Farmers Are Judged by Their Crops
An Interview with Justin Sharpless
Last updated 7/30/2019 at 4:39pm
Passion, drive, and follow through are items we don't always see today. To find them in one person is even less likely. Now, add strong Christian values, continually advocating for the agriculture mission, and an unflappable desire to educate the next generation of agriculture student, and you have Justin Sharpless. A few months ago, the opportunity arose to sit down and discuss his history with Warner University, his love of agriculture, and his faith. His thoughts are compelling, deep, and engrained in his values and desire to better the community he loves.
When I sat down with Justin, we were in his office located in the Ed & Myrtle Lou Swindle Agriculture Complex on the campus of Warner University. The fact that we were here is part of the story from the origins of the school to the present where Justin is now the Department Chair of Agricultural Studies at the university. During our conversation we touched on his faith, his love of agriculture, and even some thoughts that some might call a little political.
The story goes all the way back to Lake Wales High School, but we will start at Warner and the Ed & Myrtle Lou Swindle Agriculture Complex. This was in the planning and talking stages for three years before it came into existence. It is new, beautiful, and meant to be used. As Justin mentioned and it states on the Warner website, students will get their hands dirty with this degree. Multiple private donors have assisted this program to grow where it is today and with guidance, hard work, and success from current students and alumni, it will continue to grow. Justin will touch on the future later but what they have now is an outstanding beginning.
Loving agriculture and spreading its message is the central theme I got from speaking with Justin. His love of the industry is only outshined by his Christian values, the love for his wife Emilyn, and their son. Doing background on Justin it was apparent that he is a Christian, husband, father, and a faculty member. You can also add advocate and mouthpiece for the agriculture industry.
As a professional we are always working on our craft. For many of us this is done at the expense of other things we enjoy or even worse, people that we love. Somehow, Justin has harnessed this desire to be better and incorporated it into his personal life. Since he and his wife decided to start a family a little later in life, he decided that he needed to make some personal changes. He changed his diet, started working out, got himself an accountability partner, and oh yeah, started growing the agriculture studies department at Warner University. Why? Because he wants to be a great role model for his young son and the students he leads. His integrity for his family and his profession are continually guided by his faith, conviction, and his ability to see so far out in front of where he is now.
Justin's love for agriculture was founded back in his high school days at Lake Wales High School. Milton Bryan was his ag teacher and because of how he led and the impression he made on a sophomore student; the future was put into motion. Justin fell in love with the FFA and Mr. Bryan became his role model. During his junior year in FFA he was an officer and when he was a senior, he was the chapter president, the county president, and a state officer. This was the foundation for his internal motivation that still drives him today. Mr. Bryan, and his love of the FFA and agriculture, instilled that into the eager Justin and that has stuck with him to this day. We all have that group of people that mean so much to us that in our mind we create our own Mount Rushmore. Milton Bryan is definitely one of the four busts in the eyes of Justin.
After high school, Justin headed off to the University of Florida. While there he graduated with two degrees. The first was a bachelor of science in Agricultural Education and Communication. The second was a Master's in Agricultural Business in Food and Science. The MAB was about the economics behind our food and natural resources. Part of the reason he went to UF was because Mr. Bryan was an alumnus and the second was because it was the only school in the area that had agriculture studies available. The influence could also be felt in Justin's choice of fraternity. He joined the same fraternity that his mentor, Mr. Bryan, had been a part of while at UF. Justin also had the desire to come back to Lake Wales and take over the high school ag program, but we all know that things happen for a reason.
Upon graduating, Justin did head off to teach at various schools in the Polk County area. He believed, because what he had learned in the FFA, that the ag industry needed leaders. The country was founded on an agrarian principle and the FFA started pushing the leadership development. This mindset shift change towards this is important as our country works on its own food security as farming becomes a more global business. With this push towards more leadership Justin felt that there was more he could do so that meant more education. He loved educating the high school students but felt like there was something more he needed to do. He really wanted to help students find careers and being in the college environment was how he was going to be able to fulfill that drive.
It is funny how pieces of our lives fit together. While at UF Anna Ball was his advisor. She had moved on and was at the University of Missouri. Justin reached out to her to discuss his desire to further his education and to work in the collegiate environment. Anna advised him again and let him know that they had a graduate program that might suit what he was looking for. He toured the school, fell in love with the program, and accomplished his goal of receiving his master of science in Ag Teacher Education. He is also a candidate for his PhD. in Ag Teacher Education.
