By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Reaping the benefits of knowledge gained, of hard work and hours and hours of care and cultivation, Lennard High School Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter members are bringing their best to the Hillsborough County Youth Plant Show and Sale at the Florida Strawberry Festival on March 5.
There they will join youth from throughout the county for a silent auction, running from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by a 2 p.m. live auction start. The expectation is that the experience overall will ring true with this year’s festival theme, “We Have A Winner.”
In that respect, FFA has become a fertile learning experience for students and adult mentors alike, who in respect to horticulture cover how best to grow, propagate, nurture, promote and display plants for sale to beautify gardens, landscapes and more.
“The whole idea is for these kids to learn all about how the horticulture industry works,” said Jennifer Prete of Apollo Beach, a self-described die-hard FFA parent, who serves as secretary of the Lennard FFA Alumni chapter. “Purchasing the plants, raising the plants, keeping records on the plants and then marketing the plants to the public, it’s all part of the effort.”
Making that clear in a letter she addressed to “plant enthusiasts” is Prete’s daughter, Jetcia “Jet” Prete, a Lennard High senior and FFA member.
“For months, we as a chapter have helped each other learn about and grow dozens of plants,” Jete said in her letter, noting that she is set to show “a beautiful variety of firebush, chosen because it is both native to this area and a pollinator-friendly plant.”
Her second lot is a group of herb dish gardens, arranged “in a way that I hope is both attractive and practical,” Prete added. She engaged in “a lot of research on the herbs” and “propagated several species through seeds and cuttings.”
Proceeds from the sale, short of a small festival fee, go directly to the students, many of whom plan to use the proceeds for post-secondary studies.
“I have been accepted to culinary school in Orlando for next fall and am very interested in farm to table sustainability, so learning about and growing herbs this year has been invaluable to me in the future,” Prete wrote in her letter.
Valuable, too, is the overall FFA experience, which Alex Nuckles, vice president of the Lennard FFA Chapter, addressed in an interview.
Passionate about animals since elementary school, Nuckles said he was eager to become an FFA member and has been one throughout his four-year career at Lennard High. He plans to show and sell both plants and a steer at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
“FFA helped me adjust to high school and expand my social bubble,” Nuckles said. “Through all these different conferences and meetings, I’m meeting so many different people, and I’m putting my name out there.”
He said he has learned “how to properly get animals ready for show and to present them at show” and “how to keep proper nutrient levels in soil, from raising decorative plants to crop fields.” Moreover, life skills have been gained as well.
“Time management is a big one,” Nuckles said. “And I’ve learned how to properly introduce myself. I’m able now to go up to people I’ve met, talk to them if I need information and help them out if they need it.”
Agriculture’s many career paths are fodder for FFA attention as well.
“Most people think of agriculture as just farming, namely animals and crops,” Nuckles said. “But it’s a lot bigger than that.
You can have everything from agribusiness to aquaculture and to careers involving heavy equipment, construction, welding” and more.
“Agriculture,” Nuckles added, “opens up endless opportunities for kids to grow in.”
As for Jet Prete, she said she “never really expected to do anything in agriculture at all,” but found that the FFA program “is accepting of everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you’re knowledge of farm animals is basic or your family is multi-generational” in farming and ranching.
“There’s a place for everyone,” Prete said, noting as well FFA’s impact on gaining lasting friendships, engaging in community service and seeking scholarship opportunities. “FFA is a very supportive community.”
As for the people she is set to meet at the March 5 plant show, Prete is quick to put on her promoter’s hat.
“All are welcome, and everybody can be a buyer,” Prete said. “There’s a silent auction, where you can meet with the exhibitors and we can share with you everything about our plants, including how to take care of them, when and where they bloom and if they have fruit.”
Moreover, Prete said, the plant show “is a great way to support kids who may not have known much about plants in the beginning, but it was a really great way to learn and to get involved with agriculture in general.”
Lennard FFA advisors are Nathan Cooley, who is set to be one of four plant show auctioneers, and Lauren Van Dame. Visit the Lennard FFA Alumni Facebook for more information. Call Prete at 813-299-4330. The Florida Strawberry Festival runs March 2-12 at 303 BerryFest Place. For contest information and more, visit www.flstrawberryfestival.com/.