Agri Leader

Hay bales and dragons are just parts of Anna Beswick's busy life

When is an office manager more than an office manager? When she's Anna Beswick of the DeSoto County extension office in Arcadia. While many office managers might be content with the busy job of running and managing the day to day operations of an IFAS site, Beswick has expanded on that role to take on a variety of different projects at work, home and in the community. Along with helping clients that come through the door with questions about plants, cattle and pests, Beswick also assists the 4-H program, runs the 4-H Clover Canning Club, started a hay bale garden project at the office, helps with the county's Ag-venture, Agfest and other events, and is starting the first DeSoto County Master Gardener program in the spring of 2014. In the past, she also stepped in to fill the role of an unofficial interim director during a transition period for the extension office.
The canning club is a passion of hers. She has an average of 12 girls in the club whom she teaches to grow, pick, prep and can crops like tomatoes, black-eyed peas, green beans, okra and strawberries. "So many of them said, 'I remember my grandmother did that. I wish I knew how to do it,'" recalled Beswick. "When I heard the words 'I wish' it challenged and inspired me to want to teach these girls." Beswick has several pressure cookers, jars, a timer and other necessities for canning. She often makes the activities even more fun by adding, for example, biscuit-making to the strawberry canning so the group can enjoy a treat after their lesson. Beswick hopes to later offer adult canning classes in the community. "I feel that people have to get back to the simplicity of life. There's a need for it," she said. Part of that simple country life includes having your own backyard garden, and Beswick has been testing out the relatively unknown concept of growing vegetables in hay or straw bales. She started a six bale garden at the office last spring, successfully growing a variety of tasty vegetables like green beans, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes and squash. Basically, one needs only to purchase a few hay bales, set them up in the yard and prep them with a series of steps involving regular watering and fertilizing. This starts the breakdown process in the hay which will then automatically fertilize the young plants, Beswick explained. A layer of soil on the top provides a starter medium for seeds or seedlings. Benefits of growing vegetables in hay bales is cost-effectiveness (buying bales of hay is generally less expensive than bags and bags of potting soil for container gardening or soil amending), easy care (the decomposing hay fertilizes the plants so regular fertilizing is not required) and ease of use (the bales create a raised bed effect for gardeners who struggle with mobility). Hay bale gardening also minimizes problems with weeds, soil-borne diseases and nematodes. Outside of work, Beswick is involved with the Cattlewomen's Association, runs a ranch with her husband Bryan and two teenage sons, Austin and William, and has a hay bale garden of her own. She also got DeSoto county on the FFA citrus judging map and will continue that club this year if she gets enough interest. A native of DeSoto County, Beswick's agriculture roots run deep, and while she showed cattle on a state level with 4H in her youth, she's even prouder of her oldest son Austin, who won reserve champion in 2010 and grand champion in 2012 for his market steer. "I was lucky to get a blue ribbon," Beswick joked, swelling with pride. Her husband Bryan, to whom she's been married 20 years, manages a citrus grove and serves on the governing board of Southwest Florida Water Management, the Farm Bureau, and the Peace River Valley growers association, so the Beswicks are deeply entrenched in the local ag community. The family is also experimenting in growing dragon fruit on their property. This exotic-looking Asian subtropical fruit is known for its mild, refreshing flavor and health benefits including vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, antioxidants and the prostate-cancer fighting substance lycopene. If the fruit does well through the winter, the Beswicks are hoping to pioneer its introduction in the area. "The export of it is unbelievable," Beswick said, adding that it likes sun, is easily propagated from cuttings, blooms on a full moon and is considered a sustainable fruit. Sustainability is defined as "meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."