October 13, 2020

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act and established a nationwide system of cooperative extension services to share advancements in agriculture with rural Americans. Though the federal legislation formally established the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service a year later, the national system was modeled in no small part after existing Aggie faculty-led outreach programs sponsoring demonstrations, shows and fairs across Texas.

With nearly 100,000 current volunteers and offices in 250 counties, the extension service quietly exemplifies the best The Texas A&M University System has to offer to the Lone Star State. Directors of five unique programs within the service spoke on how their initiatives directly better Texans’ lives and, in some cases, lives around the world.


BattleGround to Breaking Ground

Veterans returning home from service face a reality shift unlike any other. Some deal with lingering trauma from combat, while more struggle to adjust from a highly regimented routine to the paralyzing freedom of civilian life. “The majority of our nation’s veterans come from rural areas and want to return to rural life,” said Erin Kimbrough ’13, director of the BattleGround to Breaking Ground program. “But unemployment is high in those areas, and they need jobs to go home to.”

BattleGround to Breaking Ground guides veterans and their loved ones as they create their own employment through farming and ranching. The three-phase educational program—which is available to veterans, active-duty military, their families, and beginner farmers and ranchers—walks participants through every step of starting an agricultural business.

The program is relatively young with plenty of avenues for expansion. Kimbrough expressed the desire for funds to hire an additional staff member as well as for new training facilities. She has led BattleGround to Breaking Ground since its first cohort in 2013 and attests to the difference a functional agricultural education makes on veteran participants. “Many walk away from the program saying it saved their lives,” Kimbrough said. “It’s changed my life just being a part of it.”

Healthy South Texas

In the counties wedged between the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande River, Texans enjoy a vibrant collision of Mexican and American culture but struggle to mitigate large-scale public health issues. With limited access to health care and the prevalence of “food deserts”—places where residents have limited access to affordable, nutritious foods—obesity and other diseases take a greater toll on the population.

Healthy South Texas, the pilot program of a proposed statewide program Healthy Texas, aims to reduce the highest-impact diseases and their consequences throughout a 27-county region in South Texas. The program is especially geared toward improving outcomes for South Texans dealing with diabetes, asthma and infectious diseases, saving communities millions in medical costs over time.

Program director Rusty Hohlt credited the partnership between the extension service and the Texas A&M Health Science Center as an integral part of Healthy South Texas’ success. “Combining the expertise of the Health Science Center with the existing connections between Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agents and their communities means we can provide residents of all ages with opportunities to learn how to improve their health as well as their family’s health,” Hohlt said.

Junior Master Gardener

During the 1990s, Lisa Whittlesey ’89 coordinated an extension program that taught gardening to female inmates at the Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas. As she interacted with participating inmates, she found that gardening not only gave them a therapeutic task while they served their time but also inspired them to teach their children upon being released. “That planted the seed for Junior Master Gardener,” Whittlesey said.

The Junior Master Gardener (JMG) program is an international youth gardening program created and managed by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service with participating schools throughout all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Directed by Whittlesey, JMG provides teachers with curricula made up of hands-on group and individual learning activities designed not only to instill in children an appreciation for gardening and the environment but also encourage leadership, community involvement and personal responsibility. The program is bolstered by the Junior Master Gardener Endowed Excellence Fund, which is open to private contributions.

“We want kids who participate in the program to not only succeed in gardening but also to succeed in life,” Whittlesey said. “We’ve had several children grow up and attend Texas A&M to study horticulture and other agriculture programs.” With the COVID-19 pandemic sending many classes online, JMG has quickly adapted, creating a slew of videos and other virtual assets. Whether they are taking virtual classes, in-person classes, or a hybrid model, kids can still find plenty of lessons in a garden’s rich soil.

Texas Agriculture Lifetime Leadership (TALL)

In January 1986, the late Dr. Leon “Bill” Pope opened a fortune cookie with an encouraging message: “All will go well with your new project.” Pope was inspired; he had been working on kickstarting a new leadership development program within the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He and Eugene Butler from Progressive Farmer Magazine reached out to a several potential donors, eventually finding a long-term backer in lauded Former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr.

Today, the Governor Dolph Briscoe Jr., Texas Agricultural Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program operates as a competitive leadership enhancement program for adults in budding leadership careers that includes seminars with experts, on-site tours, meetings with business and government leaders, international study, and personal skills improvement. Current director Dr. Jim Mazurkiewicz ’77 compares the two-year program to a graduate program for experienced industry leaders—one that attracts those ready to take “the next step” in their communities and careers. Governor Briscoe once said, “The two-year TALL experience is equal to 10 years’ experience.”

“The curriculum consists of more than 470 hours’ worth of classroom training,” Mazurkiewicz said. “That’s 30 hours more than a non-thesis master of agriculture degree path.” Though the program’s administrative costs are funded through the Briscoe Endowment, there are many endowed opportunities for specific educational events and initiatives within the program. “TALL has become one of the premier leadership enhancement programs in Texas and its impact has been far reaching nationally and abroad,” Mazurkiewicz said.

Texas 4-H

The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service does not oversee Texas 4-H by coincidence; their histories are deeply intertwined. Initially operated as a patchwork of clubs and programs advocating for youth agricultural development across the country, the national 4-H organization was formerly established alongside the federal extension service network with the signing of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.

With more than 550,000 youth participating each year, 4-H is currently the largest youth development program in Texas. Though it is commonly perceived as an agriculture and livestock-focused program due to its origins and ties to the extension service, director Dr. Montza Williams ’87 stresses that 4-H encompasses a much wider variety of fields, including photography, public speaking, robotics, sport shooting and performance arts.

Williams participated in 4-H as a child 45 years ago and says there is a reason the program’s project-based education model helps third graders and high school seniors alike. “It’s about learning by doing,” Williams said. “Participants choose to work on projects they care about. They may get help from their parents and advisors, but ultimately they have to do it themselves.”

Though 4-H members are encouraged to explore opportunities of interest, the program cannot supply curriculum support for every passion. Private funding would allow the program to expand resources for future participants to more deeply tackle an even wider range of subjects as they test the limits of what they can accomplish.

From educating fledgling farmers to helping young Texans discover their potential, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service programs have enriched lives across the state for decades. To learn more about supporting these programs or others within AgriLife, contact Brandy Kines ’05 at (979) 458-8150 or by using the form below.