Three Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Centers have new directors. We spoke to them about their vision for their work in the upcoming years.
The Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Centers at Dallas, Amarillo, and Vernon, as well as the Texas Foundation Seed Service, all have new center directors. To get to know them better, we asked each of them about the opportunities, challenges, and new directions they see for their center in the upcoming years. Below are their answers to our questions, condensed for space and clarity.
- Dr. Jeanmarie Verchot, Dallas Center
- Dr. Vierling, Vernon Center and Texas Foundation Seed Service
- Dr. Brent Auvermann, Amarillo Center
Dr. Jeanmarie Verchot, Dallas Center
In the midst of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Dallas conducts research and outreach that serve the state’s urban areas. The facility develops and commercializes environmentally friendly varieties of turfgrass and ornamental plants and creates solutions for heat island effects, water-related problems, and incomplete or contaminated urban soils, among many other projects.
Dr. Jeanmarie Verchot (pronounced Ver-show) is the newest incoming director of the AgriLife Research and Extension Center. In December 2016, she began working at the center several days a month while transitioning from her position as professor of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University. She started working full time at the Dallas Center on June 1. A highly productive, internationally recognized scientist, Verchot has a track record in attracting competitive research funding, and her expertise in plant virology will complement the Dallas Center’s existing programs. We welcome her back to The Texas A&M University System: She completed her doctorate in microbiology at Texas A&M University in 1995. (Read more about Dr. Verchot’s background.)
What fills your schedule right now?
Every hour of my schedule gets filled. Besides me, two other new faculty members have been setting up their laboratories. I am contributing to facility and labor development and making sure faculty get their needs met. My focus is through AgriLife Research, but I’m also getting to know the Extension faculty.
We’ve also had some outside visitors. Global North Texas, a citizen diplomat organization that works with the U.S. State Department, reached out to us. They provide programs for international visitors, so we gave a delegation from Russia a tour through our center and had a roundtable discussion. In most other countries, universities don’t have the sort of relationship with their communities as we do at the Dallas Center and other AgriLife Research and Extension Centers. It was fun to show off the value of the A&M system.
What excites you most about this new position?
We have a talented group of scientists and a positive, engaged atmosphere. I feel that as a scientist, I can relate well with the faculty, their interest areas, and their needs and can help grow the center to meet the needs of the constituency of the Dallas region. My own research efforts are in ornamental plants and in vegetables and working on the interface of biotic and abiotic stress in plants, so my expertise fits nicely with the scientific expertise here at the center.
And I’m glad to be back with The Texas A&M University System, after 20-some years. Dallas is different from College Station, but having studied in the A&M culture, I’m an Aggie. I understand the brand and am excited to be representing it. It’s a bit like coming home.
What are some of the opportunities you see for the Dallas Center in the coming years?
We have started construction on a new headquarters and a new water education building, which will help make us the premier research center in the region. The headquarters will have cutting-edge research facilities, all the latest technologies, modern work spaces, and rooftop experiment greenhouses. The water education building will have a large rain harvesting tank, visible from the street, along with massive underground cisterns, and these will provide all the water used by the facility. A rain garden and storm water runoff demonstrations will also be a way to show people what a sustainable conservation landscape looks like in the Dallas area.
Our focus is on urban agriculture. So, we have leading programs in turfgrass and in water resource management, plant abiotic stress and biotic stress, and many others. These programs mesh well together. For example, Ambika Chandra is leading our turfgrass breeding efforts and is nationally recognized for her work in developing germplasms that can perform better in low-water situations. Turf is important commodity, is highly resilient, and serves to reduce dust and heat in urban areas. We also have a robust initiative led by Clinte Wolfe in water education.
In urban areas, there is a push in planning for gardens and vegetable crops, where we can create improvements in low-water tolerance and pest tolerance for garden plants.
Another goal is not only to increase our visibility, but also increase our outreach by giving our research faculty more opportunities to build relationships with the community. So, there will be good conference capabilities, and we are aligning with other regional universities so that we could be the place where everyone comes to share expertise.
I am excited about our efforts to start a regional alliance. We already wrote a major grant with University of North Texas, and we are starting to talk with The University of Texas at Dallas to provide training or hire summer undergraduate researchers. We want to let people know that an alliance of universities in North Texas is a really strong science center.
Do you see any challenges the center will need to overcome in the next few years?
When I think of a challenge, I see an opportunity. When the Dallas Center was first built, this was all farmland and ranchland. And now, Dallas has grown so much that our center is surrounded by the city. We need to focus our research and extension efforts to meet the challenges of Dallas now, which are completely different from 20 years ago. We are working to make the Dallas Center a nationally recognized research center that attracts investment, government funding, and collaborations.
