Henry Keating, 15, and Cayla and Jeremy Smith, 15 and 17, can tell a fir tree from a spruce — no small feat for three kids who grew up in St. Johns County, Florida, where firs and spruces don’t grow.
As part of the UF/IFAS Extension St. Johns County 4-H forestry team, it’s been several years since these three could walk into a forest and simply see “trees.” Instead, they see features such as leaf shape and branching pattern, clues to the trees’ species. For example, “spruces have rounder needles, while firs have flatter ones,” said Jeremy.
Keating and the Smiths won this year’s Florida 4-H state forestry competition and are now headed to the National 4-H Forestry Invitational in Jackson’s Mill, West Virginia. The competition is set for July 31 to Aug. 4.
The St. Johns team will compete with other 4-H teams from across the country, demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as estimating the amount of timber in a tree and planning the development of forested land. They will also need to identify 81 tree species, including fir and spruce, nearly twice the number of trees they had to know at the state level.
The team started six years ago when Wendy Smith, Cayla and Jeremy’s mother, was searching for a 4-H activity that would get her children outdoors and help them appreciate the natural world. She thought trekking through stands of pine and learning about forest ecology would be a fun way to get some fresh air and learn something along the way.
Wendy’s two older children went to the national competition in 2012 and came in sixth place. Now Cayla and Jeremy are looking to match or surpass their older siblings’ accomplishments.
Keating has been on the team for the last four years, and he enjoys competing against other teams just as much as getting outside. “The thought of winning a national contest is really exciting,” he said. Keating was the highest scoring contestant at the state competition, which earned him a scholarship to attend UF and study forestry.
Wendy said the team wouldn’t have gotten this far without community’s support. Geralyn Sachs, 4-H agent with UF/IFAS Extension St. Johns County, Greg Dunn, county forester, the University of Florida school of forest resources and conservation, and locals in the industry have all contributed to the team’s success, she said.
“4-H is all about developing life skills,” said Sachs, “and gaining mastery in the area of forestry has helped Cayla, Jeremy and Henry practice problem solving, team work, leadership and independence.”
All three team members agreed that one of the most challenging parts of the national competition will be identifying trees that aren’t native to the southeastern U.S. But if asked about anything tropical, they have the advantage. “If we get to identify a cabbage palm, that would make us very excited,” said Jeremy.
By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, email@example.com
Sources: Geralyn Sachs, 904-209-0430, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wendy Smith, 904-392-7958, email@example.com
Photo courtesy of Wendy Smith