This year’s Woman of the Year in Ag is Judi Whitson, fourth from right, at the inaugural Farm Night BBQ, held in Temple Terrace. The event raised $11,000 for the Temple Terrace Parks & Recreation Division. / Contributed

Judi Whitson’s lifelong ties to Florida and its diverse agricultural enterprises have taken her from childhood trips to family-owned farms to a quarter-century career as an industry advocate working on behalf of industry interests at local, state and national levels.

Hired as executive director of the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau in 1991, Judi Whitson has responsibilities as varied as the agricultural communities she represents. Day-to-day duties can find her calling on lawmakers while winding through the corridors of Congress, or making monthly visits to public school classrooms as she tirelessly works to promote, and protect, the farms, dairies, fisheries and more that comprise her constituency.

Whether she is fighting for water-management legislation – or helping Hillsborough County students to appreciate how vital agriculture is to their lives and to see the potential it offers for their livelihoods – Whitson’s ongoing efforts earned her the honor of being named Florida’s 2016 Woman of the Year in Agriculture.

This Year’s Woman of the Year is a Good Friend of “Ag”

Kenneth Parker, president of the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau and executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, noted in his nomination letter for Whitson, “Her willingness and desire to promote awareness and to educate young and old alike about the importance of the agriculture industry in this state is unrivaled.”

When asked about her accomplishments, Parker responded, “Judi represents everything that is right about America.”

The August announcement about the statewide honor – from Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Adam Putnam himself – caught the Riverview resident by complete surprise.

“I was driving to Ocala on a Monday morning and received a call from Commissioner Putnam. It’s a good thing I pulled over to take the call, because I was in shock and absolutely speechless when he gave me the news,” she recalled.

Whitson joins 31 previous award winners who have been celebrated for “outstanding contributions” to Florida agriculture. The official presentation of the Woman of the Year award will take place during the 2017 Florida State Fair in Tampa.

Longtime Florida ties

A fifth-generation Floridian on her father’s side, Whitson, who was born in Brooksville, recalls family trips that included visiting relatives who made their living from farming, cultivating citrus groves and raising cattle. Brooksville is in Hernando County, north of Hillsborough County.

Even when her father’s career with the U.S. Navy meant moving away from Florida, Whitson faithfully followed in her family’s agricultural footsteps and staked out a small patch of dirt at each new home, where she would plant seeds and watch them grow.

“My mother grew up on a farm until she was 9. With five children to feed, she would always plant a garden to grow vegetables. I would usually plant flowers next to her garden,” she recalled.

Whitson’s family eventually returned to Florida, where she graduated from Jacksonville’s Ribault High School. Bypassing college to immediately enter the business world, she earned valuable on-the-job experience while pursuing educational opportunities and professional training relevant to her work in banking, apartment management, real estate and transportation.

“I wasn’t a college person. So I took courses with each job, to learn what I needed to know,” she added.

A great opportunity

When the opening with the farm bureau office in Valrico came to Whitson’s attention, she knew immediately that she had found her new field of work. She eagerly stepped in to help support an $8 million industry that includes farms, ranches, dairies, aquaculture interests and other ag-related operations – 2,600 in all, countywide – and that has thrived throughout her tenure.

During the next 25 years, the farm bureau would become one of the state leaders in terms of membership, involvement and overall leadership, according to a statement from Putnam’s office.

“Judi is the go-to, get-it-done lady of agriculture in Hillsborough County. She has been instrumental in helping me in many ways,” said Dale McClellan, a past president of the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau; 2012 Florida Farmer of the Year; and principal owner and president of M&B Products, a Temple Terrace-based business that produces milk, juice, water and yogurt for institutional clients, including Hillsborough County public schools.

“She encourages people to get involved and stay involved. It’s difficult to get people to that,” McClellan added.

Last February, he and an organizing committee created Temple Terrace’s inaugural Farm Night BBQ in order to build awareness about the impact and importance of Florida agriculture. McClellan credits Whitson for being instrumental in the success of that event, which ultimately raised $11,000 for the Temple Terrace Parks & Recreation Division.

Volunteers play big part

As a staff of one, Whitson heavily recruits and relies on volunteers to assist with activities that are an integral part of the Florida State Fair. During that annual event’s 12-day run, 300 students pitch in to help with agriculture competitions, exhibitions and demonstrations.

Hundreds more adults and students engage in ag-focused activities that provide field-trip opportunities for local schools during eight days of the fair. Whitson co-founded the Ag-Venture educational programs.

Anytime she can spotlight anything related to agriculture, Whitson considers that a win. But a program that she takes particular pride in is one that directly benefits Exceptional Student Education (ESE) pupils. Created and crafted by Whitson, the curriculum for the Ag-Abilities program provides education and enrichment for students who might otherwise never have a chance to experience life on a farm.

What makes this curriculum so meaningful is that it introduces students with physical limitations, like blindness or loss of limb, to a world they might otherwise never get to know.

“This program has grown every year, and so has the volunteer base. To see these children come through the program is just so rewarding. I can’t describe how it feels to watch volunteers lift one of these students from a wheelchair and place them on a tractor that they get to drive around a test course,” she said.

It’s that satisfaction and sense of achievement that keeps Whitson going, even when the lists she occasionally compiles – to keep track of all she is undertaking – can seem overwhelming.

“Retirement? I don’t see that happening. I’m having too much fun doing what I’m doing.”

Mary Lou Janson is a Tampa-based freelance writer whose background includes covering Florida’s agricultural industry for a daily newspaper, as well as writing about Tampa Bay area chefs, restaurants, farmers markets and businesses.