“I want to show a steer in the County Fair,” Kelly Oehler told her parents one evening. Kelly’s interest was a result of a seventh-grade agriculture class at Wilkinson Junior High in Clay County. Her teacher, Mr. Johnson, mention steer and pig weigh-ins for some of the other students. Kelly was intrigued. Her parents were open to the possibility. The family had moved from Fleming Island to Middleburg and homesteaded on 34 acres to accommodate Kelly and her sister’s love of horses. The steer could accompany the family’s horses, chickens, and miniature donkeys.
This moment helped set Kelly on a career pathway that she once just considered a hobby. With the help of experts in the community, Kelly learned how to groom and show a steer. While she was sad when the steer was sold at auction, her interest didn’t diminish. In fact, she showed steer for six years.
At Middleburg High School, Kelly was involved in Future Farmers of America (FFA), which was her all-consuming extra-curricular activity. Kelly served as the secretary and president of her school’s chapter. Kelly was involved in placing in and judging various state contests from poultry to ornamental horticulture, learning skills like propagation of begonias via leaf cuttings. Participation in FFA also allowed Kelly to teach kindergarteners through Food for America. Once a month, she would teach students different agriculture lessons, from making butter, to planting flowers, to understanding egg embryology.
Kelly grew up loving all aspects of agriculture, but she didn’t anticipate that this would be her career pathway. After high school, Kelly pursued an Associate degree from Santa Fe College while working full time. She interned at the Jacksonville Zoo, intending to enroll in the University of Florida’s (UF) Zoology program. She pivoted from this program of study, encouraged to change her major to Animal Science. In the interim, she continued full time work for several years at the University Air Center adjacent to the Gainesville Regional Airport. Ultimately, she realized her current role did not offer growth potential and the love of ag hadn’t diminished. “I learned that we don’t all take the same pathway and it’s okay.” She enrolled at UF to study Animal Science. The degree has three concentrations: Animal Biology, Food Animal, and Equine. Kelly selected the Food Animal area of focus.
Once Kelly returned to school full time, she continued to keep a full-time work schedule saying, “If you really try, you can do it.” The commitment and enthusiasm needed to maintain such an intensive regimen resulted in Kelly’s graduation following the Spring 2020 semester with a bachelor’s in Animal Science and a minor in Agribusiness Management and Sales. She now joins her grandmother, mother, and sister as UF alumni.
As part of her program, Kelly was required to take an introduction to meats class. After doing so, she selected other classes such as meat processing, selection and grading, processing, evaluation, and food safety. Kelly’s education has provided many industry lessons. She said, “There are so many untrue facts about how the industry is represented as well as how products are marketed.” An avid proponent of the Farm to Table movement, Kelly indicated that sometimes consumers are provided half the narrative. For example, packaging indicating that chickens aren’t treated with any growth hormones isn’t newsworthy. In fact, it isn’t legal to give any chicken in the United States any kind of growth hormone. “Cage free” still involves chickens being raised in massive barns.
Kelly intended to intern with Tyson Foods in Illinois this summer prior to its cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she secured a part-time internship at the UF’s Meat Lab. While initially disappointing, the smaller operation offered Kelly the opportunity to engage in all aspects of production from humane kill to slaughter wrapping and customer service via the UF Meat Store. Kelly notes that a USDA Inspector is on site to ensuring that the Humane Slaughter Act protocols are in place. One experience involved making bacon from over 80 animals, seeing the process from smokehouse to slicing.
Kelly said most people assume her degree is specific to pre-veterinary studies. However, her degree allows her to work in extension education, agribusiness management, and agricultural operations management. She can pursue a government job, such as a USDA Inspector. Kelly is particularly interested in jobs such as Food Safety Inspection Agent, specializing in import and export products. She says, “Agriculture is everywhere. It’s the backbone of this country. Thousands of animals help feed everyone each day. This is a way of life that has sustained generations of people.”