With a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics in 1973, Smith might have moved back to Tahoka in northwest Texas, but one of his professors threw him another curve.

“Carl Schaeffer, an ag economics professor, suggested a project on a marketing analysis of grapefruit in the Rio Grande Valley,” Smith said. “He asked me to work on it, though at the time, I didn’t know if a grapefruit grew on a tree, a vine or what. So that was a great learning experience to work on that project. And from that, I got my master’s degree in 1975.”

It was time to get a job, Smith recounted. With two degrees in agricultural economics, he accepted a job with the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento, Calif. But that would not be his path either. Extension officials had a job fair on the Texas A&M campus before he left for California, and with his father in failing health, Smith decided to check it out.

“I was offered a job as assistant county agent in Seminole, Gaines County, just 80 miles from my parents, so I backed out of the job in California,” he said.

His first role in the agency that was new to him gave him lasting respect for the work of a county agent – the position he still believes is the toughest in AgriLife Extension.

“You have to be a counselor, a minister, a youth director and a subject matter specialist in all the academic disciplines we deal with,” Smith said of the people who work for the agency in all of the Texas counties. “So while it is an exciting job, it is extremely challenging.”

Challenges meant the job was never boring, but Smith’s path would go in a different direction when he thought of advancing up the ladder after five years as a county agent, by then in Terry County.

Smith applied for law school at Texas Tech University and was accepted in the early 1980s. He visited with his supervisor, Bill Gunter, to tell him he would be going to law school unless the agency had a program for him to pursue. Gunter described a program by then-Extension director John Hutchinson to encourage people to earn a doctoral degree in Extension administration. Smith was half convinced to do it, but this was not the degree he wanted.

“I convinced them that a doctorate in agricultural economics was broader and would cover the items I would need to know as an administrator,” Smith recalled. “And they agreed.”

Smith became an Extension grain marketing specialist with a knack for working on farm policy, which he had fine-tuned while getting his doctorate. That parlayed into his working on policy pertaining to agricultural cooperatives — both positions with what is now the Agriculture and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M.

Throughout 1980s and 90s, Smith ventured down the policy path of his career. He recalled the 1980s U.S. real estate collapse, which eventually led to an overhaul of federal farm policy. The policy center worked with the U.S. Congress as a “third party analytical base” to help legislators determine the best options to positively impact the most people, he said.

“I never left the policy arena. It was the common denominator throughout my professional career,” Smith said. “And those were exciting times. There were no dull moments. Every day was like a new job and you didn’t get bored. I enjoyed that 20-year period very much.”

That affinity for things political would be served up in a different way when Smith became director of the agency in May, 2005.

“I had been working with all the key agriculture and natural resources congressmen from Texas and the United States, so from the political context, I knew the people,” Smith said. “Politics are politics and knowing the system can save you a lot of heartaches.”