Faculty and staff of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, gathered from across the state, received the agency’s Superior Service Awards during a ceremony Jan. 11 at the Thomas G. Hildebrand DVM ’56 Equine Complex, Bryan-College Station.
The Superior Service Awards are the highest recognition given to AgriLife Extension employees in honor of their exemplary service and programming.
“Service is the heart of AgriLife Extension and the heart of Texas A&M,” said Rick Avery, AgriLife Extension director, College Station. “We celebrate these individuals because they represent the best of our exceptional agency and exemplify the dedication to education and service.”
All recipients are with AgriLife Extension unless otherwise indicated. The categories and names of individuals receiving the 2023 Superior Service Award are:
County Extension Agent, Early Career awards
- Nikki Fitzgerald, Coastal Marine Resources agent in Jefferson County. Fitzgerald joined AgriLife Extension in 2019 and works with commercial fishing to provide safety trainings to a population that uses English as a second language. Since 2019, she has served on the Southeast Texas Waterway Advisory Council, SETWAC. SETWAC earned National Harbor Safety Committee of the Year in 2022, and was recognized in Washington, D.C., due to Fitzgerald’s efforts in training commercial fishermen in CPR, man-overboard procedures and drill conductor courses with the Coast Guard.
- Marisa Dimas, family and community health agent in Duval County.In her five-year tenure, Dimas has demonstrated a remarkable talent for working in communities to address issues through educational programming. In a county without a family and community health presence in over 30 years, she has established a dynamic Healthy South Texas Coalition and introduced numerous programs creating positive health outcomes. Working closely with four school districts, Dimas has established health programming throughout Duval County with multiple Healthy South Texas Recognized School campuses.
- Tyler Mays, integrated pest management agent in Hill County. Over the last six years, Mays has been an asset to his clientele and other county agents in District 2 and District 8. During his tenure, he has used a variety of educational activities to educate producers on implementing integrated pest management techniques in farm operations. He has gone above and beyond to enhance the subject matter knowledge of his fellow county agents. Mays is a dedicated agent who makes a continuous, positive impact on his constituents and other county agents.
County Extension Agent, Mid-Career awards
- Scott Willey, agriculture and natural resources agent in Fayette County. Willey has profoundly impacted his community over 14 years in Fayette County. Thanks to his vision and leadership, he has helped guide successful programs that grow, strengthen and have lasting impacts on Fayette County producers and 4-H youth. With his help, the Commercial Heifer Show and Sale has expanded their educational component and grown the premium money awarded. He has also shown impeccable results with the feral hog management program and has become a go-to resource for answers.
- Tyler Fitzgerald, agriculture and natural resources agent in Jefferson County. Fitzgerald started his career in 2007 in Chambers County and moved to Jefferson County four years later. He has shown a passion for helping beef producers, rice producers, 4-Hers, homeowners and others in his community. Throughout his career, Fitzgerald has stood up to help the county’s emergency management in times of natural disasters. Starting with Hurricane Ike, he helped manage animal shelters, supply checkpoints and animal welfare, and continued that mission during Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda. He also traveled to other areas as a strike team member, including a two-week deployment to California to assist the companion animal shelter during that state’s wildfires.
- Lorie Stovall, family and community health agent in Navarro County. Stovall has always been passionate about the well-being of her community. By providing education and leadership opportunities for families for eight years, she has been a valuable resource at the county, district, regional and national levels within countless programs and topics under family and community health in Navarro County. Stovall’s leadership, volunteerism and educational skills have provided her clients with the tools to improve their lives, their family’s well-being, and the general health and wellness of the community.
County Administrative Support awards
- Tonya Elliott, 4-H program assistant in Bell County. Since December 2015, Elliott has been an integral part of the AgriLife Extension office in Bell County. Currently, her primary focus is curriculum enrichment within the local schools and other youth organizations within the county. She has conducted numerous educational programs delivering youth agricultural literacy, youth safety and youth leadership. Elliott was honored for the innumerable ways that she serves the students and families of Bell County.
- Nick Vazquez, office assistant for horticulture in Bexar County. During the pandemic, Vazquez was the glue that held the AgriLife Extension office in Bexar County together. As the lockdown began, the office’s telephone was transferred to Vazquez’s home phone, where he answered questions, solved issues and forwarded inquiries to the appropriate educator. He mastered software to expand and update web and online information outreach. He assisted agency professionals in virtual presentations as the moderator, managing the chat box and monitoring attendance. Recently promoted to office assistant IV – horticulture, his self-motivation, solution-oriented approach and horticulture knowledge now support Master Gardener volunteers and the horticulture agents at the highest level.
