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Hernando high schoolers find futures, life lessons in agriculture research

BROOKSVILLE - Anna Babione grew up in Hernando County, against the agrarian backdrop that once dominated the region. Her family lived on a small farm, and she was involved with the local 4-H chapter. She loved the agricultural world, but as a child, she figured she'd leave it eventually to try something new.

Victoria Rivera grew up in Tampa, a child who loved horses in a city where she had little opportunity to be around them. When she was 15, her family moved to Brooksville. They lived on five acres, and eventually, she got her own horse.

Their near-inverse paths led to the same place: the Brooksville Senior Future Farmers of America chapter. Rivera stumbled into an agriculture-science class, not really knowing what it was, when she started at Hernando High School as a sophomore. She wound up in the Future Farmers chapter. Babione followed her older sisters into the program.

Now, both are recent Hernando High graduates presenting research at this week's Florida FFA Association state agriscience fair, and both credit the program for helping them find direction as they move into adulthood.

Rivera, 17, already is a certified veterinary assistant and agriculture technician, she said. She sees herself going into agricultural education. But she hasn't closed the door on equine psychology, a focus of her research throughout high school. A project that took a top prize at the recent chapter agriscience fair - and that she and a partner will present at the state conference - explores how horses learn at different levels of barometric pressure. In general, she said, that work has made her more curious about the natural world, and more apt to share that curiosity with others.

"Doing an agricultural science project, it's able to transform the scientific method into a real-life situation, something you're actually invested in," she said. "It makes me want to experiment on different things."

Babione, 18, who has collaborated with her younger sister on research about citrus greening - another prize-winning project going to the state conference - will attend the University of Florida in the fall. Rather than swerve from the agricultural realm, as she once thought she would, she'll study agriculture with a concentration in horticulture. She's excited to continue her research, she said, which gets at what she sees as the core of agriscience and the Future Farmers program: "a way to make life easier and better in the agricultural world."

But her adjacent experiences - presenting her work, leading the Brooksville chapter as president, running to be a statewide officer - have offered chances for personal growth beyond any particular career path, she said.

"For me, the biggest thing was to be more confident," she said. "Coming in my freshman year, if you'd asked me to speak to two people, I probably would have passed out on the spot."

When Rick Ahrens, the Hernando High teacher who sponsors the chapter, came to Hernando County nearly three decades ago, membership was so small the chapter was in danger of vanishing. Now it's nearly 200 students strong, pulling kids from across the county, and a strong presence at the state and even national level, he said. This year, 15 students will take their research to the state conference, and top performers there could do the same at nationals.

It's the more abstract qualities that he's most proud of instilling in students - an understanding that good work takes extra effort and a desire to engage with their community. He's sponsored the program so long, he had seven or eight students this year who are the children of former students. That, he said, keeps him going.

"Not many of my kids are going to go into farming, I will grant you," he said. "But I'm very proud of the kids I have out there for what they've become."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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