On a muggy day in late June, nearly 150 middle and high school students descended on Ona, Fla., a small town in western Hardee County.

Why Ona and not a theme park?

Dr. Mary-Grace Donao of SFSC’s Bioenergy program with visitors to her interactive teaching activity at the Youth Field Day.

Dr. Mary-Grace Danao of SFSC’s Bioenergy program with visitors to her interactive teaching activity at the Youth Field Day.

Because Ona, with a population of 314 people and 1,200 cattle, played host to the ninth annual Youth Field Day, a daylong series of classes and educational activities intended to spark an interest in agriculture among young people.

To aid in that effort, South Florida State College was on hand to offer an interactive educational activity and to drum up interest among the students in SFSC’s agricultural program offerings.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences put on the educational event at its Range Cattle Research and Education Center, a 2,480-acre extension facility in Ona.

During the day, the students rotated through classes on pasture management, microscopic bugs, and photographing wildlife.

One of the instructors opening students’ minds to the wonders of agriculture was Dr. Mary-Grace Danao, SFSC’s lead instructor in bioenergy education. She guided students on the use of a refractometer, showing them how to use the small, handheld device to gauge the sugar content of several juices.

In agricultural production, winemakers and brewers use refractometers to measure the sweetness of wine and beer.

“The event did an awesome job at exposing youth participants from across Florida to potential careers in agriculture,” said SFSC’s Summer Miller, college recruiter, who fielded questions from students on opportunities in agricultural programs at SFSC.

SFSC offers several programs in agriculture. Students can enroll in one of two Associate in Science degree programs: Citrus Production Technology or Landscape Horticulture Technology. Students interested in shorter courses of study can opt for college credit certificate programs in either the Landscape Horticulture Professional or Technician tracks.

Agriculture is big business the region that is home to SFSC. Together the three counties that comprise the SFSC service area–DeSoto, Hardee, and Highlands– produce about $690 million worth of agricultural products annually, according to the latest figures from the United States Department of Agriculture.

A student at the Youth Field Day measures the sugar content of juice using a refractometer.

A student at the Youth Field Day measures the sugar content of juice using a refractometer.

People often think of citrus production as the main driver of the region’s agricultural economy. While orange groves dominate the landscape astride many roads, cattle pastures account for a lot of unseen agricultural production. Two-thirds of Florida’s cattle pasture can be found in the southern half of the state.

Another sector of the agricultural economy is bioenergy production–turning agricultural products, like grasses, into fuels.

SFSC recruited Dr. Danao earlier this year to head up the college’s bioenergy program. The program offers associate degrees and college credit certificates in biofuel and biomass production and cultivation.

At the Ona event, Dr. Danao showed students how to work the refractometers, teaching them how to apply liquid to the sensor, peer into the measurement screen, and determine the “brix,” or sugar content, of different juices. 

In the afternoon, students had time to discuss career opportunities with representatives from colleges who turned out for the event.

“It gave us an opportunity as well to showcase SFSC’s programs and degrees,” said SFSC’s Miller. “While at the same time offering a fun and educational agriculture activity.”

For more information, contact the SFSC Advising and Counseling Center at 863-784-7131.