Excitement was in the air at Warner University’s groundbreaking for a new agricultural complex. Funding had been phenomenal. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam gave a speech. And construction was estimated to be completed in the fall of this year.
Then came the scrub jays. The protected species was the first hurdle the university faced after the groundbreaking last year.
“We were hoping to have everything progress smoothly, but we discovered scrub jays and muck land. So if that was to be the spot that we chose to build on, it would take quite a bit of mitigation and also digging out the wetlands and replacing them with fill dirt,” said Scarlett Jackson, director of Warner’s agriculture program. “We decided to look further into other options here on campus. We have about 300 acres, so we’ve been investigating those. We are ready to go – it just takes time to get the scrub jays, wetlands, and dirt ready, too!”
When it’s completed, the 38,000-square-foot facility will include a greenhouse, mechanic’s shop, 5,000-square-foot open-air pavilion and a livestock barn. Designed by Lake Wales architect Scott Crews, it will be built using environmentally friendly green building practices complete with solar panels and a rainwater collection tank. The building will accommodate 150 students and will be available to community groups and the school at large.
In the meantime, the agriculture program is doing some exciting things. It has partnered with Highland Precision Agriculture in Mulberry, and several Warner students have been selected to work with the company’s unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
“Our students just love being involved in the UAV program. One is currently working full-time and one is finishing up her internship and will be full-time when she graduates,” Jackson said. The program was developed by one of the university’s board members and one of the original ag program’s task force members, Steve Maxwell, whose Highland Precision Agriculture is part of Highland Packaging, another FFVA trade associate member.
“The student who is working full-time there went through a simulator course that allows them to be certified and become an operator,” said Jackson. “They have an area where they practice flying, so he was able to take advantage of that and become qualified to go out with them on different field studies.”
“The other student collects data taken from the UAVs, puts it into perspective and reports on what they found. She goes to a lot of business meetings and spends time talking to growers and getting a perspective on what they can do. When she’s hired full time in May, she will be doing a lot of marketing as well.”
“Steve has such a visionary mind. He asked that we be a part of his plans and develop a course so students can have a background in precision ag before hitting the fields. And depending on how he grows, we will grow alongside him,” Jackson said.
The students also are seizing learning opportunities on the international front. They just finished the program’s first international agricultural development course in Honduras. “We’ll be offering it every other year so our ag students will have a chance to go on an agricultural mission trip. They visited dairies, a beef cattle ranch, the coffee bean region and a lot of vegetable farms. They got to experience agriculture in another culture.”
Another exciting development has been an expansion of the program’s internships. The university offers two types of internships – practicums, a 45-hour program, and capstones, an intense 400-hour course.
“A big thing that we’re seeing is people are actually requesting our interns. They’re coming back and getting another intern after maybe their original one. We’re finding that our students seem to be progressing in the industry pretty well and we’re able to groom them and make sure that they’re doing what they need to be doing,” Jackson said. “We have a lot of opportunities available. There’s not going to be an idle student around this summer.”
The program also has expanded its curriculum, adding a senior-level plant breeding and genetics course.
“Another thing we’re excited about is the scholarships that are coming in. One is from the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation. It was awarded to a young lady interested in fruits and vegetables. She’s very deserving and we’re excited about that.” Jackson said. “We find that our students are getting into the industry and the industry is coming back to support them. So it’s a really good cycle.”
Jackson said they are looking forward to having another big class – about 30 new students who will begin classes in the fall. “And our collegiate FFA chapter has really progressed. Just recently I had about eight students in my office talking about all the conferences and conventions they want to go to – bass fishing tournaments, clay shoots … They’re just excited to be on campus and involved,” Jackson said.
“Everything changes daily, and we’re always looking to improve,” she continued. “We’re always focused on providing new coursework for the students and giving them the opportunity to be engaged on campus and in the agriculture community so they are preparing themselves for the future.”