State Administrative Support awards
- Gabby Mayer, family and community health business manager in Brazos County. Mayer provides essential support to the Family and Community Health Unit’s 100 faculty and staff members. Her contributions to the fiscal management of the unit budget, grants and contracts, and fee-based programs — $45 million over the past five years — have been exemplary. She has played a vital role in the unit’s growth and success by always going above and beyond the expectations of her position. Her nomination stated Mayer is trustworthy, dependable and an ideal team player, and the agency is fortunate to have such a talented professional as part of the organization.
- Sylvia Ware, senior administrative coordinator, Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management. Ware joined AgriLife Extension in 2012. In her current position, she serves both the department and the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute. Ware has been essential in developing the department’s new AgriLife Extension unit and strengthening ties among the institute and centers housed within the department. Within the past two years, she has coordinated and implemented several events that have led to the establishment of annual traditions for new or transferring students, professors and the AgriLife Extension unit.
Program Support award
- Preston Sirmon, AgriLife Extension associate, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Amarillo. Sirmon provides invaluable field support for the District 1 agronomy program. He is actively engaged in all field activities across the Texas High Plains. The Amarillo agronomy program annually conducts over 30 research and extension trials in wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton and canola, and more recently, perennial forages. A significant aspect of Sirmon’s daily activities includes maintaining old equipment. His attention to detail and ability to patiently repair to ensure that equipment is properly maintained and operational is vital to successfully implementing these valuable crop trials.
Program Specialist award
- John Smith, program specialist, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Bryan-College Station. Smith is making an important impact on Texans through the “Healthy Lawns, Healthy Waters,” rainwater harvesting, Texas Well Owner Network, and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education programs. His thorough evaluation processes document the impact of his programming. In turn, this allows the AgriLife Extension administration to provide key information to the Texas Legislature on the importance and value of these programs. Smith’s leadership within Texas Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education has brought valuable training dollars and grant funding to Texas.
- Early Career Award — Andreea Botezatu, Ph.D., assistant professor and enology specialist, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Bryan-College Station. Botezatu provides easy and up-to-date educational resources to support the Texas wine and grape industry. Her work, both in person and digital, has increased the visibility of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Enology program at state, national and international levels. Botezatu’s tireless efforts have increased the quantity and quality of enology education for AgriLife Extension programs, stakeholder research and academic teaching to support the growing Texas wine industry. Botezatu is recognized by both industry and colleagues for her work in improving enology processes, best practices and efficiencies, leading to greater visibility and economic viability for Texas wineries.
- Mid-Career Award — Billy Zanolini, Ph.D., assistant professor and 4-H and youth development specialist, Bryan-College Station. Zanolini is an innovative and driven educator. He intentionally designs experiences and programs that guide students in identifying and pursuing their academic and professional passions. He consistently and thoughtfully constructs learning experiences highlighting challenge, curiosity, perseverance and leadership. These programs ignite students’ capacity to find their voice and advocate for matters of importance. He is skilled and motivated at illuminating educational pathways to higher education while developing students professionally. Most notably, the Texas 4-H Livestock and Equine Ambassador Programs have contributed more than 100,000 service hours and reached about 2.4 million Texans since 2012. And Zanolini personally trained more than 1,000 students during that time.
- Volunteerism Individual Award — Mary Pearl Meuth, program coordinator in the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Bryan-College Station. Meuth joined the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences in 2014 and serves as the Texas Master Naturalist assistant state program coordinator. In this position, she manages and oversees the state’s chapters and volunteers and works with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to coordinate the two agencies’ roles in the program. Meuth is an avid environmentalist and educator, and with her help, leadership and hard work, the Texas Master Naturalist Program has become the largest volunteer program for AgriLife Extension.
- Volunteerism Team Award — Texas 4-H Ambassador Volunteer Team. The team members are Billy Zanolini; Julie Gardner, Ph.D., healthy lifestyles specialist; program specialists Dottie Goebel, Kelley Ranly, David Smith, Larry Perez and Angela McCorkle, all in Brazos County; and Derrick Bruton, in Dallas County.
