A long time ago, this strawberry school emptied for the season. The students turned out of the classrooms in the winter months, leaving lessons for the fields. Strawberries were family businesses. The kids hunched over rows and rows, cultivating the crops that gave this city its fame.
Nearly 60 years later, the kids are back in the fields. At Turkey Creek Middle School, it's planting season.
"Everybody grab a bundle!" calls out agriculture teacher Allison Sparkman as boxes of chilled strawberry plants arrive at a field across the street from the school.
She pulls out a single plant, a thin stem with few leaves and a mass of dangling roots. Demonstrating how to nestle it into a slit in the black plastic that covers the field, she reassures a few students who look unsure: "You don't even have to stick your hand in the dirt."
Somehow dirt still made its way onto their hands, their jeans, their boots. Kneeling on the ground, these students started their own farm at the end of October, in synch with the acres of berries that stretch across Plant City.
"They're definitely starting to understand how much work it takes," Sparkman said.
For the rest of the season, these little farmers will cultivate their strawberry plants and watch the white flowers bloom. And when berries ripen, students will host a fresh market, selling the fruits of their back-aching labor.
Turkey Creek Middle boasts one of the most comprehensive agriculture programs in the district, school officials say, with its vegetable and strawberry field, catfish pond, plant nursery and cattle.
In a single class period, the students put into play the practices they have learned from textbooks. The outdoor classroom bears unmistakable signs of middle school but shows hints, too, of budding expertise.
"It has to be perfectly right there or it won't grow," 13-year-old Wyatt Cowder says as he tucks a plant into the ground, careful not to bury the base of the sprout beyond the roots. "Just do that, and it's done."
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At Turkey Creek Middle, students sport John Deere T-shirts and "No Farms, No Food" stickers. Many of their fathers own farms, or their grandparents have some crops, or their uncles run the strawberry fields down the way.
"It's such a fundamental piece of the Tampa Bay economy," said Pam Walden, who oversees agriculture programs in the Hillsborough County School District. "Our kids need to know where their food comes from."
About 275 Turkey Creek Middle students in elective agriculture classes will work this season in a field across the street from the school, growing 36 rows of strawberries, 10 rows of onions and four rows of other vegetables like tomatoes and peppers.
They'll weed. They'll fertilize. They'll harvest.
"As we go along, we get hungry," says Cassidy Hasting, 13, with a grin. "So we eat some berries."
When the field work ends, the lessons continue. Students take charge of marketing their farm stand, running a mini-business to peddle their produce to parents in the car line, to neighbors and even school district officials.
"They can learn all the books they want to learn," said agriculture teacher Buddy Coleman, "But when they get out there and get the opportunity to do the hands-on things, it makes it real for them. And then they want to do it more."
One of just a handful of schools with its own field, Turkey Creek Middle draws its support from local farmer Sam Astin, who provides supplies and expert assistance.
Leftover berries from the students' market may end up in local grocery stores, sold through his business, the Astin Strawberry Exchange.
In the field, Astin's farm manager, Mike Connell, watches the kids move through the rows, giving helpful hints or a hand where he can. His eyes spy the occasional trodden plant left limp and forgotten between the rows, a plant here or there that might not be properly in the ground.
Connell will be there if the temperatures drop and the frost threatens to harm the berries. And when the students stream back to the schoolhouse, he turns on the sprinklers to keep their freshly planted crops alive.
He helps but says nothing. This is their field.
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The students seem to flourish in this environment.
Sure, the middle school mentality still rules on the field. Girls walk ahead of the boys. Everyone groans when the agriculture teachers direct them to work on a different row of plants away from their friends. Their teases and taunts carry across the open field. Boys brag over how many bundles they've put into the rows.
The teachers just smile. They know this foray into farming gives students a chance to see how their skills apply in real life. They know this is a vital step for many of them who want to pursue careers in the agriculture industry.
Seventh-grader Aubrey Davis and eighth-grader Haylee Mathis each talk about someday taking over their fathers' farms. They pay attention to these lessons, so different from other aspects they've seen of the family business. They tell their dads what they've learned every day.
"I'm learning a lot for the future," says Haylee, 13. She works like someone who's not afraid of dirt, but still seems somewhat dainty in her navy blue Vans sneakers dotted with little strawberries.
It's a time for them to feel like adults, says 14-year-old Bayli Johns. The eighth-grader, president of the school's chapter of Future Farmers of America, is an aspiring agriculture teacher who wants to pass down the passion and knowledge she's learning now.
"It's our thing that we do. It's just us," Bayli said. "It feels good to know we're part of something bigger."
Times photographer Skip O'Rourke contributed to this story. Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.