|New ACES Director Arrives with National Reputation in Ag Extension Work|
The new director of Alabama’s Cooperative Extension System plans to cover a lot of territory during his first few months to obtain as much input as possible from stakeholders.
A Yankee who grew up in a tiny Minnesota town and has spent half of his 60 years in sparsely populated South Dakota, Gary Lemme says size and location differences aren’t all that important.
"Extension work is basically the same throughout the country and that is to help move society forward, whether we’re dealing with rural or populated areas," Lemme said, during a recent interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News.
Lemme, who is the system’s third director since its creation in 1995, succeeds Gaines Smith, who led the Extension system before retiring.
His first day on the job was Oct. 1 and he wasn’t about to wait for the furniture truck to arrive before meeting and greeting those in his office and walking around Auburn University where the Extension system headquarters is located.
Bookcases lining the walls of his office were empty during the interview, but "Inside Ag Hill" did make an appearance. Later, his many academic certificates and awards quickly found spaces to fill.
Alabama A&M University and Auburn share Extension system responsibilities and Lemme become a fan of that partnership long before he was hired as director.
"I’ve known people in the Alabama Extension system for years," he said. "It is well-respected around the country, and for good reason, because of its many successes."
ACES, as the Extension System is known, is the primary outreach arm of the two universities and directly, or indirectly, touches nearly every Alabamian through programs it supports.
Lemme compared the two-university Extension system to a "well-oiled machine." He sees them as "two educational units coming together just like gears on a transmission that mesh together and cooperate. I find that exciting.
"I hope my skills developed over the years will be very handy," Lemme said. "I’ve been involved in Extension work for many years and believe my experiences will help here in Alabama."
Lemme is also a big supporter of farming cooperatives and, having grown up in a farming family, will learn as much as he can in the coming months about Alabama Farmers Cooperative (AFC).
"Farming cooperatives are essential to successful agricultural operations," said Lemme, who indicated he will attend AFC’s annual meeting next February.
Raised on a small farm in Kiester, MN, Lemme worked his way through college, gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy and agricultural education at South Dakota State University before obtaining a doctorate in agronomy at the University of Nebraska.
His leadership earned him a national reputation in Extension work and Alabama A&M President Andrew Hugine said Lemme’s experience is perfect for his new position.
"The background and expertise of Dr. Lemme fit well with the future directions of ACES," Hugine explained. "We look forward to his courageous and strategic leadership."
Auburn University President Jay Gogue echoed Hugine’s sentiments, saying Lemme is just the leader to take Extension to new heights while continuing the successful guidance provided by its former directors.
Lemme’s academic travels and positions of responsibility impressed those who were seeking someone to succeed Smith.
At one point in his career, Lemme was dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State University.
He’s also been a professor and coordinator of special projects at his alma mater and held important jobs at the University of Minnesota, the University of Hawaii and Michigan State University.
Lemme, who said he was encouraged by a friend from a university in Tennessee to seek the ACES position, said one of his reasons for applying for the job was the close working relationship between the Extension systems in Auburn and Huntsville.
"The unique joint system of Alabama Extension is one reason I was attracted to the position," he remarked. "Two land-grant institutions working in concert with each other through Extension can provide citizens with a vast and diverse body of knowledge."
Tuskegee University, located only 20 miles from Auburn, also has a successful Extension program and has, from time to time, pitched in to help if needed with projects spearheaded by AU and A&M.
Lemme inherited a system from Smith that includes hundreds of employees and a budget of up to $60 million. In effect, he becomes something akin to a chief executive officer of a publicly-funded educational "corporation."
Smith obviously liked what he saw in Lemme.
"I can retire knowing I am turning the reins over to a director who is committed to the Extension’s mission and goals.
"We will work closely for the next several weeks to ensure a smooth transition," said Smith, whose agricultural-related career spanned 45 years.
Lemme is familiar with the similarities and differences between Alabama and South Dakota, especially when it comes to size and scope.
While Alabama’s population is rapidly pushing toward 5,000,000 residents, South Dakota’s stands at 800,000, making it one of the smallest in the country.
Alabama is known throughout the country for its civil rights history while South Dakota is linked to Mount Rushmore as well as the Black Hills and Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
When it comes to weather differences, Lemme will probably be trading in his snow shovel for something more appropriate like a fishing boat to enjoy Lake Martin when he has a chance.
"It can get pretty hot in South Dakota, too," he said. "But the people in Alabama don’t have to scoop like we do when it snows."
Blizzards are expected in South Dakota which hampers agricultural pursuits from Thanksgiving into the following spring.
Now, there is that thing called college football and ferocious nicknames to terrorize lesser opponents. "War Eagle," "Tigers" and "Crimson Tide" are three of them in Alabama. The nickname at South Dakota State University (SDSU) is "Jackrabbits."
"I got a chance to see our game against Mississippi State when I was here earlier," said Lemme, who played high school football and cheered SDSU in a stadium holding 15,000 fans as compared to nearly 90,000 at AU’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Lemme’s wife, Theresa, is no slouch when it comes to academic excellence, either. She also has a doctorate and is a microbiologist.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.