Written by: Kay Ledbetter
With crops in the ground 365 days a year in more than 150 counties in Texas, Dr. Travis Miller has worn through a lot of shoe leather during his 38 years with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Now he’s giving those shoes a break.
Miller may have carried the title of interim associate director for state operations with the AgriLife Extension most recently, but he is much better known for the 20-plus years spent as the state small grains and oilseeds specialist for the agency.
Miller joined AgriLife Extension in 1979 as an area agronomist based in Weslaco. His responsibilities included field trials and educational programming, primarily in cotton, corn, sorghum and soybeans.
“The Rio Grande Valley was a really great place to learn,” he said. “There are crops in the ground all year long. It’s like being in a candy store if you are an agronomist; you pick up on a lot of issues in multiple crops.”
But not all crops.
In 1982, when Miller moved to College Station to take the position as AgriLife Extension state specialist for small grains and oilseeds, he had never been in a wheat field.
Raised in the Corpus Christi area, he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural mechanization from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and master’s and doctoral degrees in soil science from Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
“But I had the basic fundamentals of agronomy, and we had some good folks around to learn from,” Miller said. “There’s nothing like shoe leather too, getting out there and being amongst it.”
And that’s what he did, attending as many as 20 field days and another 30-40 producer meetings across the state every year.
“When I took over the job, my predecessor had largely worked in rice, and I saw there was a huge void in wheat and other winter cereals,” he said. “We had a lot of researchers and faculty working in small grains, but a much lesser AgriLife Extension effort, so I decided I needed to do something about that.”
Previously soybeans just hadn’t worked, but “we figured out how to use the early maturing, early planted soybeans effectively. And while it is still not like Iowa, people know how to grow soybeans and do it well now.”
As for wheat, one of the biggest successes was getting uniform variety trials put out at various locations across the state, Miller said. Before his organized effort, the trials were limited to county agents getting bags of seed and planting them.
“We worked on getting data we could use to help producers make decisions based on these uniform trials,” he said.
Another crisis faced during the late 1990s and early 2000s was a lot of drought. Serving with the Texas Drought Preparedness Council, Miller said he spent a lot of time trying to inform people, particularly the public – the farmers already knew it was dry, what the issues were related to drought and the water supply and how it affected them.
Miller said his goal all those years was to get out among producers to know what was important to them and to create programs that made a difference to them – anything from variety trials to fungicide and weed control to soil fertility.
Miller said recruiting and hiring some very bright, capable young scientists was a significant achievement during his time as an associate head, which he left in June 2014 to serve in his current position the last three years.
Looking forward, he said no doubt these scientists and others will have to deal with the greatest issue in agriculture – water.
“You can’t help but believe we are going to see a transition toward dryland and much more efficient cropping systems that use less water and are more tolerant to stress,” he said. “I can’t think of any more critical issue than our water supply and the careful stewardship of the supply we do have.”
Miller won’t get completely away from helping address those challenges. He said with he and his wife in reasonably good health, they are ready to do some traveling and spend some time with grandkids. But he will hold an emeritus title and still have an office on campus in the soil and crop sciences department, so he will stay connected.