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NMSU 4-H agent of the year loves diversity of his work

No two days are the same for Tom Dean, and that's what he likes about his career with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

Tom Dean, left, Socorro County Extension agent, watches as 4-H member Brandy Spears assembles the portable scales before weighing her show pigs. Dean transports the scales to the homes of 4-H members raising animals so the animals' weight can be monitored. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

"I enjoy helping people find answers," said Dean, the agriculture and 4-H agent in Socorro County. "People come to our office with issues that they are facing and we help solve their problems through our research. Because of this, I'm constantly learning and keeping up with new things.

"On the youth development side of my position as the 4-H agent, we provide opportunities for youth to build self-confidence and skills that will help them succeed in life," said the recipient of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences 2011 4-H Agent of the Year Award.

The native of Carlsbad grew up in 4-H, and served as state reporter in 1990-91 and state president in 1991-92. After graduating from NMSU in 1996 with a degree in range management, Dean spent a year as interim agent in Catron and Otero counties before pursuing a master's degree in range nutrition. Dean spent two years as an Extension agent in Brownwood, Texas, before returning to New Mexico and settling into Socorro County eight years ago.

Spending a day with Dean, it is easy to see that he loves his job.

Summer is the busy season for 4-H agents and Dean takes it in stride. June found him teaching at the New Mexico Youth Ranch Management Camp at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in northern New Mexico, helping and teaching at the 4-H Horse School in Albuquerque, and hosting the Southwest District annual contests, before heading to the State 4-H Conference in Las Cruces the second week of July.

Catching his breath midway through July, Dean is fielding phone calls on such subjects as home gardening, and planning an August workshop for cattlemen.

"Urban horticulture is huge, I get calls every day on the subject," he said. "Gardening seems to have increased with the declining economy. Last year we had quite a few people who came in wanting to learn how to start a garden. I heard comments all the time of how their parents or grandparents used to garden. I think people are seeing a value in what people used to do to sustain their livelihood."

He added that after the growing season he has visited with the gardener to see how they did. Some say they will continue gardening because they like it and got something out of it.

"Others discontinue gardening because it's too much work," he said. "But that's a benefit to agriculture because now they know what takes to raise food. They say they now appreciate where their food is coming from and the people that are supplying it."

This time of the year, Dean spends little time in the office. He hits the road daily to take a portable scales to 4-H members so they can weigh their show animals. "I prefer to go to their homes instead of having a weigh day at one location," he said. "It lets me work with each kid specifically."

At each stop he does one-on-one teaching, first by having the youth operate the scales, then by testing their math skills with such questions as: How many days until county fair on Sept. 1? How much weight has your animal gained since we last weighed it? At that daily gain, how much will it weigh at the fair?

Once they have calculated the answers, they discuss if the animal need additional feed, or is on track to be in its weight division.

At one stop he demonstrates to a rookie how to lead a goat in the show ring. He also explains the importance of nutrition and exercise so the animal will have good muscular development by fair time.

While traveling between his stops, Dean discusses the youth development program in his county.

"4-H is a voluntary program. Kids don't have to be in 4-H, they choose to be," he said of the 185 youth enrolled in Socorro County clubs. "We believe that if we can get a kid to go on a 4-H activity trip with us, we will have them hooked on 4-H for the rest of their life. Even high school kids, who have never been in 4-H will sign up once they see the program in action."

Parent involvement and developing leadership skills is a big component of the program.

"We're seeing a shift back to parent involvement," he said. "The families of the young kids we have coming in are attending meetings. I think anytime you have economic decline, family values and the values we uphold strongly in society come back because people now realize the importance of those values."

Leadership training is a big part of the youth development component of 4-H and the other programs being offered through the Cooperative Extension Service.

"Since I've been in Socorro County we had one or two youth on the state leadership team each year," he said. "I attribute that to the youth taking the challenge. I give them opportunities to succeed. They're the ones taking advantage of it. It's our job to provide the opportunities and try to build their self-confidence that they can do it. A person doesn't step up and say they can do something if they don't have someone telling them that they can do it."

Another part of the youth development program is the school enrichment program that has 1,498 participants. Dean's wife Teresa, also an Extension 4-H agent, coordinates the program through after-school programs during the school year, as well as through a summer program.

The agents also reach 4,383 youths last year through one-time contacts when presenting special interest programs. They have also conducted the Egg to Chick program in every elementary school in Socorro County. The school children watch eggs hatch in incubators that are kept in the classrooms.

Between stops at the 4-H members' homes, Dean keeps an eye on the rangeland and any cattle he may see. "We're in a serious drought. I'm afraid if and when we get rain, it may not help. Rain late in the growing season doesn't really help us get nutrients the cattle need. The cattle are eating the dried grass from last year. It's keeping them alive, but it's not providing the added protein that green grass provides, and next year there won't be adequate forage for the ranchers to stock the ranch if there is no growth on the forage."

He stops at one ranch and visits with the cattleman, who tells him if they don't get rain in the next couple of weeks, they are going to have to sell some of their cattle.

Later in the week Dean will make the 112-mile round trip to Alamo Navajo Reservation west of Socorro.

"It's a pleasure working with this community," he said. "Some of the most competitive livestock producers of 4-H show animals in the state live out there. They work really hard and pay close attention to what they are doing.

"They are especially competitive with lambs, which is a stable food source for them. They have small farm flocks, not large ranch flocks where they sell the wool. They are breeding show animals to help improve the meat quality of the animal."

Just observing Dean while he is interacting with the various people in his county, one can see why he has made the Extension service his career. "The diversity of the work ... that's what I love about it."