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UF/IFAS Extension is Everywhere at the State Fair

The Florida State Fair in Tampa begins February 6 and runs through February 17, and from the first day to the last, UF/IFAS Extension will be everywhere you look—at special ceremonies, judging events, livestock pavilions, and information booths all along the midway.

Each year more than half a million people take I-4 or I-75 offramps near Tampa to visit the fair. It’s a good bet that a substantial proportion of these visitors are drawn there to take on thrill-rides or indulge in fair-food. What they may not know is that at the end of the day, they could leave with a better understanding of where their food comes from or how to control pests without pesticides.

It’s a classic bait-and-switch, but one where the visitor comes out the richer for it: Come for the Tilt-A-Whirl, stay for the sustainable agriculture; come for the Amish donuts, stay for the heart-healthy nutrition class.

The Florida State Fair has served as a showcase for the state’s agriculture and natural resources since its beginnings in 1904. In its early days, you could expect to see impressive displays of the bountiful vegetable and citrus harvests from each county, or farmers showing off their prize steers and sows. Today, exhibits offer a chance for visitors to see what a food system looks like, learn about forest stewardship, or how soil moisture sensors are transforming agriculture. For the past 106 years, UF/IFAS Extension has been a major presence at the Florida State Fair and at county fairs throughout the state. As part of our land-grant mission, fairs provide a unique forum to reach the people of Florida with practical knowledge and research-based information about food, agriculture, and natural resources.

The Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame

The Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame is one of the centerpiece buildings on the fairgrounds. That’s where the “Fresh from Florida” breakfast will be taking place when the fair opens Thursday, February 6. Guests including Florida’s agriculture industry leaders and stakeholders from state and local government will sample Florida foods, and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried and other guest speakers will be there to talk about the future of Florida’s agriculture.

Florida 4-H will be maintaining a booth in the Ag Hall of Fame building throughout the fair. This year, 4-H volunteers will be encouraging visitors to stay hydrated and reduce plastic waste with reusable water bottles and a water refill station.

On Tuesday, February 11, The Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame will be inducting three new members at its annual banquet. All three inductees this year are champions of UF/IFAS.

John Jackson has been instrumental in promoting innovation and technology to further Florida’s citrus, sustainable agriculture, climate forecasting, farm safety, and youth development. During his 38-year career as a UF/IFAS Extension agent in Lake County, Jackson helped to create the Mid-Florida Citrus Foundation; was the co-inventor of the Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN); developed the 4-H Citrus Tree Project, which is supported today by the John Jackson Citrus Scholarship; and helped to establish the annual equipment operators school, which is today called Farm Safety Day.

Hugh Fred Dietrich III is a cattle rancher, agriculture educator and an auctioneer. Mr. Dietrich got his start in Florida 4-H; in fact, some of the Santa Gertudis cattle on his ranch are descended from a 4-H project he started in 1957. As a 4-H leader and auctioneer at livestock judging events, he has influenced generations of 4-H members and helped students achieve success in agribusiness and life science. Among his many honors, Mr. Dietrich was inducted into the Florida 4-H Hall of Fame in 2006.

Robert “Robbie” Roberson has owned and managed successful nursery operations for the ornamental plant industry for more than 40 years. He was a founding member of the Florida Foliage Association and later an active leader with the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA). He played a pivotal role in the creation of the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center, including leading efforts to secure more than $14 million in funding for the consolidation of research centers throughout the region into one state-of-the-art facility.

Florida 4-H at the Fair

The fair is also where you will see 4-H youth showing off their skills and hard work, whether they’re showing livestock, talking with the public at “ask me” booths, or serving as youth ambassadors during the Fresh from Florida Breakfast,  the Governor’s Luncheon, and the Ag Hall of Fame Banquet.

Saturday, February 8 is Florida 4-H Day at the fair. Throughout the day, 4-H club members will be participating in livestock exhibitions and judging events at the Charlie Lykes Arena.

For many 4-H’ers showing livestock at the State Fair is the result of months of hard work. Youth work with 4-H agents, club leaders and volunteers in their local 4-H clubs, learning first-hand how to raise their animals, optimizing their weight gain and health. They keep scrupulous record books on their progress. And they study—a lot. “Skill-a-thon” manuals developed by UF/IFAS are mini-courses in animal science, taking participants through everything they need to know about their species, from digestive anatomy and nutrition to feed efficiency and evaluating body condition. Youth also learn how to groom and show their animals and answer questions from judges. During the State Fair, 4-H and FFA club members from around the state bring their animals to exhibitions where they earn points by showing their animals, participating in Skill-a-thons, submitting record books and taking record-book skills tests.

The top senior exhibitors in each youth show go on to the Champion of Champions competition, held on February 17. The fair closes that evening with an awards banquet where the winners are announced—the 4-H equivalent of the Oscars.

The Florida State Fair is not only a great place to have fun, it’s also a chance to see UF/IFAS Extension at work, promoting our state’s agriculture and natural resources, helping today’s youth become successful citizens, and finding sustainable solutions for the people of Florida.  I look forward to being there and I hope to see you there, too!

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