If you are a wildlife biologist visiting a farm and you’re riding in the pickup with the landowner or producer and approach a gate, do you:
- A: Remain in the pickup and wait for the farmer to get out and open the gate
- B: Get out of the pickup and open the gate
- C: Panic, because you’re not sure how to open the gate, much less who should open it.
For students who are majoring in an agriculture-related field but never grew up on a farm, answers to simple “farm etiquette” questions like the gate issue, can be a genuine quandary. But through the Stiles Farm Foundation Internship Program in Thrall, Texas, future ag professionals are getting a dose of farm and ranch life in hopes of being better prepared to serve in the agricultural industry.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm or ranch,” says AnMarie Ulery, a Wildlife and Fishery Science graduate from Texas A&M University. But she says the internship is allowing agriculturists like her, to “get used to” farm life.
While interviewing a prospective intern, farm manager Ryan Collett says the applicant said, “It seems that ag producers speak in a secret language about their livelihood, and even though I have a degree and plenty of book knowledge, I won’t be successful in this industry if I don’t understand the language and the day to day struggle of producers in Texas.”
Men and women, who are either recent graduates or in their last semester in an agricultural or natural resources field, may apply. Along with a stipend, interns are provided housing and utilities in a farmhouse located near the Stiles Foundation Farm, a 2,716-acre farm located in eastern Williamson County.
“The interns come here because they have a passion for that field, a degree in it, but they didn’t grow up on a farm or a ranch, so they didn’t get that basic experience one gets growing up,” explains Dr. John Tomecek, assistant professor and Extension wildlife specialist, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “They get that here — living on a working farm and ranch, all those day-to-day experiences someone would need so that they can go on into their chosen field and make a career in a profession they really care about with the experience that is expected of them.”
Ulery confesses she didn’t know the “gate rule” until she started her internship at Stiles. But the program is much more than farm and ranch etiquette.
Since arriving in June, she says she learned how to use a circular saw, ax, drive a manual transmission and start a fire, plus all of the “wildlife management activities.” She says the best part of her six-month internship is the hands-on education.
“I’m literally learning something new every day,” says Ulery. “It’s exciting being able to tell my family and friends, ‘Yeah, I know how to do that.’”
Taylor Burrell, an animal science major at Tarleton State University, has a three-month internship at the Stiles Farm. While she grew up with her grandparents having 100 acres geared towards wildlife, she doesn’t have any experience on a working farm or ranch.
“I’m so glad I found this farm. The internship is meant for kids who didn’t get to grow up on a farm or maybe had the opportunity but didn’t have the money or the acreage they needed,” says Burrell. “Not everybody is lucky and gets to grow up on a farm or ranch, but they want to go into ag.”
This summer, Burrell is checking cows and fences and feeding hay, along with helping with crop plots. She says she’s learned how to drive a stick-shift and a tractor, repair fences, feed cattle and how to find fleahoppers on cotton.
“I never knew that was something you need to look for,” she says of the cotton. “I’m looking at corn and other plots to see if what was planted is good enough or if it needs to be replanted — practical farm things.” Other crops produced at the farm include, grain sorghum, wheat and sesame. Stiles Farm also operates a cow-calf operation, along with about 1,000 acres of Public Hunting Lands for dove and ducks.
Burrell hopes to work in cattle production when she graduates. “I’m looking at doing cattle nutrition, so I needed more hands-on experience with cows. We got to work the main herd last week which was definitely an eye-opener — a first time for me.”
While at the farm, the interns are under the tutelage of Tomecek and Collett. Burrell, says practical advice Collett has emphasized as they work together is, “speed kills in this industry.”
“When I’m on the tractor and he’s sitting with me, he says he’d rather me be more comfortable with driving slower, even though it might take me a little bit longer, than going too fast and hitting something or doing something wrong or running over something you shouldn’t. Going faster isn’t always better.”
Ulery says Tomecek, in addition to identifying everything from wildlife to plants every time they are working, has reinforced how important it is to develop her professional skills while emphasizing how great is the field of agriculture and the importance of networking.
“He’s a very good mentor and he knows a wide variety of wildlife.” Ulery says. “It’s nice to glean all of that information.”
“It’s fun for us to see the things they find fascinating or the things they are so excited to do,” says Tomecek. “As I mentioned earlier, it’s you’re first day on the job and you’re my wildlife intern. We stop at a gate and it’s a wire gap. You look at it and say, ‘Why did you build a fence across a perfectly good road?’ I say, ‘No. No. It’s a kind of gate.’
“The excitement and fascination to open a wire gap — the ranch kid goes, ‘Oh, a wire gap.’ But the intern is so interested, so passionate about those little experiences. Every new thing is just fascinating for them. That’s an uplifting experience.”
The Stiles Farm Foundation was donated by the Stiles Family in 1961 to what is now the Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System. The farm is managed by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service as a living demonstration of research-based, profitable, and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices for the Texas Blackland Prairies.