Cheryl Flood had to be the first one — the first one — to ride the new LED Giant Slide at the Florida State Fair. It's her favorite. Flood brought that same enthusiasm to her new role as executive director of the Florida State Fair. Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam placed Flood, then the agricultural department's director of external affairs, in the role on an interim basis in March of 2016 after the abrupt resignation of then executive director Chuck Pesano.
In September of 2016, Putnam removed the interim tag, fully connecting Flood, 40, to the memories she developed at the fair showing cattle as a teen.
Flood, who has held multiple roles in the Agricultural Department and had previously worked for Putnam when he served in Congress, recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about overseeing the fair, growing up on a ranch in Polk County and how her father's battle with Alzheimer's disease impacted her own life.
What was the emotion when you stepped into the role as executive director?
I had worked as the interim for many months and I'll be honest, I fell in love with the people in this industry. I fell in love with the fair. I had been working in politics for most of my career, but having grown up in agriculture, I have always had a passion for ag education. And I see so many opportunities that this job can offer towards furthering that. I've always loved event planning. I've always loved the networking part of any business I've been in. It was a great privilege to work for three different commissioners of agriculture, so I think that background and that experience and those jobs have really prepared me for this role. There was no hesitation when the opportunity presented itself. I knew I was up for the challenge.
As the department's director of external affairs, you worked closely with the fair. What was the biggest aspect of making that transition from working with the fair to living it?
It's different when you live it every day versus overseeing just a few days here and there. This is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business. It is non-stop. We have events out here basically six and seven days a week. In state government, you have certain hours and I worked overtime in state government. But now being the leader of such an organization, I'm available 24-7. The time commitment has changed, but it's exciting. It's new for me. I've always had a passion for the fair industry. They're great people. Their primary goal is to educate the public and there's no better place in the state to showcase Florida agriculture than a fair like this.
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Tell me about the memories created by the fair.
I have great memories of here when I was a child. I used to stay on the south campground with my family and my ag teacher. I have such great memories and I hope families come here and have a wonderful time with their kids and create memories for a lifetime like I have.
What was it like growing up on a ranch near Lake Wales?
It's the greatest privilege in the world. Not too many kids get the opportunity to grow up out in the country, smell country air, live rural, drive a tractor at a young age. My family really instilled a hard-work ethic in me at a young age. That's something I value still to this day, the hard-work ethic I learned on that ranch. So I apply that to the job today. I work hard and I want people who work with me to work hard. We want to produce a good fair for the public and I'm excited about being at the helm of the fair this year for the first time.
The fair is rides, the fair is food but the fair is also agriculture. What do we need to know about Florida's agricultural industry?
It's so diverse. Nowhere in the country do you have a $130 billion dollar industry with more than 300 different commodities. The people around that industry work every day to produce the food and fiber we take for granted. When we go to the grocery store, we just go in and pick those things out. It's a pride thing for the families who produce the food that we so enjoy. I think this fair does a great job currently of supporting the different commodities, but I think there's so much opportunity for growth and opportunity.
I'm told you've worked hard to bring more family fun to the fair. Why is that important to you.
I'm a young woman and I have a child that's 4. I think when people think of fairs, they just think of food and rides. I wanted to come in and provide something for every generation, whether its the 4-year-old, the 8-year-old or the teen who wants to come in and ride rides. I had a short time, just since September, but I tried to look at the different programs we have and put that into play. I'm excited to do future fairs with different ideas and see how they work.
You grew up on a ranch. How has your family reacted to you being in this new role?
They've embraced it. Many years ago, my father developed Alzheimer's at a young age. He was very young when he developed the disease and I learned a lot through that transition. I was in my mid 30s, he was in declining health. My mom is who I have left with two siblings and we really bonded together as a family to take care of him in his last days. That was kind of a reset button in my life. It was a tragedy, but it kind of helped me focus and really decide what's important to me in my life. I've kind of developed into a new person. I think God has a timing for everything in your life and this is certainly part of my path. I have no doubt that this is where I need to be.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at email@example.com. Follow him @hoop4you.