With a vast range of projects being offered through the Texas 4-H program, volunteers are needed to help communicate the importance of the project areas, educate the public and demonstrate what youth can do and learn through those project areas. Over the past 22 years, Texas 4-H has created nine youth volunteer ambassador groups empowered to serve as advocates for their project area(s) and inform others about the 4-H program. These youth volunteers work hard to deliver their message statewide to both youth and adult audiences. In addition to serving as spokespeople for the project/program area, these youth provide tremendous support to the county agents, county volunteers and state-level stakeholders in various capacities.
- Diversity Individual Award — Lilian Mezquida, family and community health agent in Cameron County. Mezquida exemplifies a servant-leader, always stepping forward to assist with duties that others would expect to be compensated for. Throughout her career, she has provided programming in both English and Spanish to meet the needs of her communities. In addition to her regular work responsibilities, Mezquida has provided Spanish translations of multiple state-level publications. Her skills were utilized extensively during AgriLife Extension’s initial COVID response, and since 2020, she has volunteered 139 hours translating publications for the agency. Her work has allowed AgriLife Extension to better serve the diverse population of Texas.
- Diversity Team Award — Agrobiotics Challenge Team. Team members are Derrick Bruton, 4-H and youth development program specialist, Dallas County; Tamra McGaughy, 4-H and youth development county agent, Grayson County; Kate Marshall, 4-H and youth development county agent, Tarrant County; Colleen Carpenter, 4-H program coordinator, Denton County; Natalie Cervantes, 4-H and youth development program specialist, Uvalde; and Justin Saenz, urban youth development county agent, Montgomery County.
The Texas 4-H Agrobotics Challenge began at the Texas 4-H Roundup in the summer of 2015 as an invitational contest. The purpose was to fuse kids’ knowledge and robotics skills and apply them to agricultural concepts. Agrobotics uses robots and computer programming skills to solve agriculture-based challenges. The Agrobotics Challenge targeted a team of three to six 4-H members who were actively engaged in learning about robotics using the Lego NXT or EV3 Mindstorms Kits. There are two grade divisions: intermediate, sixth to eighth grade, and senior, ninth to 12th grade. The intent of this concept was to ensure teams were well-versed in how to construct robot designs and understood basic computer programming concepts. Since 2015, Texas 4-H has seen a 66% increase in participation in the Robotics Project, from 1,365 to 2,271 members. In addition, the number of teams participating in the Agrobotics Challenges has increased each year from 24 to 168 teams.
- Texas Sheep and Goat Expo Team. Members include agriculture and natural resources county agents Josh Blanek, Tom Green County; Travis Bell, Concho County; Lisa Brown, Menard County; Morgan Runyan, Coke County; Michael Palmer, Coleman County; Chad Coburn, Howard County; Tom Guthrie, Mills County; Chase McPhaul, Reagan County; Brad Roeder, Gillespie County; Marty Vahlenkamp, Runnels County; Heath Lusty, Lampasas County; Karl Winge, Callahan County; Robert Pritz, agriculture and natural resources regional program leader, San Angelo; Reid Redden, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at San Angelo director and sheep and goat specialist; Shawn Ramsey, Ph.D., professor and assistant department head in the Department of Animal Science; Jake Thorne, sheep and goat program specialist, San Angelo; Kerri Michalewicz, district office manager, San Angelo; and Myra Marsh, administrative associate, San Angelo.
The Texas Sheep and Goat Expo has established itself as the premier sheep and goat educational program in Texas and across the nation. It is a unique educational event designed to meet the specific needs of a very complex sheep and goat industry. Sheep, goats, mohair and the associated industries are major agricultural enterprises in Texas. Texas leads the nation in lamb and wool production and is internationally famous for its wool and mohair. Texas is also the leading state in goat production, with approximately 1.4 million head. This annual two-day event updates and educates producers on the latest industry trends and overall best management practices through a variety of educational methods, including concurrent sessions, demonstrations and hands-on activities. The Texas Sheep and Goat Expo Team members have gone above and beyond to assist both new and existing producers in expanding their knowledge of this very diverse industry.
- Home Grown Series Team. Team members include Paul Winski, horticulture county agent; Shannon Dietz, agriculture and natural resources agent; Brandi Keller, horticulture agent; and Susan Hubert, administrative assistant, all of Harris County.
The Home Grown Series originated directly from the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This opportunity challenged the team to stay relevant in the community. Their flexibility has allowed them to design a unique collection that has become a valuable educational resource. It connects participants with their environment, giving them the tools to better understand ag literacy and horticulture for health, savings and nutrition. The series complements outreach as team members incorporate in-person events and continue to build credibility for AgriLife Extension.