While in Missouri he got to learn why the breadbasket got its name and to learn about other agricultural production methods. All of this would enhance his ability to share with his future students that he didn't even know he would be working with in just a couple of years.
Time passes and strong faith with a sense of purpose create opportunities when we least expect them. In the fall of 2014, a call came from Doris Gukich. At the time, she was spearheading the efforts to get the Warner agriculture program off the ground and was looking for professors to fill needed positions. This became an alluring idea because Warner, steeped in Christian values, was a place that has held a dear place in the Sharpless family. There was also the idea that Justin could be a part of something that would have the potential to grow into something great. Being able to profess his Christian values to students wasn't only allowed but was recommended by the leadership of the school. The Christian principles were allowed to be woven into the educational process while utilizing the science behind the studies.
As Justin began his teaching career at Warner the program began to take shape. There still wasn't a building but there were students. Many of those students were local and now they had a place to earn an agriculture degree and to go to places they didn't think were possible. Justin worked with the freshman students on presentations with passages from the Bible. However, the students had to use those passages and show how they related to agriculture. Being that Warner is a smaller university and that his personal beliefs were praised he could combine both his beliefs and vocation unlike being at a larger university. During a funny aside, Justin mentioned that as large as the agriculture industry is in Florida, the 2nd largest in the state, it is also very small. So small, at times, that it feels like you are attending a small Baptist church where everyone knows your business. The point of this story was that he hopes by teaching through his Christian principles the students learn that their names are being established when they go out and start working their first internship. Not only is Justin currently the department chair, he also manages the internship program in the ag department. The program at Warner University focuses on general agriculture business and the students start doing internships during their sophomore year. As Justin said during the interview, students will get their hands dirty while earning their degree.
While we were talking about the program and how it has grown, I had to ask the inevitable question about the modern youth and how does he get kids excited about ag in this modern electronic world. He stated that even when he was a kid, he was told ag was about more than cows, plows, and sows. After a good chuckle he explained that so much of production was technical that there was a built-in interest. Between drones, GPS mapping, planes flying to determine heat stress, and growers watering crops from their phones, the technology is meeting the science and he believes it is his job to get them out there to see it in action.
Almost 90% of the students are coming to Warner from close to home and plan on just going into the family's current field of business. Justin feels it is his job to get them to think outside the box and challenge themselves. He mentioned how important it was to get students to stretch from their comfort zones. Many of the students are determined to head back into the family business when it really is possible for them to make an impact following a slightly different path.
This challenge isn't just shared by Justin and the agriculture department, but a lot of these students grow up in an industry and the parents have helped them get to this point. However, the parents didn't help them get here so they would do the same thing. They sent them here to do it better. Justin talked about working his butt off to help each student find their passion. Some get it very early while others might benefit from the poke of a cattle prod. His biggest goal for each student is to make progress and a positive difference in the industry they choose. Ultimately, Justin stated that he liked to eat and hoped that his graduates would feed him one day. Having an engaged alumni that wants to come back, share their experiences, and help grow the program is the best he can ask as the program continues to grow.
When I asked Justin where the program goes from here you could see the glimmer in his eyes and the smile on his face. He loves Warner, what it stands for, and the potential the program has to offer but he lives for his wife and son and making them proud. Since he has been named department chair, he has been given a unique opportunity to develop the program the way he thinks it should be moving forward.
Through checks and balances and with great input from the team and donors they are attempting to create a large impact on the agriculture community. I then asked him where he saw the program two to three years down the road. He stated he would love to see the land on campus developed into a true working farm - four to five head of cattle so that students can get hands-on experience in the ranch environment. They already have a greenhouse and he would like to use the Ray Crews model, like at Roosevelt Academy, and have a plant sale once a year. This would give the students an actual farming model where they take it from seed in the ground to harvesting their crop. He would like to continue to incorporate the Christian values and offer additional service like a livestock judging team. They already offer a ranch rodeo team and have a clay shooting team. Another desire would be to have a livestock showing team and a plant team. If there was a completely working farm in the next two to three years, he feels they would be on the right track.
As we were finishing up our time together, I couldn't help but ask a few more things. For those that don't know, Justin's grandfather was part of the first graduating class from then Warner Southern College in 1972. Bob Sharpless, one of the original four graduates, has had a huge influence on Justin. His grandfather wanted to be a minister, but life happened, so he went into business for himself building houses in the Lake Wales area. Justin credits his grandfather's work ethic and drive for shaping him.
