May 4, 2021Ag unlocked unknown worlds for sweet potato specialist Tara Smith
Tara Smith describes her career in agriculture as serendipitous.
Director of the Central Region, Smith has been an integral part of the LSU AgCenter since she was hired as the state sweet potato specialist in 2006.
Growing up in Alexandria, Smith wasn’t involved in 4-H, and she thought little about farming. During her undergraduate and graduate school experiences, mentors and professors saw Smith’s knack for science and encouraged her to pursue a degree in entomology and, later, study sweet potatoes.
“It’s basically life unfolding and trying to make the best decisions along the way,” Smith said.
As a science-minded student, Smith considered becoming a pharmacist or a doctor. At the University of Louisiana Monroe, she majored in biology and focused on applying to veterinary school. She considered other options, including teaching at the college level. While pursuing a master’s degree at Louisiana Tech in biology, Smith applied to veterinary school and was not accepted. Then she completed her master’s degree and decided to look into a doctorate program in entomology, the study of insects, a discipline that had piqued her interest.
Initially interested in some aspect of urban entomology and studying mosquitoes, termites or honeybees, she contacted LSU. While on a campus tour, she connected with Abner Hammond, an entomology professor, now retired. Quickly, he asked her to come study with him and work on a grant focusing on managing soil insects that affect sweet potatoes.
Impressed by Hammond’s passion, she thought about it for a few days and accepted his offer.
While a graduate student, Smith worked often on research plots at the AgCenter’s Sweet Potato and Dean Lee research stations and on sweet potato farms across the state. Working directly with sweet potato producers, other extension faculty and attending grower meetings, Smith was introduced to the extension education model.
“I enjoyed the research, but I loved the outreach and contact with the industry, and I knew at that point that I wanted to be an extension professional,” Smith said.
After completing her Ph.D. in 2006, Smith became the state sweet potato extension specialist. Two years later she became the research coordinator at the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase.
In 2013, Smith became director of the AgCenter Northeast Region, and in 2018 she transitioned to the Central Region and is stationed in her hometown of Alexandria. As a regional director, Smith provides support and guidance for faculty and staff in the region and focuses on ways to keep AgCenter programs relevant while maintaining the core missions of research and extension.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, AgCenter specialists and agents have been forced to develop online programming, including producing virtual field days and classes.
“I never dreamed that doing extension work would be more virtual than not,” she said. “Our agents and faculty, instead of complaining, embraced that challenge.”
The virtual programs produced in 2020 were extremely popular and effective and will likely be continued, even after the pandemic, she said.
Outside of her career with the AgCenter, Smith focuses on family. She and her husband, Joey, have two children, a 10-year-old daughter, Zoe, and an 8-year-old son, Parker. The whole family enjoys the outdoors, regularly fishing, hunting and camping.
Smith recognizes the role that mentors and supervisors have played in her career, especially those who saw in her an aptitude for agriculture and leadership. As a regional director, she plans to lift up others, too.
“I’ve always had such a tremendous support network, whether that be my family growing up, my family now, or along the way with professors and mentors through my academic career and professionally,” Smith said. “Having that support and encouragement and the guidance, that makes all the difference in the world. I hope I can do that for people.”
– Kyle Peveto is an assistant communications specialist and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
Photo at top: Tara Smith, director of the LSU AgCenter Central Region, center, demonstrates how plant tissue cultures are developed into transplants, or slips, for planting in field research trial plots to a group of high school students participating in a Grambling State University Summer High Ability Program. They are in a greenhouse at the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, Louisiana. Photo: Karol Osborne