The Alabama Farmers Federation honored two Auburn University and Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) specialists and professors this fall for work tangibly benefitting the state’s $70 billion agriculture industry.
Dr. Ron Smith received the Duncan Award for Excellence in Production Agriculture & Forestry Extension, while Dr. Brenda Ortiz earned the Rittenour Award for Excellence in Production Agriculture & Forestry Research. The honorees, who were nominated by farmers, receive $5,000 and $10,000, respectively.
The Federation’s Carla Hornady thanked Smith and Ortiz for their continued commitment to solving real-world agricultural problems.
“Dr. Smith has dedicated his career to helping cotton farmers thrive. His work has spanned major issues, and he has always made himself available to farmers,” said Hornady, the Federation’s Cotton, Soybean and Wheat & Feed Grain Divisions director. “The trust and respect farmers have shown Dr. Ortiz reflects the positive impact her research and Extension work has had on farms across the state. It’s a pleasure to recognize these pioneers.”
Smith has been on the cutting edge of cotton entomology for 48 years, helping generations of farmers identify, understand and manage pests in Alabama’s estimated 15,000 cotton fields. Smith helped keep cotton farmers in business through implementing the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and encouraging adoption of genetically modified cotton.
“I am honored,” Smith said. “This is the first time I’ve gotten an award from the people I’ve tried to help. That makes it most meaningful.”
Smith was raised on a small cotton farm near Moulton in Lawrence County. He holds a trio of degrees from AU — a B.S. in agriculture science, M.S. in agronomy and Ph.D. in entomology — and was hired as Alabama Extension entomologist in 1972. Though he officially retired in 2003, Smith continues to serve farmers as a contract Extension entomologist.
Smith’s research has helped farmers battle an evolving series of tiny cotton pests that cause big problems. Takeaways focused on understanding insect movement and migrations and the importance of timely spray application, thus preventing yield loss. Recent research has helped create a thrips prediction model; improve management practices for the stink bug complex, including the new invasive brown marmorated species; and determine how new genetic traits best fit into the Alabama cotton production system.
“When I started, I was helping growers,” he said. “Over 48 years, I became friends with those growers. Now I’m helping friends manage their cotton. What more rewarding job could there be?”
Ortiz is a professor and Extension specialist in AU’s Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences Department. She leads AU’s Precision Agriculture Research and Extension program focused on evaluation, demonstration and training on the use of digital technologies in agriculture. Current efforts concentrate on evaluating and demonstrating technologies such as sensors, controls and telematics for precision irrigation and precision planting.
Ortiz also leads a nationally funded Natural Resources Conservation Service project aimed at increasing adoption of best irrigation practices among Alabama farmers.
A Colombia native, 47-year-old Ortiz credits her work ethic, perseverance and determination to her parents and many mentors.
“This award is really recognition of my program and what we do as a team,” Ortiz said, referring to the students and post-graduate students on her research and Extension team. “I want to motivate my team to learn applications of digital agriculture and show them the importance of the commitment that’s necessary to do good work.”
Ortiz said there is a lot of value in work done on campus and in the classroom — but believes working on the farm in real situations increases the opportunities for adoption of science-based solutions is best.
“When I came to the U.S. in 2004, I had worked with farmers, scientists, engineers and leaders in the sugar cane industry in Colombia,” she said. “When I came here, I had to prove myself again. I have been at Auburn University for 13 years, and the feeling of being recognized by the farmers and knowing they value what I do is more important than anything.”
The awards are named in honor of the Federation’s first president Charles Rittenour and Luther Duncan, who helped organize the farm organization in 1921 as director of ACES. He later served as president of Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University.
The Alabama Farmers Federation is the state’s largest farm organization with 350,000 members and is a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation.