Thursday, June 13, 2024

Arizona Ag Leader Reflects On His Career

• By Julie Murphree,
Arizona Farm Bureau •

Editor’s note: Here is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Silvertooth — recently retired director for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension System and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences associate dean for economic development. He also served as the Arizona cotton specialist for many years.

Dr. Jeffrey Silvertooth, University of Arizona
Dr. Jeffrey Silvertooth

The Murphree family has known Dr. Jeffrey Silvertooth since he first came to Arizona in 1987 and has always appreciated his contribution to our state’s farming. Dad, Pat Murphree, recalls meeting him at the University of Arizona’s Safford farm after flying with Maricopa Ag Center Resident Director Jim Parks via Dad’s plane, a Citabria.

“Dr. Silvertooth makes science interesting, practical and exciting,” Murphree says. “He works well with Arizona farmers and others, including farmers from around the globe.” Silvertooth eventually went up in Dad’s plane for some “fantastic aerial gymnastics” (aerobatics) and the big picture view of Arizona agriculture and says he remembers it well.
In this article, we celebrate Silvertooth’s contribution to the advancement of practical application science to Arizona agriculture.

Arizona Agriculture: I’m sure I speak for many when I say, we’ll miss you as director for the UA Cooperative Extension System and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences associate dean for economic development. While we all come to those “retirement” decisions in our lives, I thought yours was quite thoughtful, and you had personally made a specific timeframe commitment. Please explain.

Dr. Silvertooth: Thank you for the kind comment. Yes, I have given this decision a lot of thought. As a student of leadership, I have come to believe it is important to have turnover in leadership positions such as the UA Cooperative Extension System director at an appropriate frequency. The proper timeframe is a matter of debate, but I believe for positions such as the CES director the proper window is approximately seven to 10 years.

Many people in positions like this will stay longer, and sometimes that is appropriate.

However, quite often they stay for their own personal motivations. I was nearing the end of my 10th year as the CES director, and I could have stayed on, but I believe it is best for the organization to make the change and it is good for me to do so as well.

I believe in a peaceful transition of power, and I am working to demonstrate that in this move and process.

Arizona Agriculture: I noted Dean Shane C. Burgess said in the announcement letter that the CES director role is quite challenging? How did you make it work?

Dr. Silvertooth: I will certainly not disagree with that. The CES director is a challenging position for a lot of reasons but primarily due to the fact the CES is a large, very diverse and distributed organization with 500 to 700 faculty and staff working in every county of the state during my tenure.

Personnel are based in county offices, on our experiment station locations, on many American Indian reservations and on the UA campus. The CES has more than 5,000 volunteers working with us from communities all over the state and approximately 5,000 young people enrolled in Extension programs, such as 4-H. The CES receives funding from federal, state and county governments, and there are community-based advisory boards in every county.

Besides the external groups to work with, the CES director must also navigate the internal UA networks at the college, division and university administrative levels, and many of these UA entities do not understand the CES at all. There is a constant flow of personnel, financial, political and tactical issues confronting the CES administration, and the director is responsible.

Collectively, there is a lot going on with the CES. I am obviously biased, but I believe the CES director must deal with a greater level of diversity and complexity of issues and challenges than most other university administrators ever see. That is part of what makes it a very interesting job as well as challenging. It has certainly provided plenty of both to me the past 10 years.

Arizona Agriculture: The good thing is that the UA and Arizona agriculture is not completely losing you. You’re returning to a full-time professorship in the Department of Environmental Science. Tell us your “why” on this.

Dr. Silvertooth: I am an agronomist and soil scientist, and I am grateful to be able to return the field, literally and figuratively. I have been working professionally as an agronomist for 45 years, which brought me to Arizona in the first place in 1987 as an Extension agronomist — cotton, a.k.a. cotton specialist.

It is only natural that I make this transition consistent with that professional foundation. Things have changed a lot in the Arizona ag community over the past 35 years, and I continue to seek positive ways to contribute at this stage in my career.

Arizona Agriculture: In any leadership role, key elements of leadership must be recognized and applied. But what to you is the most critical aspect(s) of being a successful leader, especially on behalf of higher education and Extension?

Dr. Silvertooth: Leadership positions have two fundamental functions, leadership and management. It is essential to do both simultaneously with a focus on the mission. Many people attracted to leadership positions are interested in the leadership aspects with an emphasis on the visions and philosophical points for the organization.

However, the management of resources, e.g. human, financial and physical plant resources, represents a huge part of the job and requires a lot of hard work. I believe leadership positions place a significant demand on the individual. It comes down to the leader’s character and commitment. Fundamentally, what is needed in a leader is the same we should expect from all professionals: honesty, common sense and a strong work ethic.

Arizona Agriculture: I like your phrase, “bringing the university to the people and science to bear on practical problems.” Talk more about this.