- Generation Next: Our Turn to Ranch Online Team. Team members include Megan Clayton, Ph.D., range specialist and professor in the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management; Annette Cayard, program coordinator, Corpus Christi; Amanda Krause, Parker Creek Ranch; Tiffany Lashmet, J.D., agricultural law specialist, Department of Agricultural Economics, Amarillo; and Jason Johnson, Ph.D., economist, Department of Agricultural Economics, Stephenville.
Generation Next: Our Turn to Ranch is an instructor-led, 12-week agricultural business online course designed to provide a well-rounded educational opportunity to new landowners or those who have inherited multigenerational family properties. As they return to the ranch or take over management of the property, Generation Next provides them with a comprehensive set of tools needed to succeed. Expert-recorded lectures are provided through the collaborative effort of many multidisciplinary professionals. Weekly activities allow students to apply the lessons to their situation, building to create a personalized agricultural business plan by the end of the course.
- Soil Testing Team, whose members include Ryan Collett, Stiles Farm Foundation farm manager, Thrall; Michael Kuitu, program specialist; Jake Mowrer, Ph.D., soil nutrient and water management specialist and associate professor; John Pitt, program specialist; Jeffery Waskom, Extension assistant; and Tony Provin, Ph.D., soil chemist and professor, all in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Bryan-College Station.
Utilizing the tool of soil testing, this team has had profound economic and environmental impacts on the lives of numerous Texans. Promoting and expanding the use of soil testing through the Texas Watershed Stewards Program, applied field research, agriculture and urban soil testing programs, and educational programs to and through Master Gardeners, county agents, industry and governmental agencies, this group has had a significant impact on water quality. At the same time, they have identified plant-limiting factors, encouraging credits for existing nutrients and educating against products promoted by unscrupulous players in the agricultural and urban marketplaces. Collectively, this team is credited with an economic impact of over $759 million over the past five years.
Ideal Team Player Award
- Sonja Stueart-Davis, Ph.D., family and community health agent, Harris County. For more than 13 years with AgriLife Extension, Stueart-Davis has been an ideal team player and worked tirelessly with families to improve their quality of and outlook on life. Regarding chronic disease management, healthy lifestyle choices, childcare provider training and early childhood literacy, Stueart-Davis will go to great lengths to assemble a highly qualified team to make the greatest impact. Agencies know they can count on her to be inclusive, innovative and professional in program implementation.
- Emerging Issues Individual Award — Matthew March, agriculture and natural resources agent, Polk County. March has been employed for four years with AgriLife Extension, and he truly personifies the agency’s mission, which is to provide quality, relevant outreach and continuing education programs and service to the county’s residents. Since Day 1, he has actively engaged with residents and local organizations, hosting educational programs, field trips and site visits and generating an impressive amount of enthusiasm with his vast knowledge of Texas’s ecosystem and natural resources.
- Emerging Issues Team Award — The Disaster Assessment and Recovery, or DAR, COVID Team. Team members are Curtis Preston, District 2, Muleshoe; Curtis Martin, District 6, Fort Stockton; Jeff Fant, District 7, San Angelo; Jennifer Reid, District 5, Overton; Will Stevens of Houston, Matthew Holloway of Conroe and Asa Jillson of College Station, all in District 9; Linda Wasserman, District 11, Corpus Christi; Richard Griffin, Carrizo Springs, and Matthew Rodriguez, Weslaco, both in District 12; Bryan Davis, District 10, Sequin; Troy Luepke, District 10, Boerne; Marshall Mohr, District 11, Brenham; and Rachel Bauer, District 9, Bastrop.
In 2020, the newly formed AgriLife Extension Disaster Assessment and Recovery, DAR, unit expected to deploy to hurricanes, floods and other weather-related disasters. No one foresaw a response to a pandemic that would span more than two years. DAR was activated on April 6, 2020, to support operations, logistics and other missions related to the state’s response to COVID-19. They only demobilized on July 1, 2022. On multiple occasions, DAR agents were called upon to deliver test kits, vaccines, life-saving therapeutic drugs and ventilators to hospitals and clinics overflowing with COVID-19 patients needing immediate treatment. These DAR agents helped to build the foundation and establish AgriLife Extension’s value in emergency management response and recovery on the state level, solidifying its presence as an agency on the State Emergency Management Council.
