Retiring Clemson specialist will leave communications gap

Tom Lollis came from the Old School, no not Clemson, where he worked for about 30 years. Tom came from the old school of ag journalists who lived their job and made it a career-long mission to spread the good news about agriculture.

Tom retired from Clemson at the end of May. He worked most of his career, maybe all of it, at the Edisto Research and Extension Center in Blackville, S.C. Like so many non-high tech, non-revenue producing positions at Land-Grant colleges, his position won’t be replaced.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an agricultural college editors workshop in Atlanta, Ga. The organization at one time was AAACE — American Association of Agricultural College Editors. At one time I was a Regional Director of that organization.

The name was later shortened to ACE — Agricultural College Editors. Now, they have taken agriculture out entirely. I didn’t even bother to remember what the letters ACE stand for now.

I gave the attendees, and there were plenty of them, mostly from the Southeast, a simple agriculture test. Questions like, “what has been deemed the biggest threat to cotton production in the Southeast since the boll weevil?” There were 10 similar questions.

I didn’t grade the test, but a show of hands indicated most in the audience got fewer than half the questions right. Tom Lollis wasn’t at the meeting, but I’m betting he would have been 10 for 10.

I think Tom would agree he’s no smarter than most of the folks at that meeting. His advantage comes from being where the proverbial rubber meets the road, or in his case the seed hits soil.

Being a long way from campus has its ups and downs. On the downside, few people back on campus know what you do and even fewer care. The upside is being in a position to help farmers make critical management decisions.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are a communications specialist, like Tom, or a soybean, cotton or peanut specialist. When you are in a remote outpost, whether it be Blackville, S.C., Plymouth, N.C. or Holland, Va., the reality is you have heightened value to agriculture, but a negative value to your employing university.

Rightly or wrongly Land-Grant institutions across America face a huge challenge of staying relevant, and in effect, staying in business. Revenues from variety testing and other time and labor-consuming basics of agricultural production simply don’t pay as well as high-tech, cutting edge gnome mapping and such.

I’m a big proponent of technology — I think it is the future of agriculture. However, there needs to be some balance between what will be needed 20 years from now and what is needed now for farmers to stay in business.

The folks at the ACE meeting asked me what I would recommend they do to help promote agriculture. My first response was to be able to score 10 out of 10 on my test. Most laughed, but I think they got the message — be better informed about agriculture. All seemed to agree with that suggestion.

Second, know who are the gatekeepers of agricultural information. I knew three people in the room, those via my years at Auburn University. Most took that as it was meant, not as an inflated self evaluation of my professional worth, rather as constructive criticism — and agreed.

Third, urge your administrators to relocate you to a regional research and Extension center where you will have a much better chance of accomplishing goals one and two. Nobody seemed much interested in moving to Blackville, or Plymouth or Holland.

I’ll miss Tom Lollis. When I started this job, he was one of the first to call and offer his help. He helped often and professionally. He will leave a big footprint in South Carolina agriculture.

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