricultural professionals.
Many students may not be already aware of the strong presence of the agricultural industry in Polk County if they have no direct relationship with it, and Agri-Fest gives these kids a chance to experience the world of Central Florida agriculture first-hand. There are six areas of focus at Agri-Fest: citrus, small farms, horticulture, livestock, phosphate, and forestry. The children are divided into two main groups and each group experiences three of the six stations. Each station has a hands-on activity to engage the students, and teachers are also provided with supporting educational resources in order to continue the learning in the classroom.
A real emphasis is placed on making the different stations engaging and exciting for the students. At the citrus station, children learn about the citrus industry while juicing and tasting fresh Florida oranges. The small farms station introduces students to Florida-grown fruits and veggies, beekeeping, and poultry through a fun, interactive game show. W.G. Roe and Sons, Inc., a blueberry packing company operating in Winter Haven, provides fresh fruit for the kids at the small farms stations each year.
Over at the horticulture station, kids learn about various gardening techniques from area Master Gardeners. The Master Gardener volunteers are trained by the University of Florida/IFAS Extension Service to be qualified to give instruction on horticultural topics. Each child gets to plant a plant to take home with them. Real, live cowboys bring in a working horse to educate kids about the cattle industry at the livestock station, and kids are given a variety of animal by-products to take home.
At the phosphate station, attendees get to dig in a pile of phosphate rocks to find fossils and shark teeth, and then they get to keep whatever they find. Finally, at the forestry station, the children are given a thin slice of pine tree cookie and learn a lesson on how tree rings reveal the age of a tree. These hands-on activities help to create a tangible impression in the students’ minds of what really goes on in the agricultural industry.
Agri-Fest is not so much a fair as it is a hands-on learning experience for the youth. Kids love field trips, and this one is a wonderful, educational opportunity to learn a little bit about what makes Central Florida great. It is inspiring to see the community come together to support both our youth and local industry in such a dynamic way.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of Agri-Fest, serving in such roles as Group Leaders, Support Session Leaders, and Education. At least two adults are assigned to each small group of students visiting a station who help to maintain decorum and provide support to the station leaders. At the citrus station, volunteers assist with the juicing procedure in order to meet all food safety standards. Educators are recruited from each industry to provide instruction at the different stations. All volunteers are thoroughly screened and vetted for the safety of the children. These valuable individuals are what make Agri-Fest possible each year.