Award-winning livestock science mentor Jean Smith helped others thrive
In her nearly 30-year career as an extension educator in animal science, Jean Smith taught and mentored youth, agricultural producers, and Washington State University Extension colleagues, encouraging good management practices and animals of merit.
Newly honored with the Mid-Columbia Agriculture Hall of Fame‘s 2022 Agricultural Advisor Award, Smith has been retired for more than a decade. The people she trained, as well as the knowledge she shared, continue to benefit Northwest agriculture.
“A good leader is someone who supports the people they work with so they can shine,” said Smith, who was recognized at a Jan. 19 ceremony in Pasco, Wash. Founded in 2000, the Hall of Fame honors people and businesses that make a significant impact to regional agriculture. The advisor award showcases outstanding leaders in education, guidance, and community involvement.
“Jean didn’t look for accolades, she looked for the rest of us at WSU to do well,” said Sarah Maki Smith, Extension animal sciences specialist for Grant and Adams counties. “Her legacy still comes today, not just in the programs she made for producers, but in her mentorship and development of faculty coming on board. She looked to make an impact on an industry she loved.”
A lifelong resident of eastern Washington, Jean Smith grew up on a dryland farm, helping her family raise wheat and cattle before earning her degree in animal sciences at WSU.
“My experience at WSU really gave me my focus in life,” she said. “It was very different when I went through college. There were only a handful of women studying animal science, and the vast majority were pre-vet.”
‘What do you think you’re going to do?’ her professor asked. Veterinary school wasn’t in her plans, but animal science was Smith’s passion, and she wanted to put her interest in performance data and education to work.
“When I decide to do something, that’s what I do,” Smith said. After stints as a data analyst with the Washington Beef Improvement Federation and at a private bull test facility, she became the first woman livestock extension agent to work with producers in the inland Northwest.
Hired in 1980 as extension educator for Benton and Franklin Counties, she led one of the largest animal science outreach efforts in the state, serving more than 1,000 youth and 300 volunteer leaders annually.
A passionate volunteer and mentor, she coached WSU Extension 4-H youth programs, helping teens become leaders in science and agriculture. In 4-H’s Horse Bowl program, she led youth teams to national competitions in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Those were experiences that they and I will always remember,” Smith said.
Her advisees became farmers and business owners, veterinarians, vocational instructors, commodity leaders, and Extension agents. Smith was also an enthusiastic mentor for fellow Extension educators, helping new faculty members learn the ropes.
Sarah Maki Smith was one of those young people. At age 9, she met Jean Smith while showing her lamb at the Washington Junior Lamb Carcass Show. Inspired to pursue animal science, Maki Smith graduated from WSU and became an Extension educator, following in the older Smith’s footsteps.
“Jean took me under her wing and demonstrated what Extension and outreach look like,” Maki Smith said. “As somebody new, in my mid-20s, it was important to have someone who was successful who wanted me to be successful.”
Working with operations large and small, Smith developed educational programs, materials, and curricula used across the state and nationwide. She helped launch an annual Tri-Cities Farm Fair, and grew animal-of-merit programs that recognized youth exhibitors raising cattle, sheep, and swine with outstanding characteristics. Ongoing today, merit programs help youth become leaders in agriculture, while helping breeders develop safer, higher quality livestock and food.
“It taught kids that they weren’t just there to show and sell their animals—they’re actually producing our food,” Smith said. “Helping influence young people was one of the things I felt best about in my career.”