For Central Florida's Agri-Leader
ARCADIA -The word "outstanding" isn't a word to take lightly, but it's a word easily carried on the shoulders of Janet Harvin, who earned a slot as one of three finalists for this year's statewide Outstanding Cattlewoman of the Year award.
An Arcadia resident who grew up in North Carolina, Harvin's love for cattle was born during many childhood trips to Largo to visit her great-grandmother and great-aunt's dairy. Those women hand-milked 40 cows, Harvin remembered.
She also remembered always wanting a cow of her own and how her great-aunt would tease her dad to "stick a calf in the back of the station wagon."
Harvin decided to attend school at Florida Southern University, where she met her husband, Richard.
Richard earned a citrus degree and made a career selling fertilizer and chemicals while Harvin "got a degree in kids and cows" as she described her life with two daughters and 12 cows when they started their first ranch.
But it wasn't enough to have her dream simply come true.
Anna Lou Carlton, head of the Farm Bureau Ladies and well-respected cattlewoman, inspired Harvin to throw herself wholeheartedly into the agriculture community.
"She said, 'OK, Janet. Ag is what takes care of us and enables us to have such a great lifestyle. It's up to us to give back and not just take,'" Harvin remembered. Carlton talked her into becoming president of the Farm Bureau Ladies, and Harvin has been president or vice-president of either that organization or the Cattlewomen's Association for the past 40 to 50 years.
Some of her proudest accomplishments while volunteering in the DeSoto County agriculture community have been recent.
When the Turner Agri-Civic Center, an events facility built on 100 acres of land donated by the Turner family, was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004 and subsequently rebuilt, Harvin discovered that agriculture-related events had been discontinued in the building.
Harvin worked hand-in-hand with the center's current director Jodie Sullivan and then extension director Jim Selph to get ag events back into the building.
The next step, which was just recently completed, was to raise funds for clay to be brought into the almost 20,000-square-foot arena for events like barrel racing, cattle shows and other agriculture events.
The floor of the center is now covered with red dirt that can be swept up and removed for concerts and other non-ag events.
Another source of pride has been working with the local extension office to create DeSoto County's first Ag Tour in February of this year.
Choosing the southeast quadrant of the county, the Ag Tours' committee, of whom Harvin is president, selected the stops for the 30-person bus tour which Harvin narrated, sharing her extensive knowledge of the county and its various agriculture industries.
"I provided the comic relief," she joked.
Stops on the tour included a local slaughterhouse, citrus grove, native plant nursery, cattle ranch, local produce market, blueberry farm and the Arcadia rodeo. Some of the highlights of the tour included cowboys running cattle through the chute to give them their shots, a cow dog demonstration and a lunch of locally-produced beef and produce served on the rodeo grounds.
The tour also taught participants about conservation during a stop at Arcadia's reservoir. The next tour, scheduled for November, will accommodate more participants and will cover a different quadrant of the county.
"We have a great working relationship," said extension office manager Anna Beswick, who spearheaded the Ag tour, when she wrote a recommendation for Harvin for Outstanding Cattlewoman of the Year, and called Harvin her mentor.
"She has an unbridled passion that is rarely surpassed and a driving desire to bring her knowledge and love for agriculture to life for others to see," wrote Beswick in her recommendation.
While Harvin didn't take home the award, it's OK because this grandmother of five and great-grandmother of one is fulfilled by her family and her volunteer work. "The nice thing is that everybody works together. The volunteers, we're all like one big family, the Ag ladies especially," she said, quickly adding, "The men always help us when we shanghai men."
Educating the public about the importance of agriculture in her community and the diversity of agriculture in DeSoto county is also important to Harvin. "As little as this town is, it's amazing how many people don't know things about agriculture," she said.
But Harvin is on a mission to educate them, not only with ag tours, but also by volunteering with Ag-Venture (an agriculture education program for third graders), Ag in the classroom, Ag Fest, the DeSoto-Charlotte Farm Bureau, the DeSoto County Cattlewomen's Association and the Turner Agri-Civic Center.
"This is our economic base. This is our industry," Harvin stated.
She also wants to inspire the younger generations to work in agriculture. While her daughters do not work in agriculture, one grandson is involved in the industry, and her 1-year-old great-grandson Rylan enjoys looking at the cows, horses and pigs when his great-grandmother drives him around town.
"We feed a whole lot of this world. I want to give (the children) a sense of pride that they are in agriculture, that they are not 'just a cowboy', not 'just a farmer," she said.