Agri Leader

Local agriculture runs deep in new 4-H agent

Highland’s County’s new 4-H agent Katie Whidden just wrapped up the program’s annual banquet last week. It was a big event, with about 200 kids, parents and leaders in attendance. There were fresh flower centerpieces on the table, rows of medals on the stage and even strobe lights. It was the first of many firsts for the extension office’s new hire.

“I’m pretty happy,” said Whidden after the event, which was a little daunting for the agent who stepped into the job, her very first professional job, only a month ago.

Whidden graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s in agricultural education and communication this past spring. “I graduated on Sunday, had interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Friday I got a verbal offer for the job,” said Whidden. She said when she got the position she was “on cloud nine.”

The 22-year-old grew up in a cattle family just outside Clewiston. Her grandfather had an animal husbandry degree and worked in beef cattle on Stitt Ranch. Her father Trip continues to work with the Stitt family in row crop production and her mother Brenda is an office manager in agri-business.

“I would always ride with my dad whenever they would work cattle. I’d sit up in the cowpens,” Whidden recalled.

Because of her experience and love of livestock, Whidden was a 4-H-er herself throughout elementary school and joined FFA as a teen. “I raised a total of nine pigs - five for 4-H and four for FFA,” said Whidden. She placed second in her class her very first year in 4H. During her senior year, Whidden was the FFA senior showmanship winner. It was her experiences in 4-H and FFA that inspired her to seek out a career in ag, but she didn’t know right away that ag education would be her niche.

It wasn’t until a friend of hers with a rough childhood passed away that the light bulb went on for Whidden. “He came in with not much hope for his future, and I saw that through the people he met through FFA, and I’m sure he would have done the same through a place like 4-H, he was able to develop himself and his future,” Whidden reflected, adding, “I realized there was nothing else I’d rather be a part of.”

Though she’s only a month in, Whidden said she’s already got “a good little to-do list” that includes line items like helping the shooting sports club overcome some hurdles and cleaning up the arena to make it functional again. She’d like to see it house steers for 4-H members without ranchland as well as serve as a place for the Cracker Trail Saddle Club to ride horses.

Outside of work, Whidden’s other passion is softball. “If you knew me in high school, you either knew me because of FFA or because of softball,” said Whidden. Growing up as an only child, Whidden and her dad learned the sport together as he coached her. Her hard work and athleticism earned her a two-year scholarship to St. Petersburg State College where she studied before transferring to UF.

A talented pitcher, Whidden was injured her sophomore year of college, but still helps her dad coach the kids in the local 12-and-under team in Clewiston. She’s looking forward to working with the 4-H youngsters and getting to know them and their families.

While Whidden is brand new to the working world and extension, Les Baucum, the Highlands County extension director who hired her, said he has full confidence in Whidden’s ability to build and maintain a strong 4-H presence in the county.

“I have known her since she was five. ... Katie is one of those folks who has a ‘yes, I can do that’ attitude; she will not be intimidated when the job seems overwhelming; she has a passion for agriculture, a passion for education and a passion for working with young folks,” Baucum wrote in an e-mail.

Whidden said one thing she hopes sets her apart is her staying power: “I really do look forward to becoming a part of this community and sticking around for awhile. It’s a wonderful area.”