After working for almost 40 years with Washington State University Extension, Tim Smith can say with sincerity that he’s never met a grower he didn’t like—and he’s met a lot of them.
Smith has organized countless orchard tours and major horticultural meetings to keep growers informed about the latest developments in tree fruit production. Last year alone, he gave more than 60 talks, and he’s probably given close to 2,000 in his career so far.
But even more remarkable is the applied research he has done—mostly in growers’ orchards—that has returned billions of dollars to the tree fruit industry (read “Growers benefit from Smith’s work”).
Horticulturist Jon Kutch of Wenatchee said Smith shows the same kind of commitment in his leisure activities. He and Smith played guitar in a country-rock band called Buckhorn for about ten years, and the band members used to call Smith the taskmaster. “When we were practicing, he would keep us on point,” Kutch said.
But he had his humorous side, too. When they played the song “Marie Laveau,” about a voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, he took it upon himself to do the bloodcurdling screams.
“He was very good,” said Kutch. “He’s a special guy. He’s a hard worker and terribly intelligent—I’m thinking he’s just got to be a couple of points away from genius. He’s a world-renowned specialist on fire blight and pears, but he’s just a regular guy who’s always there to help.”
Smith knew from an early age that he wanted to be an extension agent. Though he excelled academically in college, he had no desire to work as an academic.
“I particularly didn’t want to be a researcher because it didn’t thrill me as much as working in the field,” he said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in botany from Eastern Oregon University and a master’s degree, magna cum laude, in plant pathology from WSU. In 1975, he was appointed WSU extension agent for Grant and Adams counties, where he worked with potato and vegetable seed growers. When a tree-fruit extension position opened up in Wenatchee in 1982, Smith jumped at the opportunity.
“It was the perfect job for me,” he said. “I could not be happier. I think it’s the best extension job in the whole United States because of the amount of work that’s there to be done. I like to be busy.”
Smith started work in Wenatchee the same day as fellow extension agent Paul Tvergyak. They made a good team, with Smith tackling primarily pest and disease problems while Tvergyak focused more on horticulture and postharvest issues.
In 1994, Tvergyak left the university to work in the industry. Not long after, the university eliminated that position, leaving Smith as the sole tree fruit extension agent for north central Washington.
Smith said he was repeatedly tempted to move into private industry, lured by better pay and career opportunities, but couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else.
The fact that there was more work than he could do was one of the attractions. It meant that he could choose from a whole list of important issues that needed to be worked on—areas where little or no research was being done in the region.
Besides being an international expert on fire blight, he’s an authority on replant disease, cherry fruit fly control, weed management, pear horticulture, and much more.
“He’s as well rounded as you want someone in that position to be,” said Karen Lewis, Washington State University extension specialist based in Ephrata. “He’s unique—he has so many specializations he’s good at. I can hardly think of a thing where he doesn’t go to the top of the queue. I work with geniuses, top-notch, successful people, and Tim is still the outlier.”
Smith was among the first WSU tree fruit educators to have a website more than 20 years ago and today has 25 web pages that he keeps updated.
Over the years, as diminishing state support has eroded WSU’s budget, the university has urged extension educators to become more “entrepreneurial” and find new sources of funding. Smith estimates he now spends 40 to 50 percent of his time on research to generate income from grants. He writes around 17 research reports each year.
He tests new commercial products for controlling pests, weeds, and diseases, keeping in mind that growers expect him to take a neutral position.
“I’m interested in products that work or don’t, and how to use them, and when to use them, and how safe they are,” he said. “I’ve always told the companies that if their product doesn’t work, I’m going to tell everybody. On the other hand, if their product works, I’ll tell everybody.”
The university’s changing priorities and changing expectations have been the most difficult part of the job, Smith said, as few people understand what extension people do.
He’s dismayed that extension specialists in the future will need to have a discipline, which he thinks will hamper their ability to respond to growers’ wide-ranging needs.
“If you identify with your discipline rather than identifying with the people you’re working for, it’s a problem,” he said.
Smith, 65, will officially retire from the university on August 1 this year, which will allow WSU to start recruiting his successor. However, he’s been given emeritus status and plans to continue his extension work for at least two to three years—if his health allows—supported by Chelan County and grant funding.
Eleven years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but it hasn’t stopped Smith from doing his job, and he feels fortunate that it’s been progressing slowly and is not life threatening.
“I would say the last eleven years of my career have been the most productive,” he reflected. “I say I have Parkinson’s, but it doesn’t have me.”
What would he do differently in his career?
“I would have loved to learn Spanish,” he said, “but I haven’t let it stop me from trying to be involved in the Hispanic community. I’ve made an effort to find and inform everyone.
“And I would like to have had more personal contact with every grower,” he added. “I still enjoy going out to the orchard and helping everybody. There’re lots of things that need to be done.” •