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Cultivating Tomorrow’s Leaders in Agricultural Education

Following in their father’s footsteps, Tori Gwaltney and their brothers were introduced to 4-H at a young age. Captivated by the program, Gwaltney immersed themselves in various projects. Later in high school they became involved with FFA and all of the opportunities that came alongside 

Initially aspiring to pursue Agricultural Education, Gwaltney made a last-minute switch to Agricultural Science due to life pressures. Graduating in 2018 with a degree in Agricultural Science and a minor in Animal Science, they quickly found employment within the industry. However, after two months, they felt a stronger calling toward education, eventually securing their first teaching position. Presently, Gwaltney is entering their six year as an agriculture teacher at Oakleaf High School in Orange Park, FL. The school’s agriculture program boasts over ten Career Development Event (CDE) and Leadership Development Event (LDE) teams, alongside numerous immersive agricultural opportunities for students.

The program features a diverse array of initiatives, including a sizable pollinator garden, a raised bed vegetable garden, a greenhouse, and a 1.5-acre land lab and barn. Housing a variety of animals, including pigs, beef steers, dairy heifers, dairy goats, rabbits, and chickens, the program offers hands-on experiences to its students. Beyond enriching student experiences, the Oakleaf agriculture program actively contributes to the community. Through projects such as raising chickens for the county fair and donating eggs to a local food pantry, as well as processing and donating broilers for Thanksgiving, students learn valuable lessons in service and responsibility.

Gwaltney with students at the FFA National Convention

Recognizing the urban setting of the school and the predominantly residential backgrounds of its students, Gwaltney focuses on non-traditional agricultural avenues such as environmental sciences, biotechnology, and aquaculture. When asked about the importance of their work, Gwaltney recognizes, “Having the land lab on campus where our students can experience animals and have hands-on opportunities to interact with them teaches our students a lot of skills and responsibilities that they couldn’t get anywhere else. Students are really curious about agriculture because it’s so brand new to them so they’re excited to get involved in agriculture”.

Gwaltney’s contributions to agricultural education have garnered recognition, including being honored as one of Florida’s Educators of Excellence for Native American Heritage Award by Governor DeSantis and Chairman Osceola. This award seeks to highlight teachers who go above and beyond to include lessons of Native American heritage and history. Their class completed research projects about traditional methods of growing and harvesting culturally significant herbs and medicinal plants. Following their research, students completed in-class presentations and then grew those available plants in their raised bed gardens on the school grounds. Their FFA chapter at school has also won several state awards.

Gwaltney at the Florida’s Educators of Excellence for Native American Heritage Award reception

Gwaltney credits their degree in Agricultural Science as the foundation for their ability to teach, stating, “Ag Science gave me a great opportunity to take classes across all the different parts of agriculture which I think gave me a really strong foundation to be a good teacher because our curriculum covers so much”. They also credits the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences Assistant Professor, Joy Morgan, as one of their inspirations throughout their journey. They go on to discuss Morgan’s impact, “I wouldn’t have graduated without Dr. Morgan’s constant encouragement. When I think about the advice that really made a difference and impact that I use on a daily basis, it is direct advice from Dr. Morgan”. 

Looking back on their path, Gwaltney comments on how time spent in 4H and FFA during their youth brought them to where they are today. Gwaltney reflects, “I was really thankful for all the experiences that FFA and 4-H brought me growing up and I wanted to be able to pay that forward. I think there’s a place for everyone in agriculture so I really like to help students find careers in agriculture where they can combine their skills”.