Planting the Seeds

Planting the Seeds

Polk County Farm Bureau Names Outstanding Agriculture Program and Teacher of the Year

by MARY TOOTHMAN

 

“Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.”  

— Future Farmers of America motto

Sometimes the phrase “practice makes perfect” is merely a figure of speech. Other times, every bit of it rings true. Just ask Donna Oliver, ag teacher at Karen M. Siegel Academy. Oliver has been teaching agriscience for 31 years. On October 10, her program was recognized as the 2019 Outstanding Agriculture Program of the Year by the Polk County Farm Bureau.

The 80-member agriscience program primarily focuses on horticulture. “We have a greenhouse, a shade house and a hydroponic gardening area in our land lab,” Oliver says. “Students also learn about agriculture from the farm-to-table in agriscience class and even learn how to prepare vegetables and fruits and how to make simple foods.”

In addition to doing landscaping around the campus, students participate in the Great American Cleanup/Keep Polk County Beautiful every year.

“We concentrate on lots of hands-on activities,” she says. “By the time we make it to the end of the year, we have learned a lot and have had many successes.”

Some of the students’ efforts are showcased in the Polk County Youth Fair. They are judged alongside all other youth from the county and receive ribbons and sometimes money. 

“Our school had a tri-color winner last year, which was a big deal as there are only a few of these awards given out during the fair,” Oliver explains.

Students also compete in the career development events at host schools. Some participate in forestry and citrus competitions held at the same time as county contests.

  Oliver says the school’s program was recognized at the state FFA Convention for 100 percent membership every year since 2009. 

“This is an accomplishment I am extremely proud of, because we do a lot of fundraising to make sure all of our students get to participate as full members in the FFA,” she says.

Oliver, 59, grew up in Auburn, Ala., and attended Auburn University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Design. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Horticulture Science at Texas A&M University. 

After a stint overseas, she worked as “I was enticed to leave my job as an extension agent and try my hand as an agriscience teacher a year later. Some 31 years later, I’m still at it.” 

Oliver says she gets to see quite a few of her former students at the Polk County Youth Fair. 

“It feels great to see how they mature and navigate life, knowing that I impacted them in some way.”

“From the time I could walk, I was helping on the farm and knew that farming would be in my blood for life.”

— Eddie Congdon

 

During its 77th Annual Membership Meeting, the Polk County Farm Bureau also recognized Edward “Eddie” Congdon of Dundee Ridge Middle School as the Outstanding Agriculture Teacher of the Year.

During his time at Dundee Ridge, Congdon has coached 17 top 5 State Citrus Evaluations, 14 top 10 State Livestock Evaluation Teams, five top 10 Poultry Evaluation teams, and 23 top five Ornamental Horticulture Demonstration Teams during my time at Dundee Ridge.  

“The most rewarding moment is when these kids win the competition and become State Champions,” he says. 

“We currently own five state titles here at Dundee Ridge. Last year we won three divisions out of five in the State Ornamental Horticulture Demonstration at the University of Florida.”

Congdon, 46, was born and raised in Haines City. He attended Polk Community College, now called Polk State College, where he earned his Associate’s degree. He received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Florida Southern College. After that, his fate took him on the same route as the rest of his family. 

“I was born into a diversified agriculture family,” Congdon said. “My parents owned an 80-acre farm in Haines City. 

That’s where Condon and his siblings raised hogs “from farrow to finish,” raised limousine cattle and harvested the fruit from 30 acres of grove.

“From the time I could walk, I was helping on the farm and knew that farming would be in my blood for life.”

Congdon says that when he graduated from Polk Community College, he had to decide whether to stay and help his parents on the farm or move to Gainesville and attend the University of Florida in pursuit of his dream.

“I chose family over the dream, and not for a minute do I look back on that choice,” he reflects.  

   At the time, if you wanted to teach in the state, you had to be certified in the area you taught and take the college courses that went along with subject you taught. This changed in 2001, so those who passed the Subject Area Exam could add that subject to their teaching certificates. 

“It was that moment that my dream of being an agriculture teacher would come true,” Congdon says.  

In 2001, he interviewed for an agriculture education position at Dundee Ridge Middle School. He’s been changing lives there ever since. 

“My job is rewarding,” Congdon reflects. 

“Where can you go to work where you have a supportive administration, kids who have a love of agriculture and staff that is a family? The answer is Dundee Ridge Middle Academy —  right here in the small town of Dundee.”