COLLEGE STATION – When recent high school graduate Ed Smith drove his old, un-airconditioned car into College Station and moved into an un-airconditioned dorm in 1969, the Tahoka native “quite literally thought it was Hell.”
Smith’s gravelly laugh fills his office as he takes a swig of his ever-present diet Pepsi. But his somber reflection returns as he recalls those who mentored him toward his career.
As an 18-year-old, Smith had only a vague idea of what Texas A&M was, based on what a high school teacher had told him. And he knew nothing of the land-grant university system that began during the American Civil War.
But Smith’s path was steered on a course not of his design which ultimately led to the position of director of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service — a position from which he retires Friday after 38 years with the land-grant agency.
He now describes his career as just short of heavenly.
“My family was low-income and no one had ever been to college, or even high school,” Smith recalls. “They didn’t believe college was affordable.”
Smith’s father, who was ill, advised his son to join the military with the hope of getting GI benefits to afford an education later.
“But my agriculture teacher convinced my dad that I would work my way through school and that I could make it in college,” Smith said. “Other than my dad, that ag teacher — Lester Adams — had the greatest influence on my life. He provided me the vision and helped me to see that instead of taking basket weaving and playing football, I needed to take biology and chemistry, physics and trigonometry. I went with what he said, and it’s been good.”
With a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics in 1973, Smith might have moved back to Tahoka in northwest Texas, but one of his professors threw another curve on his path.
“Carl Schaeffer, an ag economics professor, had a project looking at the marketing analysis of grapefruit in the Rio Grande Valley,” Smith said. “He asked me to work on it, though at the time, I didn’t know if a grapefruit grew on a tree, a vine or what. So that was a great learning experience to work on that project. And from that, I got my master’s degree in 1975.”
It was time to get a job, Smith recounted. With two degrees in agricultural economics, he accepted a job with the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento, Calif. But that would not be his path either. Extension officials had a job fair on the Texas A&M campus before he left for California, and with his father in failing health, Smith decided to check it out.
“I was offered a job as assistant county agent in Seminole, Gaines County, just 80 miles from my parents, so I backed out of the job in California,” he said.
His first role in the agency that was new to him gave him lasting respect for the work of a county agent – the position he still believes is the toughest in AgriLife Extension.
“You have to be a counselor, a minister, a youth director and a subject matter specialist in all the academic disciplines we deal with,” Smith said of the people who work for the agency in all of the Texas counties. “So while it is an exciting job, it is extremely challenging.”
Challenges meant the job was never boring, but Smith’s path would go in a different direction when he thought of advancing up the ladder after five years as a county agent, by then in Terry County.
Smith applied for law school at Texas Tech University and was accepted in the early 1980s. He visited with his supervisor, Bill Gunter, to tell him he would be going to law school unless the agency had a program for him to pursue. Gunter described a program by then-Extension director John Hutchison to encourage people to earn a doctoral degree in Extension administration. Smith was half convinced to do it, but this was not the degree he wanted.
“I convinced them that a doctorate in agricultural economics was broader and would cover the items I would need to know as an administrator,” Smith recalled. “And they agreed.”
Smith became an Extension grain marketing specialist with a knack for working on farm policy, which he had fine-tuned while getting his doctorate. That parlayed into his working on policy pertaining to agricultural cooperatives — both positions with what is now the Agriculture and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M.
Throughout 1980s and 90s, Smith ventured down the policy path of his career. He recalled the 1980s real estate collapse in the U.S. which eventually led to an overhaul of federal farm policy. The policy center worked with the U.S. Congress as a “third party analytical base” to help legislators determine the best options to positively impact the most people, he said.
“I never left the policy arena. It was the common denominator throughout my professional career,” Smith said. “And those were exciting times. There were no dull moments. Every day was like a new job and you didn’t get bored. I enjoyed that 20-year period very much.”
That affinity for things political would be served up in a different way when Smith became director of the agency in May 2005.
“I had been working with all the key agriculture and natural resources congressmen from Texas and the U.S., so from the political context, I knew the people,” Smith said. “Politics are politics and knowing the system can save you a lot of heartaches.”
His ease in the policy arena was complemented by his managerial preference to delegate.
“I’ve always had a kind of administrative philosophy of trying to get the best people to do the job,” Smith said. “Get smarter people than you are around you, and you will be successful. Of course, getting them smarter than me wasn’t a very high bar.”
Smith’s laughter returns, followed by another swig of Pepsi and then another look back.
“I’m finishing my 38th year with Extension as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act,” Smith noted. “That was one of the five most important pieces of legislation in the history of this country.
“It recognized that if you don’t have education, you’re not going to have economic development. So with the nation torn in two by civil war, they passed a law that said ‘we don’t have money but we’ll give you land to start a public university in each of the states.’ And the sole objective is that the common person, the Ed Smiths of the world, doesn’t have to have wealth to receive a higher education,” he said.
That legislation was followed by the Hatch Act in 1887, which established experiment, or research, stations to study particular agriculture issues in connection with the public land-grant university, Smith noted. And the Smith-Lever Act was tacked on in 1914 to establish the county agent structure that would take the information from the universities and research stations to the local producers, where it would be applied to grow more and healthier food and fiber crops for the people.
“I’m often asked if that model fits in 2012,” Smith said. “And I say it was important in 1700, it was important in 1900 and it will be important in 2500. Because it starts by asking the people what’s important to their economic or health or social livelihood, and then brings the science to meet those issues in their locality. That gives people the ability to make informed decisions.
“The model is strong, so as long as the leadership in land-grant systems understand the principle and understand that all three parts – teaching, research and Extension – are absolutely necessary for economic development and success, then the model is tried and true.”
Smith swallows more Pepsi and pauses after rehashing his career.
“I have tried to make it fun for all the folks I’ve worked with in Extension,” he said. “There’s always a job to be done and when you can do it using your own talents, then the job is fun all the time.”
“Fun” will take another form in his career as Smith considers the next turn on his path.
“I’ve never golfed, never fished, never hunted and I don’t have any hobbies. So I’ve obviously got to find something fun to do. I need to get in shape. Maybe you’ll see me on TV ‘Ed Smith Does Yoga’ telling everyone to stretch or whatever. I told my wife I would be hers 24/7/365 and she said she was going back to work,” Smith said through deep laughter.
“Actually, I have two grandkids in Houston and two in Austin, along with my sons and their wives. So I have lots of grandpa-type stuff to deal with,” he said. “And you know, Extension depends a lot on volunteers. Maybe I’ll be a volunteer.”