From racetrack to runway, Southard is the Queen

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By Jenna McKenna

Jessica Southard says she's not a pageant girl. She's an agricultural girl, definitely; a car racing girl, certainly. She's a graphic artist, too; until recently she designed many of the logos and scripts on the race cars built by her parents, Gary and Kathi Southard of Bronson's Southard Racing. How did she come to be crowned the 2009 Florida Watermelon Queen?

“Years ago, my dad built a car for Buddy Hughes, who is one of the biggest watermelon growers in Newberry,” she says.

“We got to know them and I started getting into the Newberry Queen pageant. That was when I was about 12.”

Southard gets all the way through explaining her years winning the Newberry Watermelon Festival Queen pageants (Teen Queen and Queen) before she realizes the possible contradictions here.

“I've only ever done the Watermelon Queen pageants,” she says.

“Not beauty pageants.”

The difference, apparently, is huge.

“The Watermelon Queen pageant is not like a traditional pageant,” Southard says.

“It's not about glitz and glamor. You have to really know about agriculture; you have to be well-spoken. It's not a looks thing – you have to have knowledge and talent.”

There is a beauty component to the Newberry competition, but it is small (10 percent) compared to the speech (25 percent and personal interview (25 percent) portions of the judging. Clothing for the Queen's appearances must be approved by the Queen Coordinator. Entering a Watermelon Queen pageant is like agreeing to a year as real royalty – there will be chaperones, instructions and scrutiny of everything you do in public. This is more like a trial of composure and circumspection.

The point of the Watermelon Queen is to be the spearhead of Florida Watermelon Association's promotional effort. To be watermelon royalty is a form of agricultural communication, and that is Southard's major at the University of Florida's College of Agriculture.

“I'm doing this because I want to reach out to people, and teach them about the importance of Florida agriculture,” she says.

There's a lot of outreach involved. Southard estimates she'll have to make more than 200 promotional appearances on behalf of the Florida Watermelon Association in the coming year, mostly through the watermelon season.

“This is ag communication,” she says.

Finally, it makes sense. Southard, who was last year's valedictorian for Bronson High School and ran for Future Farmers of America (FFA) state office this past year has been fascinated with Florida agriculture since she was in middle school. Her family moved to Bronson from Archer when she was 12, and until she discovered FFA, she felt completely out of her element.

“I felt really lost when I first came to Bronson,” she says.

Marsha Smith, agriculture teacher and FFA sponsor for Bronson Middle High School, urged her to take an ag class and try FFA. Southard did, and was hooked. She became the top public speaker in her FFA chapter, winning awards at every FFA speaking challenge. Smith convinced Southard to run for FFA state office last year; even though she lost, Southard counts that as one of the best experiences of her life.

“Marsha Smith really changed my life. If not for her, I never would have gotten into agriculture, and I never would have become Watermelon Queen,” says Southard.

From a lost little girl from out of town, Southard has bloomed into a bright, ambitious woman with a passion for Florida's green growing things.

“I don't think enough people know or appreciate how much of the food we eat comes from the farmers right in our own area,” she says.

“Recently, Commissioner (of Agricultural Charles) Bronson started a program called “Fresh from Florida” that allows Florida growers to put a sticker on their produce. That lets people know where their food is coming from, so they can look for foods grown in Florida rather than buying imported produce. Agriculture is a major part of Florida's economy, and if people don't know they can buy food from here, we could lose our market.”

The speech portion of the competition came easily to Southard – after all, talking about Florida agriculture is one of the things she loves best. To ask her what's so great about Florida watermelons is to hear about vitamins, minerals and lycopene, as well as low-calorie deliciousness. The interview also went well.

“They asked me what would be the hardest thing about being queen, if I were to win,” she recalls.

“Well, my friends always tease me that I'm an old person in a young person's body. I like to stay home, hang out with my family and watch Andy Griffith with my dad. I'm such a daddy's girl, everything he loves, I love too. I told the judges the hardest thing would be to be away from my family so much.”

Moments later, on stage, Southard was asked one final question: “To whom would you most like to give a watermelon?”

Southard didn't hesitate.

“Andy Griffith,” she replied.