Dr. Silvertooth: Thank you, I believe that is a succinct and simple way to define the Cooperative Extension mission. That statement comes from my readings of Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century and his essays on the “General Diffusion of Knowledge.”

The premise is that the United States should have public institutions of higher learning, and an essential part of the mission should be to bring the university to the people and bring science to bear on practical problems. This became a central element in the formation of land-grant institutions, such as the UA. It is still important today in our society, and it is at the core of the CES mission.

Arizona Agriculture: If you can leave a note to the next person who steps into your position, what would you say?

Dr. Silvertooth: One important thing is to listen to people from all aspects of the organization and from the communities we work with and serve, which I did diligently. However, one must also understand that not everyone will agree with you, nor will you agree with all of them.

There will be a plethora of opinions that are often offered quite vigorously, and many of them do not agree. Nevertheless, one needs to listen openly and honestly, then decide and move on.

I believe the CES director needs to have a firm understanding and belief in the mission of the organization. I would say the same to an incumbent CES director as I have stated repeatedly to myself every day and to everyone in the CES for the past 10 years. Do your job, be a professional, be a good team player, and when faced with difficult decisions do the right thing.

Doing the right thing means being a good steward of all resources in your realm of responsibility, being fair and objective, and not acquiescing to loud or powerful factions.

That all sounds easy but when faced with difficult cases and dealing with many critics who know very little of the facts on the case, it does take commitment and courage to maintain focus and do what you know is best. In my view, it is essential to stay focused on the CES mission.

There are many forces and elements working on the CES that can distract it away for the core mission of the organization.

Arizona Agriculture: Here’s the crystal ball question: What’s the future for Extension? What should stakeholders expect?

Dr. Silvertooth: The UA Cooperative Extension System is certainly facing challenges today, but I am confident it will prevail. The CES has experienced challenges for 107 years since it was formally created by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The CES is a partnership with the public and that relationship is central to the CES future.

In the short term, the CES is dealing with very difficult budget limitations. It is subject to the costs or “taxes” imposed by the university in the new budgeting system that is heavily oriented toward revenues derived from tuition and student credit hours.

The CES does not teach resident courses or offer degrees, so it has no access to the revenues in this university budget system, only the costs. Due to increasing internal costs and inflation, the CES has lost approximately $2.7 million out of the $16.1 million allocated budget.

This has resulted in a reduction of CES faculty by about 20%. That pattern will continue unless additional permanent funding is secured. The future of the CES in Arizona is going to be dependent upon and connected to the public and the support of stakeholders and the Arizona Legislature.

Arizona Agriculture: Arizona agriculture faces tough issues: water, labor, tough commodity markets and more. Give your 30,000-foot view on some of these topics.
Dr. Silvertooth: Yes, these are each among the most challenging issues facing the Arizona ag industry today. In my view, water is by far the most serious issue.

It is the lifeblood of agriculture in the desert. Based on Colorado River conditions and the declining levels in Lake Mead, due principally to more than 20 years of drought, we are likely facing the imposition of Tier 1 reductions in the allocation of Colorado River water into Arizona in 2022. Normally, it’s 2.8 million acre-feet.

Based on the Drought Contingency Plan, under Tier 1 conditions, Arizona will be required to reduce allocations by a total of 512,000 acre-feet, primarily affecting the Central Arizona Project. Tier 1 will reduce the CAP allocation by about 30%, and most of that reduction will come directly from the CAP ag water allocations in central Arizona. That is a significant challenge for agricultural systems in central Arizona.

Water limitations exist in other parts of the state as well, particularly with groundwater resources in areas such as the Upper Gila River Valley, southeast and northwest Arizona, etc. We are good stewards of our water resources in Arizona agriculture, but we have no choice but to further tighten our irrigation management.

Arizona Agriculture: Even though you’re not originally from Arizona, we consider you a “native son.” Why have you had such a solid commitment to Arizona agriculture over the years?

Dr. Silvertooth: That is quite a nice compliment, I appreciate it a great deal. I come from agricultural communities in Kansas and Oklahoma, where I lived and worked before coming to Arizona. These might be different regions, but there is a commonality among agriculture communities that I like. I am drawn to that type of working world and the people, and I enjoying being a contributing part of it.

In my first year and crop season in Arizona, I was immediately impressed by the beauty of Arizona landscapes and how hard and unforgiving this country is. Despite that, folks in the Arizona ag community are out on the land producing quite proficiently.

I am continually impressed by that and have a lot of respect for the people in Arizona agriculture who are doing the work of producing, surviving, and serving as good stewards of land and water resources.

I am impressed and encouraged by the many ways that they/we have adapted and changed during the 3 ½ decades I have been here. I enjoy and appreciate being part of that.

Julie Murphree is the Arizona Farm Bureau outreach director.

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