For more than 40 years, Andy Vestal, Ph.D., has been an agent of change through the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and an effective and innovative educator dedicated to the betterment of Texas. On Aug. 31, he won’t stop caring about the people of Texas, but it won’t be an official role any longer.
From the crop-covered plains surrounding Lubbock where he began as a county agent, to the underground bunker of the State Operations Center as AgriLife Extension director for emergency management, Vestal has made his mark. And now, he’s ready to retire.
Building AgriLife Extension’s emergency management program
For the past 15 years Vestal has helped AgriLife Extension and the citizens of Texas navigate disaster recovery from raging wildfires, rising flood waters, snow storms and devastating hurricanes. In fact, he was initially retiring in August 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit, and his services were called for again by the agency.
“Andy Vestal was instrumental in the development of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Emergency Management program,” said Monty Dozier, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension program director for disaster assessment and recovery.
In 2005, he began serving as the agency’s specialist for homeland security as a principal investigator at the new Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Center a Homeland Security Center for Excellence, now the Institute for Infectious Animals Diseases.
Vestal worked tirelessly with AgriLife Extension senior administrators in the summer and fall of 2005 to establish the Extension Emergency Management Program, Dozier said. Working with others, Vestal helped develop educational resources such as the Texas Extension Disaster Education Network and numerous emergency management training courses for county extension agents.
“Andy spearheaded regional trainings across Texas to introduce our agency’s role in emergency management,” Dozier said. “And to solidify a seat at the state emergency management table, Andy worked with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to secure approval by Gov. Rick Perry in 2007 to make Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service a member of the State Emergency Management Council to include our presence in the State Operations Center.”
Vestal also served as the agency’s emergency management coordinator, operating as a liaison at the Texas Division of Emergency Management during important events such as the hurricanes of 2008 as well as during wildfires and floods to enhance the assistance AgriLife Extension provides the citizens of Texas.
Making a difference in times of need
One of the key implementations made during his term was the development of an animal response plan for livestock and pets similar to that followed for human evacuations. The need for such a plan was apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in which more than 20,000 head of cattle were displaced by downed fencing and threatened with starvation and dehydration due to lack of food and clean water.
“We took a page out of Texas A&M Forest Service’s emergency management plans where they had strike teams to go fight fires,” Vestal said. “We said we want to be able to support our livestock and ag industries with teams of county agents. We established seven teams, and they are deployment ready to go where needed to support the ag and livestock industries.”
During times of flooding, hurricane damage and wildfires, these teams are deployed to help care for and shelter livestock for an approximate three-week period to give owners a period of time to make management decisions following a disaster, he said.
“Our strike teams of county agents have gone to North Carolina following a torrential rainstorm and then later the same year teams went to California for a significant wildfire event,” Vestal said. “During both instances, they cared for livestock and pets.”
Another highlight, he said, was having in place the plan to manage the equivalent of approximately 700 semi truckloads of feed at six animal supply points in the spring of 2017 during wildfires in the High Plains and another 13 animal supply points later in the year for Hurricane Harvey, where approximately 450 semi-truckload equivalent of donated resources were managed.
Strengthening AgriLife Extension’s emergency management reputation
In 2009, Vestal was named director of emergency management programs for AgriLife Extension and asked to lead the development, implementation and evaluation of AgriLife Extension’s programming involving homeland security and emergency management to address U.S. Department of Homeland Security directives on food and agriculture infrastructure protection. That same year he was recognized with the Regent’s Fellow Service award by the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents.
Dozier said Vestal’s efforts laid a strong foundation for AgriLife Extension to build an outstanding reputation of service to the citizens of Texas in response and recovery to some of the darkest moments in our state’s history.
“Andy’s service to our agency and state can never be quantified and is only surpassed by his compassion for those he has served with and those he has served,” Dozier said.
Vestal said it was satisfying to end his career with the establishment just two weeks ago of a new web-based platform to take emergency donations through a call center. The central location will allow planners to stage and assign the delivery of those supplies to an animal supply point.
“Many commodity associations help get the word to their members and the support is unbelievable during these events,” Vestal said. “We trained 30 county agents and regional program leaders two weeks ago and they will be instructors moving forward to make the process efficient in the future to meet the agriculture needs of all those affected by a disaster.”
Early days as an AgriLife Extension county agent
Vestal’s career with AgriLife Extension began in 1977. He served 13 years as a county agent for agriculture and as a 4-H and youth program coordinator on the South Plains of Texas in Howard, Crosby and Hockley counties, before taking a similar position in Bexar County. He helped launch AgriLife Extension’s Urban Initiative, an effort to serve urban constituents more effectively in the state’s six largest metropolitan areas, while he was a county agent in Bexar County in 1990.
Vestal’s county agent career was highlighted with breed champions at major livestock shows on the 4-H front; the establishment of county fairs and county marketing groups for cotton and livestock; and the “ag fair” commonly associated now with the Texas Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom curriculum. He also partnered in San Antonio with others to address the threat of Africanized honey bees by creating “bee masters” as a part of the Master Volunteer Program of AgriLife Extension’s.
Recalling his county agent days, Vestal said it was exciting to see ideas and expressed needs at the local level come to life. For instance, about the time he joined the agency, trap and skeet shooting was becoming popular within the 4-H program.
“We were able to get the trap and skeet facilities on Webb Air Force base that was closing down donated to Extension, and we ended up with a 4-H member making the Olympic team. It was a pretty exciting thing to see a kid from Big Spring go to the Olympics, and it all started with trap and skeet shooting in 4-H.”
Toward the end of his agent days, Vestal said the Ag Fair concept was brought to him by volunteers in Medina County who wanted to make it fit into an urban setting.
“We gave it feet to walk and legs to run. I was asked to draft a plan in 1996 to train agents to adopt that concept in urban settings – we could already see at that time the distance that was growing between agriculture and urban youth. From there it grew county to county until in 1999 it was moved from the ag education department to the 4-H program and expanded even further.”
J. D. Ragland, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources agent for Randall County, said Vestal was his county agent during his 4-H years in high school in Crosby County. Ragland said Vestal was influential not only to him in his youth as a 4-Her, but for his entire career.
“Dr. Vestal encouraged me to look at a career in Extension – 33 years later, that is why I’m still here,” Ragland said. “He was a role model for me. He had a huge impact on the producers and agriculture in the county, and he was good with the youth program as well. I admired those qualities and saw myself fitting a similar role. He told me that I had all the qualities of a great county agent. Without a doubt, I still try to model what he taught me in the job I do today.”
Vestal became state specialist for agricultural education in 1994, then associate director of the Institute of Food Science and Engineering in 2000. He also was a professor in the agricultural leadership, education and communications department at Texas A&M University and a member of the university graduate faculty in this department at both Texas A&M and Texas Tech Universities.
Vestal earned his bachelor’s degree in 1977 from Tarleton State University, master’s in 1982 from Texas Tech and doctorate in agricultural education in 1998 from Texas A&M University.