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Dr. Richard Vierling, Vernon Center and Texas Foundation Seed Service
Set in the Texas Rolling Plains, the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center at Vernon is internationally recognized for its work in natural resource management for integrated crop and livestock production systems, and on the sustainable use of natural resources in semiarid climates.
Dr. Richard Vierling directs the Vernon Center and the Texas Foundation Seed Service, also headquartered at Vernon. Vierling stepped into the positions on February 1, 2017, after serving for six years as the National Corn Growers Association director of research and business development. Before that, he was a faculty member at Purdue University and director of the Indiana Crop Improvement Genetics program. Vierling has served on the research board of the American Seed Research Foundation and with multiple committees of the American Seed Trade Association. And he is not a newcomer to Texas: He earned his doctorate from Texas Tech University. (Read more about Dr. Vierling’s background.)
What do you look forward to the most in this new position?
I look forward to having wide-ranging opportunities to contribute to many different areas. We don’t want to be reductionist. The real benefit to our constituents can be made by looking at the total system over the long term.
Like the previous director of the Texas Foundation Seed Service, Dr. Brown, you have lots of experience in working with the agricultural industry. Do you think your approach to the Seed Service will resemble that of your predecessor?
Yes, our goals will be the same: To grow the seed service and provide the best quality seeds. Of course, different people have different styles. I didn’t know Steve but he did a good job and he produced quality product and I want to continue that.
What are some of the opportunities you see for the Vernon Center in the next few years?
I think we’ll need to look at solving problems in a “systems” approach and make sure economic analysis is coupled with that. When we look at, let’s say, cover crops, we have to look at how cover crops affect the holding of moisture in the soil, how that affects the microbes in the soil, can this be used as a green fertilizer, and so on. What are the costs of the seeds, of the management? You can’t just look at whether the cover crop grows well—you have to look at the whole system from cost to production to improvement.
And we need multiple years of data. Each year, the environment is different. When we make a recommendation, it’s going to be based on data from multiple years and locations. And as new technology comes into the marketplace, how we raise animals and raise crops changes to adapt to that new technology. There are always unintended consequences—some good, some bad. So, we always have to go through the process of finding out what works and what is profitable. Because we’re here to solve problems for ag producers, for farmers and ranchers. We will do them a disservice if we provide solutions but don’t know the economic impact of those solutions.
This may be tangential, but the location of the center is an advantage to us. It is tough to be profitable here. So, if new technologies and production practices prove to be cost-effective and beneficial in this environment, I believe they will be transferable to other, less harsh environments.
A lot of people use the word “sustainability”, but we have to go beyond sustainability into improvement. Sustainability is not enough, farmers need to make more money.
Do you plan to collaborate with other AgriLife Centers throughout the state?
Each center has different areas of expertise and equipment capabilities. As we look at a more systems approach, we’ll stretch out further into production, grain handling, and even livestock. One center cannot cover the full spectrum. We’ll have to partner with other centers to look at the system as a whole.
What are some key challenges you see for the agricultural industry that the Center will work to overcome?
Now is a bad time for producers. The key challenge is low commodity prices, and that’s something farmers really don’t control. How do you continue to be profitable? You have to do one of two things: decrease your input costs or make more bushels per acre. That is a huge hurdle. With fertilizer cost, herbicide cost, seed cost, regulatory cost, it becomes almost impossible for farmers and ranchers to decrease their input costs.
Output can be limited by regulations. Water quality regulations could put limits on fertilizer, and that limits our output. Bans of certain herbicides or insecticides will affect our output. And animal welfare regulations and regulations of the environmental footprints associated with livestock—those could really affect livestock producers. We still have to continue to produce as much as possible within the system, but we have to find ways to make the system less costly.
So, at the Center, we have to look for ways of making production more efficient and decreasing those input costs. And hopefully, the production practices and the data we generate can be used either to head off some regulations or put potential regulations into the correct perspective.
I also believe we have to look at things on a larger scale than small research plots or a few research rows, because those environments are completely different than what’s happening in a large field or on a rangeland for cattle. So, we need to position our research well. And I include looking at new technologies in systems that are close to what the best producers are doing right now. As we do that, we will learn things that will feed right back to these best producers to implement in their programs. We can do multiple-year studies and measurements. Farmers can always test things in their own fields, but we can do a better job of measurements and controls and generate better data for them.
The faculty here are doing very good work and they work very hard. And what they are doing will have a positive effect for the farmers and ranchers.
