When Kimberley Lough was growing up in Kentucky, she only thought of helping out in the family garden as a chore. She also remembers that after elementary school, there was no plant-education offered to her at school or home, or discussed as a career option. She set off for college and soon earned her Master’s degree in geology from the University of South Carolina. So, what brought her to where she is today – an urban farm program director, middle school agriscience teacher and FFA advisor in Florida? Her path can teach us much about how to inspire youth to discover the wonder and joy of plants and explore pursuing a green-collar career.
When Seed Your Future talked with Kimberley about the early influences in her life that sparked her interest in horticulture, she confessed that she was not very interested in plants or the family garden. She “didn’t hate the garden chores” but she did not enjoy them either. What she did love was the fresh produce. Even then she recognized that fresh produce was so much tastier than the canned options served to her. She also has fond memories of the one and only flower whose name she knew throughout childhood – marigolds. Her city-dwelling grandmother was so proud of her small marigold border that every time Kimberley visited, her grandmother made a special effort to point them out to her and her sisters.
A chance encounter and a new job changed her career path — and life — forever. With geology degree in hand, Kimberley began work for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Carolina. The position included an educational component organized through the North Carolina State University Extension Service. It was here that Kimberley realized that as much as she enjoyed science, she really loved working with people. She dove into the deep end; and even though she was not a certified teacher, she accepted a position teaching high school science classes at a private school in Florida (no certification required). She thrived, as did her students.
Kimberley describes these experiences as her “formative years.” She knew she was passionate about working with youth, but also felt the tug to teach in public schools (which would require a certificate). She quickly earned her teaching certificate and sought out mentors and further educational experiences to bolster her skills. Reflecting upon her own early education, Kimberley says that after middle school, she “just wanted to get through school.” She felt that something changed for her in middle school, and she knew that being able to inspire students of middle school age could be key to setting them on a positive path for their future.
When Manatee County Schools came calling, they asked if she could teach agriculture classes. Never one to say “no,” Kimberley jumped in feet first and said “yes.” She “… really immersed myself in the county agriculture industry” – making connections, learning all she could. A second chance encounter changed everything — again — for her.
Kimberley visited a unique greenhouse and gardening program at the county jail. She was stunned.
“I thought I had gone to the moon. I was mesmerized by the program and leader. How could he know so much and be so passionate about using plants to inspire the inmates?” Kimberley says the greenhouses absolutely amazed her. She’d never seen plants growing in such quantities and with such beauty and variety before. She said to herself – “I want this for my students.”
And that is what she did — and does to this day. Kimberley built her school’s urban farm, hydroponics program, and small animal and horticulture program from the ground up. She credits partnerships with businesses, horticulture mentors, the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association and the UF/IFAS (University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services) as critical to the development of her school programs. Kimberley averages about 110 students a year in her agriscience program — which is an elective program at her urban middle school.
And then there’s National FFA. She cringes with embarrassment now, but when she first heard that FFA needed to be included if her school were to provide agriculture education, she asked one of the local advisors why it was such a big deal. He said, “just wait – you’ll see.” And boy did she ever. Not only has her chapter been awarded with the National Chapter Award three times, they’ve also twice been in the National Top 10 for models for innovation (and that’s competing with high schools and middle schools).
Listening to Kimberley talk about her work is uplifting. She speaks with a bit of a lump in her throat when she says,
“…there are so many different types of learning – in classroom, virtual, in the garden, on the farm, through leadership programs, etc. … I feel like if I can just see what each student needs, I can open their eyes and excite them about something. Everyone has something in them, but not always equal opportunity to find out what that is.”
Introducing students to careers in horticulture and agriculture is very important to Kimberley. She credits her own industry mentors to opening her eyes to the diversity of careers working with plants. She says she had no idea about the art, science, technology, education and business jobs available working with plants. She works tirelessly to learn about them and bring back this knowledge to her students. And the industry has noticed her. Kimberley was introduced to the Seed Your Future movement when she was checking out the Florida Flower Trials in 2016. Jeff Gibson from the Ball Horticultural Company noticed her passion and recruited her to the movement. Kimberley (and Jeff) now serves on the Advisory Council — providing strategic counsel to the movement.
Now, back to Kimberley’s connection with her own childhood appreciation of fresh produce. Her students get to decide what they grow in their own earth boxes, in the garden, and in the hydroponics system. The most popular? Watermelon, strawberries, potatoes, yellow pear tomatoes and cilantro. What she sees in her students every day supports the research that kids who grow their own food are five times more likely to eat it — even veggies!
We asked Kimberley for her advice on how to reach kids and help them find their plant passion. She shared that,
“…kids can only connect to things that have been modeled for them. They need to see the possibilities, touch the dirt, eat the harvest they grew, experiment with science projects, dabble in botanical art, try out some cutting edge technologies. I get to be the ignition that sparks the flame. Everyone needs a spark and you can see it when the flame starts. I love it. I absolutely love being a teacher.”
Kimberly’s enthusiasm is infectious. She’s helping students find their way — even during these times of public health challenges impacting how she teaches, runs the farm and connects with kids. We've heard that students are already lobbying their parents and the school to be able to get into her elective classes next semester. It’s because of her commitment to the next generation and her passion for plants that we’ve selected Kimberley Lough as our newest Horticulture Hero.
IGNITE ON Kimberley!