By Alvin Benn
||Gaines Smith is interim director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System based at Auburn University.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System has had many leaders since its inception a century ago, but it would be hard to find anyone who can match the popularity of Gaines Smith.
He’s been in the system since LBJ was in the White House and is generally known as the "go to guy" when someone or something is needed to keep the organization moving forward.
"Somebody once described me as the system’s permanent interim director," the 64-year-old Autauga County native said, breaking into a big smile during an interview at his Auburn University office.
Smith currently is serving his second term as "interim" director of a system that has 729 employees and an annual budget of more than $60 million.
The director of the Extension System has a huge responsibility because it involves supervision of agricultural experts in each of Alabama’s 67 counties.
Smith served as interim director from 1994 to 1997 when Steve Jones was hired as full-time leader of the system. When Jones left four years later, Smith was picked once again as interim director.
The Extension System is an informal outreach arm of land grant universities throughout the country. Alabama has three—the most in the U.S.—with Auburn and Alabama A&M University in Huntsville working as partners.
The two also have close ties with Tuskegee University, another land grant institution that also has an extension system. It is located only 20 miles south of Auburn.
What makes Alabama’s system unique is its mission—providing educational opportunities to farmers, children and homemakers from Madison to Mobile counties.
That’s a tall order for anyone, but Smith has twice accepted the challenge and the responsibility without flinching. In short, he loves what he does.
Many in important state positions are aware of his accomplishments and they are quick to praise him for what he has done as director of one of Alabama’s most important public services.
"Gaines could have played it safe, accepted the status quo and coasted to retirement," Tommy Paulk, president of the Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Inc., said. "But, his integrity and his courage took him on a different, more progressive course and Alabama is a better place because of it. All of us owe Gaines Smith our thanks."
Doug Rigney, assistant commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, described Smith as a "stabilizing force" for the Extension System "during some difficult times.
"He has handled so many situations with grace over the years," Rigney said. "I truly believe that he has been the right person at the right time to help the Extension System move forward in its efforts to provide support and services for the agriculture industry in Alabama."
Smith’s quick acceptance of the system’s top job reflects his upbringing in a family that traces its roots in Alabama back to its origins.
This is a special year for the Smith family because it marks the 175th anniversary of Elizabeth Over-street’s purchase of land from the federal government.
The year was 1832 and Alabama had been a state for only 13 years. His ancestor was able to come up with $80 to buy 40 acres.
The Smith farm, located in the Evergreen community of Autauga County, is much larger today. Gaines and his brother, Merrill, are co-owners. "We were a diversified farm when I was growing up," said Smith. "We had hogs, peanuts, cotton, corn, watermelons, sorghum and other products."
Watermelons helped Smith earn enough money to help finance his education at Auburn University. He can’t resist saying that the watermelons provided the "seed" money for his future. Times were different back then, especially the cost factor. Smith will never forget his first quarter tuition at Auburn. It was only $35.
Taking care of the hogs was one of his primary duties on the family farm. In the spring and fall, he was allowed to leave high school early to get back to the Overstreet-Smith farm which, today, is in a family trust supervised by the Smith brothers.
When he picked up his bachelor’s degree from Auburn, Gaines began his career at the Lower Coast Plains Research Center in Wilcox County.
One of Smith’s jobs at the AU Agricultural Experiment Station was to test various kinds of feed and additives, especially the protein levels.
In 1965, he moved to Jefferson County where he served as assistant county agent. He worked primarily with the 4-H livestock program there. In the early 1970s, he helped with a hog operation that was the largest in the state.
After that, Smith moved on to Selma which provided the next rung up on his long ladder of success. Instead of working with farmers in just one county, he became district manager of cooperatives over a 22-county area. His job was to supervise county agents in each one.
"My district stretched all the way down to Mobile and Baldwin counties and then all the way up to Pickens County," he said. "I wore out several vehicles getting around that area."
During that period, soybeans provided a comfortable living for farmers who had just the right soil to grow them. Then, the bottom fell out in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Droughts and interest rates that topped 20 percent pretty much spelled the end of the soy-bean industry in Alabama.
Japan had been one of America’s favorite soybean customers, but when other countries began producing the same crop at lower prices, it proved to be a bitter pill for U.S. farmers.
Now, with biofuels a hot topic in Washington, Smith sees a possible rebound for soybeans in the United States.
Smith basically serves two masters—the presidents of Auburn and Alabama A&M—and it’s up to him to make sure they are pleased with the System’s progress.
As an interim director in any business or industry, one misstep could prove costly. Smith has proved that he has what it takes to not only step in and take over when needed, but to run the Extension System with as much skill as anyone in the country.
With his many years of service within the System, Smith could easily retire and live comfortably without working anywhere, but he’s not one to grab a fishing pole and head for the nearest pond.
"The Extension System is a great organization and I love the people within it," he said. "I enjoy driving around the state and seeing them."
Smith has been involved in significant changes within the Extension System and one that he’s most proud of involves introduction of a regional concept.
"At one time we had enough staff to handle what needed to be handled," he said. "Over time, the funding stream changed and we didn’t have enough money to go around."
Smith said the regional approach allows the Extension System to focus "more clearly on livestock, crops or family programs."
"We cover a large geographic region, but we’ve been given approval to specialize in specific areas," he said. "I think that has been a big advantage for us."
Monetary woes can be a major hurdle for any business and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System is no different from tire or microchip industries.
"Our sources of revenue have changed over the years," Smith said. "Federal funding once provided most of our finances, but that is no longer the case. We still get federal funds, but most of our money comes from the Legislature."
The state allocates about 60 percent of the Extension System’s funding, Smith said with other sources of revenue coming from the Defense Department and the Department of Energy.
He estimated that about $10-12 million of the system’s funding comes from sources other than Alabama taxpayers.
"We could see over time how our costs were going up and our revenue was going down and knew we had to find a way to generate revenue from other sources," he said. "I think we’ve done a pretty good job in finding what we needed."
As director of a sprawling operation that covers the state, Smith finds himself on the road quite a bit—often going up to Huntsville to meet with Alabama A&M officials on matters of importance to the Extension System.
Smith rotates meetings between Huntsville and Auburn and has been holding more conference call sessions using television hookups. He also tries to meet at the halfway point in Shelby County where a new 4-H facility is being built.
One new wrinkle is the use of regional meetings with agents at 33 different locations around the state. Instead of driving to Auburn or Huntsville, the agents can sit at a table and exchange notes on TV hookups about everything from droughts to price controls.
Agricultural education has been the cornerstone of Smith’s life and he never stops learning or helping others learn about the latest trends in agriculture.
His education doctorate involved a dissertation on the relationship between technical subject matter as it pertains to performance ratings.
"The theory I tested was whether someone’s subject matter expertise had a direct relationship to job performance and the answer was no," he said. "In my opinion, people skills are far more important."
As far as Smith is concerned, it’s more important to interact with others than sitting behind a desk and working on theories.
"We can tell people what’s in swine manure and how to be a manager, but it’s harder to teach people skills," he said.
Gaines Smith has shown through the years that he can examine swine manure and read profit and loss statements with the best in the country.
That’s why he’s the "go to guy" in the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.