Dr. Brent Auvermann, Amarillo Center
In the Texas High Plains, the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Amarillo sits at the heart of a region renowned for its cattle-feeding industry and its semi-arid climate. Researchers at the Amarillo Center are creating new, drought-tolerant, and disease-resistant wheat varieties; developing dust-abatement practices for feedlots; developing novel phenotyping tools to identify crop traits with improved water use efficiency; using innovative and emerging technologies to monitor air quality and atmospheric emissions; and developing water-optimized cropping systems adapted to the southern High Plains.
Dr. Auvermann began his duties as resident director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Amarillo in February 2017, following the retirement of longtime director Dr. John Sweeten. Auvermann is an internationally recognized expert in environmental systems engineering applied to concentrated animal feeding operations. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas A&M University and his doctorate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has been a faculty member at the Amarillo Center since 1995. (Read more about Dr. Auvermann’s background.)
What do you look forward to the most in this new phase of your career?
I’ve been an agricultural engineer for more than 20 years, working in environmental quality. In terms of our overall research enterprise at Amarillo, that’s a pretty narrow slice. So, one of the things I love about this job is the steep learning curve. It’s a magnificent opportunity to re-energize my brain.
What kinds of things fill your schedule right now?
I have a lot of management and administrative duties. But I am spending 30-40% of my time learning from the faculty. And that involves, for example, going out to our research farms at Bushland and looking at the effects of wheat diseases and what’s happening with our vegetable program. I’m out there with faculty and senior support staff, learning as much as I can about what challenges they are facing and what I might be able to do to help. It’s a lot of fun.
How do you think your background will inform what you do as director?
Like (previous center director) Dr. Sweeten, I have a long extension background. Research is not unfamiliar to me; I’ve done a lot of it and will continue to do so. But the extension aspect of my experience will help me with customer- and stakeholder-facing communications and interpretation of our work. People are sending their tax dollars to us through Austin and through Washington, D.C., and are interested in getting a return on investment. I think I’ll do a good job of interpreting our work for them so they will see that they are getting more back than they put in, in terms of their tax dollars.
What do you think will be the important opportunities for the center in the next few years?
You’ve asked a question that is at the center of what I’m thinking about these days.
We’re going to accelerate our plant breeding and improvement programs, especially our signature wheat and small-grain programs. We have opportunities to accelerate improvement using tools like bioinformatics and big data processing. Feeding into those informatics tools, low-altitude, remote sensing, using unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – is a tool with particular opportunities out here as a key research platform. My plan is to move us decisively into that research space this year, through partnerships with colleagues in Corpus Christi and College Station, among others.
Many other opportunities will be in developing our water-optimizing cropping systems. In particular, vegetables use a lot of water but can yield a tremendous amount of income per acre. We are exploring ways to help farmers diversify and generate greater returns while dealing with the pests, the wind, and the harsh climate. It’s a major, rapidly developing research area. Lots of corporate partnerships are possible, and we have a couple of them in hand already.
We also have a lot of interest and capabilities in antimicrobial resistance, particularly as it pertains to our livestock programs. That will be a big research area for us for at least a decade. There are many things the public thinks they know about antimicrobial resistance and livestock production, and not all of those things are correct. Our job is to do the science and communicate the science.
We have many opportunities in other areas, and I don’t mean to give them short shrift.
Do you foresee any particular challenges the center will need to overcome in the next few years?
We’re bursting at the seams! Our building in Amarillo is full and we don’t have nearly enough laboratory space for all the programs that we’d like to get involved in. Grants from the federal government by and large don’t buy us brick and mortar, so we have to be creative about finding new space. Not complaining, we have great opportunities and we’re going to be as creative as we can.
Another challenge is a more skeptical public. There is a lot of cynicism about public institutions and the value we provide. One of my greatest challenges is going to be communicating what we do and why that is important to taxpayers here. That’s something I am excited about doing because I believe deeply in our research enterprise.
When I got the offer to take this job, I felt I was getting tossed the keys to a Porsche. This Amarillo center is super productive and has incredibly bright faculty. What a privilege to be able to represent them in the public sphere and sell their work to what would otherwise be a skeptical, cynical public. There are good reasons for the public to be skeptical of government institutions. But with the Amarillo Research and Extension center, it’s not going to be a difficult sell.
In the next couple of years, people that surround us can expect to see quite a bit of change. We are living in a more electronically savvy world. We’re going to be demonstrating technological advances and applying them in agriculture. I hope when people see drones, for example, they’ll start to ask questions and I’ll be there to answer.
Since I’ve been on the job, I’ve been having the time of my life.