Warner University breaks ground on new agriculture complex

Warner University, a small Christian college in Lake Wales, broke ground last month on a new complex that will offer great opportunities for students interested in a future in agriculture.

But this wasn’t a typical small college groundbreaking. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and more than 700 industry luminaries and others witnessed a promise of $1 million in donations that afternoon.

“An anonymous donor offered to match any amount up to $500,000 as long as it was given to us between now and next year,” said Leigh Ann Wynn, assistant vice president for advancement. “So, we figured we would have about a year to match that. We were all set to go out and tell potential donors that their $10,000 would become $20,000. But then Ed and Myrtle Lou Swindle stepped in,” she said. The Swindles, a Plant City couple who are involved in agriculture, matched the entire $500,000. “They had planned to give $100,000 when they came to the groundbreaking, but they were so moved by the anonymous donor, they decided to give the whole $500,000,” Wynn said.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam joins Warner students at the ag complex' recent groundbreaking.

The small liberal arts college was founded in 1968 by the Church of God. It has historically offered programs such as education, business, ministry and natural sciences. Several years ago, President Gregory Hall formed a task force to determine the feasibility of developing an agriculture degree program. Named to the task force were agriculture leaders Keith Mixon, Tony DiMare, Hill Griffin and Steve Maxwell.

“The members of the task force called on Adam Putnam to see what his views were about starting an ag program and he said yes, wholeheartedly, that it was needed and to move forward,” said Wynn. “The task force studied the way respected agriculture schools ran their programs. They looked to Auburn, the University of Florida and Texas Christian University and learned what types of classes they offered, how they ran practicum programs and more. Then they brought that knowledge here and used it to develop our program.”

The ag program began about two years ago, with classes held throughout the campus. Since then, two full-time agriculture professors have been hired as well as a director of agricultural development, Scarlett Jackson. “We just recently had our first two graduates, who are employed in the field, and now we have 38 ag students in the program,” Wynn said. Classes offered include vegetable production, animal and plant sciences, plant nutrition, ag policy and law as well as business-related courses such as marketing and managerial finance.

Rendering of the future ag complex at Warner University.

Thanks to a great many members of the Central Florida agriculture community, the program has grown and the new facility will soon become a reality. “It’s just so impressive for a small college to have so much industry support,” Wynn said. We have the Ben Hill Griffin Administration Building, Doyle and Debbie Carlton Livestock Barn, Charlie and Betty Grimes Equipment Barn, and the Jahna Foundation Shop/Lab — just to name a few. The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation was one of the program’s early sponsors.

“Not only have these people been financially generous, they are enthusiastic about having the students come out to their operations for their practicum experiences,” Wynn added.

The 38,000-square-foot building will include a greenhouse, mechanic’s shop, a 5,000-square-foot open-air pavilion and a livestock barn equipped with flexible paneling to adjust the size of stalls. Designed by 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. Construction is expected to be completed by the fall of 2016.

“What makes this ag program really exciting is we will be able to keep bright young people here in Florida,” said Wynn. “There are so many opportunities in this state’s agriculture industry. We’ll be able to offer them the education to take advantage of those opportunities and make them a part of the future of Florida agriculture.”

The Warner University Ag Complex has some naming opportunities remaining for families, companies and individuals. Contact Doris Gukich, vice president for advancement at 863-638-7611 or via email at  doris.gukich@warner.edu or Wynn at 863-638-1446 or send an email to leighann.wynn@warner.edu.

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