I asked if there were any underlying thoughts about being back at Warner with the family history and building upon what his grandfather started. He stated that him being at Warner has definitely made his grandfather proud and that if there had been an ag program at Warner when it was time for him to go to college, he probably would have been a Royal. Not only has Justin been shaped greatly by his grandfather but there are other family influences that have shaped who he is today.
With the spiritual guidance of his grandfather and the fact that he built things, it is easy to see where the desire to be at Warner and build the ag program up came from. Justin's father is a teacher at Roosevelt Academy so there is another influence when it comes to shaping the youth for the future. Justin joked that you could have someone from his family from elementary school all the way through college. His mother-in-law teaches first grade, his wife teaches middle school, his dad teaches middle and high school, his mother teaches high school, and of course, Justin teaches at the university. The ties that bind and shape us are all around. It truly depends on which ones we grab ahold of that help create our future.
I asked Justin if there were also major influences outside the family and that took us to his Mount Rushmore. Ryan Rimmer was a state FFA officer and he helped Justin understand the political side of agriculture. Ryan was politically savvy and had Justin waving signs, going door to door, and understanding the process. Tragically, Ryan passed away in a car accident and hasn't been able to see Justin's ascent. Of course, there is Milton Bryan, his first FFA teacher at Lake Wales High School. The third was his grandfather Bob Sharpless for all the values he instilled in Justin. The fourth, he said there could be many, but steadied with Paul Willis. Willis served as his fraternity advisor. He now works at ABAC (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College) in Tifton, GA and has shown Justin how to be a strong Christian male in higher academia.
It is very apparent that Justin is working on things that will help him build a legacy. As his grandfather did by being one of the first four to graduate in '72, Justin is working hard to create his own. Currently, his role is to help students get out into the agriculture industry and make a difference. Justin believes it is important for him to build his legacy for his son and wife. He wants them both to be proud of him and know that he has never settled for mediocrity. When he is gone, he wants people to say that he really cared, that he loved people, loved his community, and loved agriculture. He beams when he talks about being a role model for his son and looks forward to playing catch and taking him to Gator games. He wants to show him what it looks like to be a Christian husband and what it looks like to be a Christian father. Another part of that building legacy is his savvy in the agricultural political world.
The last thing we spoke about was whether Justin was political or just politically involved. If you don't follow Justin on Facebook, you are missing out. He is the information superhighway for all things agriculture. We also talked about staying at Warner or pursuing those aspirations. He quickly answered that he didn't want to leave Warner but that nothing could be ruled out.
If he can help the ag industry and make an impact than that is something he will have to do. If that is being a legislator, which he reminded me was a part-time position, or being a school board member and promoting the career technical education programs then that might be a path. I asked Justin what the number one issue that needs to be addressed is in the agricultural community. He immediately responded that he would give me two. The first is water quality and quantity. He stated that agriculture use a lot of water because obviously we must grow food. The industry does things to help the water but isn't getting the message out there. There needs to be a better emphasis on getting our best management practices out there and show the facts that we are flowing less nutrients off the farms. This is super important to get this out into the public. With regards to the quantity issue we must address how developments and agriculture are affecting this. We know how many people are moving to the state and each development puts a new strain on the available water.
As he continued, he stated the second issue is labor and trade. He combined them because our immigration system impacts some of the trade items. We currently don't have enough domestic workers to supply labor for the agriculture industry so we must rely on the H2A guest worker visa program and there is so much red tape involved in that. He also stated that we cannot rely on illegal immigration because that is not sustainable with the current climate. He continued that we cannot harvest orange trees mechanically. We have tried but it just hasn't worked well.
Labor is a huge issue, but trade is tied to it. The farmers are going out of business. They don't mind healthy competition, they are free market kind of guys, but it must be fair competition. The subsidizing of certain crop in other countries is allowing the flooding of the market. Those farmers don't care if they make money because they make money from the government to farm that particular product. When a Florida farmer leaves a crop in the field to rot it affects the industry and the state. This lack of food security is a component of our national security. If we cannot supply our own food what happens when the country that is decides they are done with us? The big take away I got from Justin is that, as a country, we must get our trade policies right or corrected to aid the Florida and American Farmer.
It doesn't really matter how you feel about the above paragraph. What matters is that there are people fighting the good fight for the things they feel strongly about. As Justin mentioned in our wrap up, 2% of the population must be able to communicate with the 98% of the population that just wants access to the food the 2% is producing. His story is far from over and he is doing everything to fill the dash in his life. Between his love of Christ, his family, and his vocation he is building a legacy here in Lake Wales that got its beginnings from FFA and has blossomed into a career helping others sew their seeds of agricultural curiosity.