Distinguished Service Awards
- Distinguished Career, County Agent Award
— Shane McLellan, Ph.D., agriculture and natural resources county agent in McLennan County. McLellan has been with AgriLife Extension for 24 years. His career began in 1998 when he served 18 months as the assistant county agent for agriculture in Hill County. He transferred to the agriculture and natural resources agent position in Freestone County in 2000, where he spent seven years. Then, from December 2007 until the present, McLellan has served as the county agent in McLennan County. He has offered 123 row crop programs during that period, attended by 8,459 people managing 1.5 million acres of land. Also, the urban growth has homeowners visiting the office frequently, and he has provided 61 major programs with almost 4,000 attendees, who estimated the economic impact of his education to them at about $1 million. He is one of Texas’ most recognized agriculture and natural resources agents.
— Rogelio Mercado, agriculture and natural resources county agent in Jim Wells County. Mercado began his career as an assistant agent in Kleberg and Kenedy counties and moved to Jim Wells County shortly after that. He has continued to serve AgriLife Extension as an agent for 29 years. As the incoming state president for the Texas County Agricultural Agents Association and with a distinguished portfolio of successful programs in Jim Wells County, across South Texas and reaching into Mexico, Mercado has truly had a distinguished career. He has organized 25 annual ranch clinics, led a Beef 706 multicounty program, developed Virtual Beef Cattle Marketing Seminars, provided leadership for emerging issues with fever ticks and related plant and animal pest outbreaks, has a strong result demonstration program, and leads effective crops and livestock programs with a regional draw.
- Distinguished Career, Extension Specialist Award — Juan Anciso, Ph.D., professor and vegetable specialist in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, Hidalgo County. Anciso has served AgriLife Extension for 33 years — as an integrated pest management agent for 13 years and as a professor and vegetable specialist for the past 20 years. Anciso’s contributions to the vegetable industry in South Texas and across the state and nation are immeasurable but obvious, especially to growers and industry leaders such as H-E-B. While he is a part of $8 million in grants to support applied research and education, his lasting legacy will be a grateful industry that has benefited from his hard work and commitment to the industry when they were in need, whether it be through zebra chip or food safety issues at the produce shed or in enhancing the sustainability and methods of the retail side of the vegetable business.
- Distinguished Career, Middle Management Award — Ron Gill, Ph.D., beef cattle specialist and associate department head and AgriLife Extension program leader, Department of Animal Science, Bryan-College Station. During Gill’s 38-year career of distinguished service to AgriLife Extension, he served as a specialist, administrator, supervisor and mentor. In addition, he has been the consummate public servant to the agency’s clientele, ranging from 4-H youth to lifelong stewards of land and livestock. Kathy Simmons, DVM, chief veterinarian with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said, “The name Ron Gill is synonymous with service to the U.S. beef cattle industry.” Jim McAdams, former manager of Spade Ranches, stated, “Dr. Gill epitomizes the best of what all of us hoped AgriLife Extension would do for farmers and ranchers.”
- Distinguished Career, Support Staff Award — Sylvia Falcon, administrative associate in District 11, Corpus Christi. Falcon is a cornerstone at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi. By serving 16 employees for over 40 years, including specialists, associate director, department head and other staff, she facilitated work that added value to the agency beyond measure. A lot of change has occurred over 40 years, and Falcon has adapted with ease. She always takes a genuine interest in the needs of anyone she encounters. She is authentic and humble. If you ask her, she will attribute her loyalty to AgriLife Extension to the dedicated, hard-working people she has worked with who exhibit integrity, honesty, responsiveness and tireless work for our clientele.
- Distinguished Career, Administrator Award — Stephen Green, Ph.D., program director for the Family and Community Health Unit, Bryan-College Station. The Family and Community Health unit is a nondepartmentalized academic unit that addresses one of the agency’s key priorities: improving the health of all Texans. Under Green’s leadership over the past five years, faculty and staff have delivered over 6,500 community‐based presentations reaching 650,000 participants; conducted over 400 county agent trainings; obtained over $40 million in grants and contracts; generated more than $4.8 million in fee-based revenue; offered over 200 online courses that have generated 2.5 million course completions; and positively impacted the overall health of hundreds of thousands of Texans through innovative, evidence-based programs.
Photos of award winners will be available online at https://tx.ag/SuperiorService2023 on Jan. 12.