School Board member Justin Sharpless is on a mission to inspire Polk County’s next generation of farmers and ranchers.
Equipped with resources from the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “Ag in the Classroom” program, Sharpless has been touring elementary schools throughout Polk County this fall, regaling students with the book “Moovers, Shakers and Milk Makers” by Jennifer Morgenthal, with illustrations by Charles and Helen VanArsdale. The book about dairy farming follows the stories of Geneva, a black and white Holstein, and Romilda, a fawn-colored Jersey.
Milk “can be mixed up, shaken or swirled,” Sharpless read to Samantha Joyner’s kindergarten class at Lincoln Academy in Lakeland on Thursday morning. “Five minutes after we started, I gave four gallons.”
He noted that milk is “a part of your school lunch meal.”
One illustration in the book was a map and when Sharpless asked what the map showed, some students exclaimed, “That’s Florida!”
“We just did that Sunshine State Standard, so thank goodness,” Joyner said, referring to one of many items kindergarteners are required to know by the Florida Department of Education.
When Sharpless was finished reading the book and showing the illustrations, it was question time.
“Which cow gives chocolate milk?” asked Lydia.
“That’s a great question,” Sharpless said. “Cows make regular milk and we add flavors to it. Cows produce white milk.”
Another kindergartner asked how Sharpless knew so much about cows.
“When I was in high school, I joined an agriculture class and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I went to college and then I taught here in this county, middle school and high school agriculture. And I own some cows.”
He now teaches agriculture at Warner University in Lake Wales, where he lives with his wife and three sons.
But, if Sharpless wanted to lead students on a field trip to a Polk County dairy, he wouldn’t be able to.
H.C. Dairy Farm off Walker Road in Lakeland was Polk County’s lone remaining dairy, built 100 years ago. Freda Pirkle-Carey and her husband Mike milked 400 cows, mostly Holsteins, twice a day on the 79-acre property. But in 2019, the dairy was damaged by a tornado and in 2020 the couple decided to sell. The buyer’s plan to develop the property fell through.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show Florida is not in the top 10 milk-producing states, with California, Wisconsin, Idaho, Texas and New York collectively producing more than 50 percent of the U.S. annual milk supply.
According to Florida Dairy Farmers, there are, however, about 125,000 dairy cows in Florida that collectively produce about 300 million gallons of milk a year. By comparison, California has about 1.7 million dairy cows.
Each Florida dairy cow produces about 6-8 gallons of milk each day and is milked 2-3 times per day. Lafayette and Okeechobee counties are Florida’s leading dairy counties, with most Florida dairy herds ranging in size from 150 cows to 5,000 cows.
For students wanting to study agriculture, Polk County Public Schools offers multiple agriculture programs throughout the county, including six at Lakeland-area schools:
- Kathleen Middle School Pre-Academy of Agriscience — Students will gain a basic understanding of agriculture while focusing on plants, animals, and natural resources. Students will also learn about the food system and the safety procedures in agriculture systems.
- Kathleen Senior High School Agricultural Science Academy — Students will learn agricultural communications, agriculture mechanics, aquaculture, animal science, forestry and horticulture, and can join Future Farmers of America, which allows for premier leadership and personal growth lessons.
- Lake Gibson Middle School’s Agricultural Science Academy — Students study animal science, plant science, food science, and agricultural mechanics. Students can join Future Farmers of America.
- Lake Gibson High School Academy of Agricience and Agricultural Biotechnology — Students study agriculture-based courses in animal science, horticulture and basic mechanical work. Certifications are offered in Agriculture Foundations, Animal Science, Horticulture and Agritechnologies, and students can join Future Farmers of America.
- Southwest Middle School: Seminole Pre-Agriculture Academy — Prepares students with a basic understanding of agriculture while focusing on plants, animals, and natural resources in a traditional classroom and an outdoor agricultural lab. Students can join Future Farmers of America.
- Tenoroc High School: Diversified Agricultural Studies Academy — Offers Agriculture Association Certification, Animal Science Specialist Certification, Certified Horticultural Professional. Students can join Future Farmers of America.
Florida Ag in the Classroom also offers lesson plans for all teachers on its website.
Sharpless said he is hoping to read the organization’s next book, “The Work of the Wings,” which is about bees, to students in the spring.
If you would like Sharpless to read to your students, contact him at: 863-534-0529 or email@example.com
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