Hitting the ground running

DeSoto County 4-H agent Kristie Popa wasn't shy about taking on a challenge when she joined extension three years ago.

Since her first day, the Punta Gorda native has grown the 4-H program from nine clubs to 14, launched a successful Ag-Venture program, started a citrus program and just unveiled a grant-funded teaching kitchen in the Arcadia extension office.

For Popa, who is just 25 years old, this is her first position in extension. She grew up riding horses and also raised 4-H steers, pigs and lambs from the age of 7 all the way through graduation. While Popa wasn't raised in agriculture (her dad was a business owner and her mom a nurse), Popa said her mother encouraged the children to try lots of different activities.

"We tried piano, cheerleading," Popa explained. "4-H was the one thing we stuck with."

After graduation, Popa went on to earn a degree in elementary education and was getting her feet wet during her first year of teaching at Nocatee Elementary School in Arcadia when she ran into an old friend at the fair - her 4-H agent from Charlotte County. Popa learned about the job opportunity in DeSoto and was encouraged to apply.

"I was happy teaching," said Popa, who went on to get her master's in agricultural education and communication at the University of Florida. But the nostalgia of her good times with 4-H and her fascination with the position made her follow through.

Fast-forward three years and she has just wrapped up the county's third Ag-Venture, a huge event where 400 fourth graders are taken out of the classroom and whisked on a journey to learn where their food comes from through interactive booths run by local producers. Fourteen stations teach kids facts about beef, bees, watermelons, insects, peaches, sod and more. They chose older elementary school kids, Popa said, because they are old enough to think for themselves, yet still impressionable.

On a suggestion, Popa took the Ag-Venture project on her first year. "It was a bear!" she recalled with a laugh. "I look back on it now and think 'what was I thinking?'"

This year she has also expanded on the program with a classroom portion of Ag-Venture that helps cement information in kids' minds either as a warm-up to or a follow-up after the tour. A bin is placed in the classrooms with all of the materials to supplement a dairy lesson, complete with the coup de grace - all the tools for making ice cream.

Another new project his year is the state-of-the-art teaching kitchen just installed in the extension office. A grant from the Mosaic Foundation provided the funds "specifically for 4-H kids to learn life skills and how to work together to eat healthy and cook healthy and to incorporate Desoto County agriculture as well," Popa explained.

Another new project she's implemented is a citrus program for kids who aren't able to raise an animal. The children learn to grow a young tree and get schooled on the citrus industry in the meantime.

With all of this going on, what is the best part of Popa's job? "As much as people think I'm crazy, I really enjoy the fair," the young woman smiled. "I'm there every day, and I enjoy watching the kids do what they love to do."

Popa is about to embark on a new adventure of her own in a month or so - that of motherhood. She and husband Brandon Popa will be welcoming their first child, a baby boy. That should keep her busy along with the chickens the couple have recently begun raising. In the meantime, Popa's confident her colleagues and the dedicated 4-H volunteers who run the clubs will continue to provide kids in DeSoto County with great opportunities through 4-H.

"When you see kids want to come back after they graduate, you know you've made an impression on them, just like my 4-H leaders did for me," Popa said.