Ron Woolley, a 47-year veteran of Texas AgriLife Extension, retired at the end of last month. He’s worked as an Extension agent since 1971, but he got his first job with Extension spraying peanuts in six Central Texas counties as a farm demonstration assistant in 1969.
Edward Schneider, Ellis County Extension agent, noted Woolley’s upcoming retirement at the Texas County Agricultural Agents Association meeting in Waco last month, also noting that 1969 was a long time ago.
“For those of you who don’t remember, gas was 32 cents a gallon in 1969,” Schneider reported. “Bread was 23 cents a loaf. A postage stamp was six cents. The minimum wage in 1969 was $1.60 an hour. A new car cost about $2,000 ... there were no computers, no cell phones. They had rotary dial phones — with party lines!”
But, he added, “Ron managed to stay relevant the whole time. He was effective the whole time. He doesn’t believe in a cookie-cutter approach to Extension. He allowed us to do what needed to be done the way it needed to be done. He allowed his agents’ personalities to come through in the counties where they worked.”
For Woolley, those two years of spraying peanuts for Extension while he was a student at Tarleton State University helped him choose his career. He grew up on a small farm in Erath County not far from Stephenville and was involved with 4-H, so he already had a working relationship with agents.
“I knew I was going to be either an ag teacher or a county agent,” he said. “The summer job helped me get involved with Extension, and I knew it was for me when I started.”
He started as an assistant agriculture agent in Hill County in 1971 and worked there for three years, followed by four years in Travis County and five years in Hopkins County. After two years as a District 6 agent in Fort Stockton, covering everything west of Big Springs to El Paso, Woolley returned home to Stephenville, where he stayed for the duration, most recently as regional program leader for three districts, which was reduced to two districts two years ago.
Here’s a stat for you: Out of Texas’ 254 counties, Ron Woolley has worked directly with producers in 118 of them.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s been quite a trip.”
When asked the inevitable question about what’s changed the most since he started out as an Extension agent, he points to the state’s huge increase in population as causing the most changes.
“We’re still very rural, but the urban influence is definitely here,” Woolley said a week before his retirement. “Small landowner education programs have become more important as more parts of the state go from rural to urban or suburban.”
Increasingly, he said, the small acreage landowners turn to Extension for help and advice on managing their land. Growth has also exacerbated water issues for agriculture, with urban areas now demanding and sometimes getting water once reserved for agriculture, especially during droughts.
“I don’t think (Extension) has diminished agriculture — we’ve just added on expectations,” he said. “We added them because of the expectations of our clientele.”
Woolley said agriculture agents now spend a considerable amount of their time talking to the public about issues centered on animal welfare, environmental impacts, food safety, GMOs, where their food comes from and how farmers grow it.
“People are interested in where their food comes from and food safety,” Woolley said. “That’s really changed over the last five years. Agents have to separate fact from fiction and provide the people with unbiased research because the connection of food to health and agriculture is a big thing.”
But some things haven’t changed. Farmers still scan the skies for signs of rain. They still battle weeds and pests, and they’re still trying to make a living wage while doing it. Because of that, Woolley believes that Extension programs and demonstrations for producers are just as important now as they were 47 years ago.
“I’ve always enjoyed my work,” Woolley said. “I enjoyed every year I worked. I never felt like I had to work, but I got to do something I really love and help people at the same time. It’s been a joy.”