Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Florida State Fair's director of agribusiness has solid roots

TAMPA

The agribusiness office at the Florida State Fair was quiet Monday afternoon — as quiet as it can be with a steer weigh-in happening just downstairs.

Office staffers answered phones and handled paper work, business as usual. Then the call came in over the walkie-talkies.

"We have a steer lose."

There was some chatter. Did anyone see it? Had they called security? Someone in the office held up their walkie-talkie. "I got Vina Jean on it."

Word of the lose steer spread. He'd been startled and jumped over the fence at the weigh-in. People took off in golf carts to chase down the 1,200-pound animal that stormed its way onto the midway and then into a nearby parking lot.

Near the equestrian center, people on foot thought they had spotted it. Vina Jean Banks, still in the blazer she wore to a luncheon, skidded up on a golf cart and asked if they saw it.

Someone pointed, "right over there!" And she was off.

Just another day in — and out of — the office for the fair's director of agribusiness.

Sort of.

Sometime later, after handlers safely collected the steer and put it back in its trailer without incident or injury, Banks went back to a more normal routine — back to the office and back in jeans and New Balance sneakers, back to answering questions for teens in the agriculture programs and figuring out what to do about the beekeepers' parking pass.

Later she made her way through the barns, climbing over short fences and checking in on some of the fair's 6,000 animals and the people who care for them. They have someone check all the hand washing stations, but she checks them herself, too.

Agribusiness isn't just her business, it's a way of life. And while the fair's flashy rides garner plenty of attention, its livestock programs and agriculture education comprise a vital piece.

Each year, students from FFA and 4H programs show their livestock to compete for the opportunity to be named a champion youth ambassador for the following year. It's part of the Champion of Champions program that began in 1998. As part of the competition, they keep a record book throughout the year that details how they have cared for their animal and its health.

During the fair, they exercise and walk their animals, and give talks and demonstrations. The fair culminates their year. Six students are named ambassadors. Showmanship matters. Responsibility is a must.

Several students from the program have also held leadership positions in the state and national FFA organizations.

"We're hoping to have our future leaders come through the program," Banks said. "They have to learn where their food and fiber come from."

Agribusiness supervisor Lynann Hudson's daughters are showing animals at the fair this year. Raelyn, 13, has a beef heifer and a bull calf that she has to practice with, and walk just like you would have to walk a dog. Kaylee, 8, has a chicken. The chicken isn't much extra work, Hudson said, but she does have to keep it groomed.

"You understand, no farmers, no food," Hudson said. The girls know milk comes from a cow, not a grocery store, and that the fabric for clothes comes from plants.

Banks grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa. Her family moved to east Hillsborough in 1960. She married husband Windy in 1968.

The family has owned a ranch in Balm in southeast Hillsborough County since 1970. Now their son Clay, 36, manages the ranch. The family had a tropical fish farm for some years as well, and their son Cleve, 41, works with the Florida Tropical Fish Farmers Association.

Banks was a 4H leader. Her sons were in FFA and showed steers at the Strawberry Festival. She was named woman of the year in agriculture in 1999, and has served as president of Hillsborough County Cattlewomen.

During the fair, she'll stay at the grounds until about 11 p.m. most nights. The quiet evenings contrast with the busy nights, but she says it's the best time to make notes and check emails.

"It's time to think," she said. She thinks how the day went and what they can improve on next year. "If I don't write it down right then, I'll forget."

She likes the quiet, after most people have left and the animals are in for the night. She'll visit with the dairy folks who sleep in the barns, to keep the dairy cows on their regular 12-hour milking schedule.

"I can't imagine living any other way," she said. "Our roots are in agriculture. It's a hard life, but it's a good life."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.

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