Following a May 4 tornado, the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon and Texas A&M AgriLife Foundation Seed are finding comfort in community support from Vernon to Wichita Falls and from the entire Texas A&M AgriLife statewide network.
The Texas A&M AgriLife properties in the community of Lockett, just south of Vernon, took a direct hit from the tornado, severely damaging many buildings and impacting ongoing research. The facilities are home to the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service programs for the Rolling Plains region.
All employees are accounted for and safe, according to Rick Vierling, Ph.D., center director. In fact, most of them were back on the premises the night of May 4, helping secure as much of the property as possible.
“They take pride in the facility and their work, so they showed up,” Vierling said.
Seventeen Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agents from throughout the district, community members, and county officials and employees came out on Friday – all rolling up their sleeves and pitching in wherever needed.
“They’re at Foundation Seed, they are inside, they are outside, they are on equipment, there’s a roofing crew from College Station to seal our roof and prevent additional water from getting into the building,” Vierling said.
“You have people who are proud of their community of Vernon and proud that our center is here. We have been working together to help solve their problems through our research and extension outreach, and this is a chance for them to come help us, and they are doing it readily and without being asked.”
Vierling said how grateful he and the employees of Texas A&M AgriLife are for the outpouring of support.
“Restaurants have sent food, and others have brought cold water and snacks – everything is coming in,” Vierling said. “As we’re picking up debris, it is the children’s toys and books that came from the homes in Lockett that make us realize this really is more than just a Texas A&M AgriLife story; it is a whole community story.”
The damage done
An F3 tornado, a third of a mile wide, directly hit the facilities and left a debris field a mile long, Vierling said. After a preliminary inspection, other assets of the center — the Chillicothe Research Station, Smith-Walker Research Unit and Organic Research Station — did not sustain major damage.
The Texas A&M AgriLife team has been working beside first responders and community volunteers to assess damages, salvage plants, secure equipment and begin cleanup efforts.
The preliminary assessments from the Texas A&M AgriLife center report damage to infrastructure and buildings, including but not limited to greenhouses, metal buildings and vehicles. After initial inspections, much of the equipment appears to be intact.
“Every building at Foundation Seed is impacted, except for the office,” Vierling said. “The larger equipment appears to be undamaged. Our new $1 million peanut sheller appears to be okay, along with the wheat seed cleaner, but a full assessment hasn’t been completed.”
He said they were lucky their large equipment — a combine, cotton stripper, tractor and sprayer — appear to be undamaged or only have minimal damage. Some small equipment was damaged, including 10 of their 21 peanut wagons that were completely destroyed.
Saving and continuing research
Completely destroyed were three greenhouses that housed the world-renowned hardy hibiscus and tropical hibiscus work of Dariusz Malinowski, Ph.D., a Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant physiologist and breeder.
But again, the community showed up, Vierling said. Friends of Malinowski’s hibiscus program showed up and helped pull the salvageable plants from greenhouses. Others volunteered to help raise plants in their yards until the facilities can get reestablished.
“The hardy hibiscus plants that could be saved were transported by the Vernon Lions Club to the high school greenhouse, where they will help care for them until we can get back up running,” Vierling said. “The high school is letting us use their greenhouse space at no charge. They are helping us save this program.”
Even the tropical hibiscus plants might be saved. They were feared to be lost because temperatures dropped into the 50s and they don’t normally tolerate temperatures under 70 degrees.
“Dariusz is taking clippings of his tropical hibiscus and putting them in rooting material in pots to attempt to maintain all the unique and important breeding materials,” Vierling said. “It has been amazing to see — since the program is so important to the community, they have showed up to help in so many ways. They are helping him save and maintain his breeding program.”
Another immediate concern in the cleanup at the Foundation Seed facilities was the research material in a cold storage facility, Vierling said. All the materials had to be moved to a warehouse to get them out of the elements.
Foundation Seed produces and markets genetically pure seeds of new plant cultivars developed by AgriLife Research scientists. It also distributes vegetatively propagated plant materials and provides production and seed conditioning services to public and private breeding programs.
The cold storage room housed 2,000 breeder samples and early generation material of nearly 20 species of different crops, including small grains including wheat, oats, rye and barley, as well as peanuts, cotton, native flowering forbs, grasses, millet, guar and sorghum. While there are other locations around the state, Vierling said the Foundation Seed location was their largest cold storage facility.
The next research-saving issue will concern the upcoming wheat harvest. Wheat seed needs to be harvested in June, there is some damage to some grain elevators, and a full assessment of the wheat cleaner is still needed.
It might be some time before the center houses personnel full time. Water damage must be cleaned up and a new roof put on, as well as wiring repaired. However, all Texas A&M AgriLife employees from the Vernon center will be back at work at the center’s facilities and remotely on Monday, Vierling said.
Lorrie Coop, AgriLife Extension District 3 director in Vernon, said the AgriLife Extension employees will be working from home.
“We have moved all our computers, and our people will work from home until they can assess the damages and clear us to get back in the building,” Coop said. “But we have a 4-H contest in Archer City this weekend, so we are still business as usual.”
She said using email is the best way to continue contacting AgriLife Extension employees, but many of them still have access to phone service through cell phones and the Teams app.
Vierling said their field work will resume on Monday. All the other Texas A&M AgriLife centers in the area – Amarillo, Lubbock, Stephenville — have reached out and offered staff to help continue the research as well as plant and harvest crops, if needed.
“We know we have roofing and structure damage, but the core of the brick building is in good shape at the center and can be repaired,” Vierling said. “Our equipment, for the most part, was unscathed. Clean up, secure, get it stable and then we’ll move forward in the future.”
He said June 21 was supposed to be the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Texas A&M AgriLife center in Vernon.
“We are postponing it for now, but we will celebrate our anniversary sometime this year.”