Back in 1993 when Lyle Zoeller started out as a county agent for what is now the Texas AgriLife Extension, he wasn’t sure what he’d end up doing for a living, but he knew it would have something to do with agriculture. Armed with two agriculture degrees from Tarleton State University, he took a job as an assistant agent with the Jim Wells County Extension Office in South Texas.
He loved it.
“It was kind of an ideal situation. They gave me a four-wheel drive truck and a phone and turned me loose. I traveled a good bit, met a lot of different people. I loved it, loved South Texas, the people, the culture — everything about it,” he said recently at his office in Belton, where he has been the Bell County Extension coordinator for agriculture and natural resources for four years.
Zoeller said the toughest time for him as an agent was when he left Jim Wells County.
“When you’re getting started you usually have to leave where you start out in order to move to a bigger county,” he said. “Many agents face that challenge.”
Zoeller moved on to Frio County and then to Coryell County. For 14 years he was the agriculture agent in Coryell County, where he and his wife Donna, a Gatesville school teacher, raised their two children, and where they still live.
He’s now the Agriculture Extension Agent for Bell County, one county east of Coryell and partly located in the rich soils of the Blackland Prairie, which has a strong mix of row crop and livestock production. According to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, in 2015 Bell County farmers planted 58,100 acres of corn, 34,200 acres of winter wheat and 13,200 acres of sorghum, along with 6,100 acres of oats and 3,100 acres of cotton. A majority of the county’s 36,000 cows live west of Interstate Highway 35, where the soils and terrain are rockier and sandier than the Blacklands to the east.
Interstate 35 splits Bell County, putting it in the middle of the San Antonio-to-Dallas growth corridor. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the county is growing at an 8 percent clip, attracting people who are looking for a few acres in the country to call their own — and an agricultural tax evaluation.
Zoeller believes these new small-acreage landowners hold the key to the county’s environmental and agricultural future. He said many of the smaller operations are close to town and tend to be overgrazed, leading to excessive runoff that carries valuable topsoil, water-polluting manure and chemicals into local waterways.
“We need to focus on the small landowners because they’re going to have a significant impact on our rangelands and cropland in the future,” Zoeller said.
That’s why earlier this year he formed a committee of a dozen or so landowners, most of them relative newcomers, to figure out what they don’t know and what they need to know about managing their acres. Zoeller said they’re interested in a wide variety of areas, from goats, Dorper sheep and white-tailed deer to bees, grapes and organic produce.
“Sometimes they’re very naïve about grazing management,” Zoeller said. “I tell them what I’ve been told and learned to be true — it takes money to make money, and it takes grass to make grass.”
But first, some of them have to learn the difference between grass and weeds.
“They might look out over their land and see a lot of green and think that’s good, but it might all be knee-high broom weed,” Zoeller said without a hint of judgment.
Bell County is also home to the Bell County Youth Fair, which is bigger than some state fairs and involves some 2,000 4-H students showing 6,000 or so projects over the course of one week in February.
Zoeller can relate to the 4-H kids. He grew up on a small ranch in Boerne, showing cattle and competing in livestock judging. He likes to see young people involved with agriculture and animals, and that includes his own two children, who are studying agriculture at Oklahoma State University.
In 2014, two years after taking the Bell County job, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association honored him with its annual Outstanding County Agriculture Agent award for his work with livestock producers over the years. In effect, the TSCRA was telling Zoeller that he made the right choice 23 years ago when he became an Extension agent.
“Helping people is what it’s all about,” Zoeller said. “I figured that out early on, right out of college. You don’t make lots of money. You’re not going to get wealthy. But you can do a lot of good.”