Auburndale High School’s Kimberly Shaske Named Polk County Farm Bureau 2022 Ag Teacher of the Year
by PAUL CATALA
Since standing in front of her first students 26 years ago, Kimberly Shaske has continued to maintain her focus: keeping the relevance and importance of Florida agriculture at the forefront.
It is that dedication and desire to instill a love and respect for Florida agriculture that earned the Auburndale High School educator the title of Polk County Farm Bureau 2022 Outstanding Ag Teacher of the Year.
Shaske says the honor isn’t about “being in the limelight,” but rather about her dedication to agriculture education.
“I’m grateful and appreciative of the recognition and I’m honored they selected me this year, but really, I don’t do this job for the honor; I do it because of my love for the kids,” says Shaske, 57.
A Winter Haven native, Shaske says the award helps raise awareness and bring recognition to the agriculture industry. In Florida, more than 100,000 acres of agricultural, rural, and natural lands are converted to development each year; nationally, more than 1.5 million acres of agricultural land are lost annually. As Polk County’s current population of about 753,500 continues to increase and the county becomes the fastest growing in Florida, agricultural lands continue to be paved over.
“We need to introduce the importance of agriculture to elementary and middle school students. If (farmers and teachers) aren’t there to keep it alive, people are going to forget about the importance of agriculture here, even if they go to the grocery store every day,” says Shaske, who lives in Lake Alfred with her husband of 34 years, Jeff Shaske.
That importance has been magnified throughout the covid pandemic and the supply shortages that followed. Shaske says that has made not only her students but also Florida residents more aware of the value of having land set aside for agriculture.
Shaske’s family owned a 40-acre citrus grove when she was a child. Her parents – Roy, a general contractor, and Emily, one of the first female real estate brokers in Polk County – encouraged her interest in agriculture. Roy enjoyed gardening, hunting, and growing citrus; Emily fished, canned produce, and hiked.
After graduating from Santa Fe Catholic High School, Shaske was accepted to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural education and agricultural operations management. She credits one of her professors, Dr. Byron French, for steering her in the direction of agriculture education.
Shaske became certified in Ag Systems, has an Associates of Agriculture certification, and is an Agriculture Specialist and Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association Horticultural Professional.
Whether in the classroom, the pasture, or the barn, Shaske devotes herself to teaching students about traditional agricultural practices, as well as newer methods and alternatives, such as Verti-Gro — vertical growing, gardening, and agriculture that utilize space and energy more efficiently.
“We grow in pots here at school, and (students) then take skills home with them to continue nurturing plants,” says Shaske, who has been at Auburndale High School since 2013.
Her value as an agriculture educator is nothing new, however. Shaske led the Polk County Farm Bureau’s 2015 Outstanding Ag Program of the Year, as well.
Polk County Farm Bureau Executive Director Carole McKenzie explains that the annual awards showcase the instructors’ high level of commitment to their students.
“For over a decade, I’ve had many opportunities to observe Mrs. Shaske’s dedication to her students,” Mckenzie says. “Her example teaches them to be service-driven and dedicated to others.”
McKenzie says it’s Shaske’s ability to teach across commodities and changing agriculture trends that made her deserving of the title this year. She also says she admires how Shaske stays in tune with the agriculture community beyond the classroom.
“Whatever the occasion or event, if she is able to attend, participate, or offer support, she is always there,” McKenzie says.
Shaske estimates that 85 percent or more of her students at Auburndale High School live in the suburbs and don’t do many farming-related activities at home. She says she works to make her classes and programs suitable for all students, urban and rural.
She and her family raise show chickens, providing birds to ag students across Polk County.
“It’s nice to have (the award) because it’s recognizing people who are tied to the agricultural field trying to help with educating the kids and bringing in more kids for the vocation of agriculture,” says Shaske, who has hosted several Farm Days to help educate elementary students about agriculture.
The mother of three grown children says retirement is on the horizon within four years so she can spend more time with her children and have more time for hobbies like gardening and traveling.
Until then, she says she’ll continue doing her best to keep the importance and relevance of Florida’s agriculture at the forefront of young minds. She often spends 10 to 12 hours a day dealing in some capacity with her instructional duties.
It’s a labor of love that has paid off for her students and the community. During her career, five of Shaske’s students have gone on to become state FFA officers, and three became agriculture teachers.
“A lot of it, especially in our area, we’re losing so much agriculture due to development, that if you can tie that back to the agricultural realm for these kids or introduce it to them…it’s a wonderful thing,” she says. “If we’re not there to keep it alive, people are going to forget about it or take it for granted.”