Agriculture students mix credits with community service
By PENNY FLETCHER
RUSKIN — Nine years ago when Erin Elsberry decided to teach agriculture at Freedom High School in Tampa it wasn’t her first experience with what makes things grow.
Erin had been raised in the agricultural environment for which south Hillsborough County was once referred to as “America’s salad bowl,” and her aunt and uncle and other relatives owned land (including the long-standing Elsberry Farms in the Ruskin area). Soil, seeds and plants were just a part of her nature.
Like the many other farming families in the South County area that existed prior to the 1980s development boom, the Elsberrys talked about the effects of the weather; knew about rain, drought, flooding, freezes, and were aware of the best time to plant each different kind of crop.
So after Erin graduated from East Bay High School in 1991 and studied agriculture while getting her teaching degree at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama it just seemed natural that she would want to show others what she had learned.
After all, one thing people will always need is food.
So Erin started her career as a teacher in the Hillsborough County School District at Freedom High School in Tampa but transferred “home” when Earl J. Lennard High School was opened in Ruskin in 2006. Now she teaches students who (mostly) like herself, grew up in an agricultural environment. As part of Lennard’s agriculture course, students may join FFA (Future Farmers of America) and take part in community projects.
As students of the land and the animals that inhabit it, they knew about farm labor too, and that migrant farm workers are often dependent upon local agencies and missions for basic necessities when work is scarce.
Erin’s ag class made a connection with Good Samaritan Mission in Balm, run by the Rev. Bill Cruz Jr.
They had heard that the mission was strapped — as are all local charities and helper agencies in the area — due to current economic conditions. Cruz had begun a new program about a year ago that stresses teaching self-sufficiency to those who come to the mission for help. Sewing and other classes are being taught in ways that students can immediately use to earn a better living.
Erin and her students and Cruz knew the EarthBox project would be a perfect match.
So, in November, Erin and about 20 students dedicated a Saturday to taking EarthBoxes to the mission and planting what, as of last week, produced the first harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables to be included in food packages for the needy that come to the mission for help.
The EarthBox is the invention of Blake Whisenart of Ellenton, who donated 74 of them to the mission’s Self-Reliance Garden.
The special boxes are designed to enable plants to use only what they need to stay healthy, conserve water and prevent over-watering, under-watering and soil dilution by allowing the movement of nutrients from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration.
They can be used as a single patio container or many can be put together (as in the mission project) to feed the masses.
“We take on a project each semester,” said Lennard’s FFA Chapter President Ashley Leonard. “I live in Balm, near the mission, and I knew that FFA teaches we must take on leadership in our communities so I thought this would be a good way to do something positive.”
The first fruits and vegetables were even healthier and more plentiful than expected according to a brochure released by the mission in late February after its first “harvest.”
Meanwhile, the agriculture students have moved on to more projects and are currently concentrating on the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Erin said.
One of her students will be showing poultry; another a commercial heifer and several students are working on plant projects, she said.
After that, they will be entering the Florida State Floriculture Contest which concentrates on the production of bedding plants. “Students entering this will be graded on technique, construction and product,” she explained. “And they will have to make a corsage.”
March and April will also be a time for agriculture students to take part in Agriculture Literacy Day sponsored by the Florida Farm Bureau.
“We keep them very busy,” she said, smiling. “But they certainly seem to enjoy it,” she said.