Agri-Fest Adapts to Stay Relevant Over the Years
After a year of virtual-only events, Polk County Agri-Fest returns in 2022 with both in-person and virtual opportunities for students to become better aware of how vital the agricultural industry is to Polk County.
Agri-Fest started in 1989 as a one-day event at the Winter Haven Citrus Dome. It was a collaborative effort that included local growers, the Polk County School Board, the Farm Bureau and the Polk Extension office. It grew to a 10-day event with six key learning stations — Florida farms, phosphate, forestry, beef, horticulture, and citrus — that served between 5,000 to 6,000 students per year, pre-pandemic.
This year, as it experiments with a hybrid of in-person and online events, Agri-Fest looks to continue bringing the Polk County agricultural industry to area students. Central Florida Ag News interviewed two of its main advocates — Polk County Farm Bureau Executive Director Carole McKenzie and Director of UF/IFAS Extension Polk County Nicole Walker — about the festival, its objectives, and what to expect from this year’s event.
CFAN: What was the original goal for Agri-Fest 34 years ago and how has that goal evolved?
Carole McKenzie: A primary objective then was to identify the correct grade level that would be the best age to introduce agricultural concepts and connect them to school-based curriculum and testing standards. I think that as those curriculum standards have evolved, so have the lesson plans for the Agri-Fest stations.
Nicole Walker: The goal of extending agricultural literacy to children has not changed. However, in addition to getting to know some of the commodities produced in Polk County, there is also a desire for students to explore potential careers and opportunities to get more actively involved in supporting local agriculture. This includes such things as encouraging their parents to shop locally for fresh produce and visiting local “u-pick” farms and agritourism sites.
CFAN: How has Agri-Fest changed over the years?
McKenzie: Lesson plans have been expanded to include issues like the importance of farmers taking care of the land, water conservation, and that farmers and ranchers make good efficient use of every part of their product that is possible. We have also tried to share with students that a career in agriculture doesn’t just mean driving a tractor for a living. We try to make the connection between agriculture and careers in the fields of science, marketing, engineering, technology, and many other fields.
Walker: The format and the content have changed over the years as the local industry has evolved. Agriculture is not static and is multi-dimensional and we want to reflect that in the programming. Teachers have provided valuable input and the partners have worked diligently over the years to make Agri-Fest more hands-on — as hands-on as one can be with more than 80 kids in a group — and interactive. We also seek to extend the learning by providing teachers with before and after resources so that they can reinforce the lessons from attending Agri-Fest and incorporate those into learning standards for fourth-graders. The activities include science, social studies, and language arts.
CFAN: How do you keep it relevant after more than three decades?
McKenzie: We have great volunteers and station presenters. Each of the six stations has leaders directing the lesson plans that are fully in-tune with the commodity they are presenting about.
Walker: Plus, we get teacher input each year through a post-event survey that tells us not only what they thought about the learning experience during Agri-Fest, but how they used the before and after materials and whether those materials support learning objectives for their students.
CFAN: Is this year’s hybrid event in response to the pandemic or just changing times and the popularity of virtual events?
Walker: The virtual event in 2021 and 2022 takes into account the limitations of students to participate in off-site events. (Last year) we were unable to have any in-person event due to restrictions for students; we were just glad to be able to have Agri-Fest in any format! And we found a manner that resonated with teachers. This year our PCPS partner surveyed teachers and asked who would be able to attend in person and who preferred virtual, so our decision to host one week March 14-18 of in-person and all others in an alternative format March 7 to April 1 was a direct response to that survey.
CFAN: Can you offer some details about what exactly is on tap for this year’s event(s)?
Walker: The students are organized into groups and will rotate to three of the six stations. They spend 30 minutes at each one in order to get a full and interactive experience. For those students attending the virtual event, the teacher decides when and how much time they spend. For our purposes, “virtual” means the youth did not come to the in-person Agri-Fest. Their teachers have access to online resources and receive a box of resources to supplement the online learning. Last year, we discovered from the teacher surveys that the teachers engaged their students in all six virtual stations for a total of up to five hours of activities and instruction.
CFAN: What is the best way to make Agri-Fest engaging for the age group you are targeting?
McKenzie: I definitely think the personal interaction with students appeals the most. And the more they can touch with their hands the better!
Walker: There’s no one “best way,” but the goal of the stations is to present how the ag industry is exciting and requires a lot of ingenuity to be run well. Each presenter and presenter group incorporates the uniqueness of their corner of the industry into their station activities, and we find that the fourth-graders truly enjoy it, and that’s also the feedback we get from teachers. We’ll continue to explore ways to incorporate interaction into the stations. Agriculture in and of itself is relevant to every person, so we’ll have no problem keeping the event relevant for many more years.