Jessica Anderson Helps to Create Avenues for Teachers, Students
by PAMELA PALONGUE
Unlike many people who choose a career in the field of agriculture, Jessica Anderson did not grow up on a working farm with parents who were producers — but you’d never know it. The insight, knowledge, and expertise she brings to the table create opportunities for teachers and students across the county.
Anderson is an ag educator and administrator. The Polk County Farm Bureau named her “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” in 2017 for her ability to connect with students and to convey the importance of agriculture and related professions in today’s world. Since 2019, she has worked in an important administrative role as the teacher resource specialist for Polk County Schools for public service, fire, criminal justice, industrial arts, and agriculture.
School played an important role in plotting her future career decisions. She became involved in 4H and then went through an ag program in high school. It was while participating in this program that she fell in love with the field of agriculture.
“I started out in veterinary science but later changed to agriculture education,” she says. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Florida and began her teaching career at Westwood Middle School in Winter Haven.
When she began teaching at Westwood in 2010, she was the first female ag teacher the school had ever had. Now, in 2022, Anderson has seen a definite uptick in female educators in agriculture.
This mirrors a national trend of women becoming more involved in agriculture in general. In looking at women in production, in 2012, women made up about 30% of all farmers who were principal operators, according to the USDA. In 2019, the Census of Agriculture reported that 36% of farmers were women, with 56% of all farms having at least one female decision-maker.
Anderson went on to become the lead teacher of veterinary science at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland, the same school where she developed a love for agricultural sciences. She left the classroom in 2019 to accept her current position as teacher resource specialist for Polk County Public Schools. Her firsthand experience as a teacher has given her a good perspective on what teachers need to help prepare their students for their future careers.
Anderson has worked with Scarlett Jackson, the Director of Admissions at Warner University, to try to develop guidelines and support for teachers that bridge the gap between ag education and skills that are needed in the ag industry and related fields.
“Our goal is to enhance the education we provide to students so that they’re prepared when they leave school,” she explains. They’re meeting again this summer with teachers and ag industry professionals to find the best way to develop an educational foundation for students.
Anderson also works closely with Dr. Debra Barry, a professor of ag education at the University of Florida where Anderson meets with juniors and seniors in ag education. Additionally, she sits on the board of the Farm Bureau and is an advisor to the Polk County Future Farmers of America Association.
All of her work is geared toward ensuring that teachers and students have the resources they need to navigate the modern needs of agriculture for not only those students who will become producers but also for the many students who will go on to have ancillary careers in agriculture.
“Florida is the third-largest employer of ag jobs in the country. The majority of those jobs are not producers, but downstream careers,” says Anderson.
Agriculture touches on a wide variety of professions that support the industry — the scientists who develop better fertilizers to increase production, individuals who work in communications, the marketing experts who promote the commodities, and technologists who develop programs to help farms run more efficiently to name only a few.
Making students aware of the breadth of agriculture is important to Anderson. It’s not always about growing food. In Florida in particular, there is a great need for landscapers and horticulturists, forestry management, beekeepers, and those who are links in the supply chain for the industry.
Familiar with the daily warnings of looming food shortages, Anderson is adamant about hammering home one point in particular: “Buy local, buy specifically from Florida.”