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New 4-H center is legacy to farmer

At the new Chester Ochs 4-H Educational Center, a citrus farmer's legacy sprouts from the earth, tended by a group of enthusiastic youngsters. For more than a year, students of the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service's 4-H program have been working to prepare the 9{ acre property at Hamlin Boulevard and 113th Avenue N for today's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

But preparations actually date back to 1988, when Chester Ochs (pronounced "Oaks") died. Ochs, a civic-minded Largo farmer, willed his land, along with some money to develop it, to Pinellas County for the purpose of agricultural education for youth. A north Pinellas landmark, Ochs' property was noted for a huge HONEY sign on the roadside building where he sold citrus and honey from his beehives.

The new education center includes a neat white bungalow, a separate meeting hall (the former honey house) and several acres of citrus trees. The 4-H youngsters, directed by Master Gardeners and other volunteers, have busied themselves repairing and cleaning the buildings, landscaping, installing energy conservation projects and planting vegetable gardens.

With the help of an energy grant from the Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association, the focus of the center is conservation _ to educate visitors about energy-conserving windows and solar panels that operate ceiling fans, environmental landscape management with labeled drought-tolerant and native plants, xeriscaping, vegetable gardening and citrus production.

Ochs' beehives were relocated, but the citrus trees will be maintained for educational purposes. After the fruit is tended and picked by employees from Orange Blossom Groves in Clearwater, the profits will be shared with the 4-H program. Other unusual citrus varieties will be planted at the dedication ceremony.

The Conserve-A-Scape Garden shows how comfort levels and energy costs in the home can be controlled by a carefully planned landscape, said Joan Bradshaw, an urban horticulturist for the cooperative extension service.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Sam Skemp, a Master Gardener and nuclear physicist, is overseeing the vegetable gardens. About 30 youngsters, ages 6 to 14, have already had two harvests from plantings last fall and this spring. "They were very, very good crops with no nematodes (microscopic pests in soil)," Skemp said.

The group meets after school every Tuesday. Each child plants and maintains a 10- by 10-foot plot with vegetables chosen from 40 varieties offered in seeds or seedlings. Skemp tends five extra demonstration plots, for a total of 3,500 square feet devoted to vegetables.

At present, the children are growing eggplant and peppers left over from their last planting, according to Opal Schallmo, an urban horticulturist with the extension service. "And they also have tomatoes, beans and a sweet potato field," she said.

Before planting, five truckloads of compost were dumped on the sandy soil and dug in with an equal amount of horse manure, said Skemp, who has worked as a 4-H volunteer for the past seven years.

He hauled in three truckloads (six tons) of horse manure. The youngsters dug it in before their third garden went into the ground the day after Labor Day.

A few months ago, a group of about 20 4-H teenagers began to prepare the center for its grand opening. They pulled weeds, mulched walkways and beds and planted flowers, shrubs, trees and vines along a decorative rail fence. Recently they helped prepare buildings and grounds for the open house.

Chris Hoyne, 18 and now attending St. Petersburg Junior College, said he helped dig up the front yard, painted outside and worked with 4-H Agent Craig Miller, who has since transferred to Gainesville. Hoyne says he learned a lot, and hopes to work as a 4-H volunteer after finishing school.

Jennifer Kiernan, 17, attends St. Petersburg Junior College. On a recent afternoon, she was scrubbing indoors, but her preference is outside garden work. "I got to use some of what I had learned in the 4-H plant program," she said.

Tracey Czopek, 16, is in her second year of 4-H and found the work at the Ochs center worthwhile. "It gave kids a chance to learn about gardening," she said.


The public is invited to a dedication ceremony and open house at Chester Ochs 4-H Educational Center from 4 to 6 p.m. today. The center is at 14644 113th Ave. N, at Hamlin Boulevard and 113th Avenue N in Largo.