SEBRING—When he was deployed to Afghanistan, Army communications specialist James McWhorter said the landscape near his base wasn’t what he expected.
“Right behind our wall was this huge cornfield with tall, pretty stalks of corn,” he recalled. The farmers could be seen nearby tending their crop, and the servicemen would converse with them through interpreters.
McWhorter and his friends decided to buy some fresh corn from their neighbors. Because neither group could cross into the other’s territory, the soldiers threw their money over the fence, and the farmers followed suit with the corn.
“After we bought the corn, we started wondering what else we could buy,” McWhorter remembered. A fellow servicemen who was a “country boy” like him suggested buying a rooster. So the men negotiated the deal, and before long a rooster came flying over the fence.
“Every morning you could hear the rooster crowing behind the mechanic shop,” McWhorter grinned.
On June 16, The Highlands County IFAS extension team became complete with the hiring of McWhorter as livestock agent.
The Alabama native joins the team straight from Auburn University, where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in ag economics. And though he’s only 30 years old, McWhorter’s combination of education, agriculture experience and military background brings a lot to the table.
McWhorter worked on his grandfather’s farm in Alabama throughout his childhood. While the family moved to Venice, Fla. when McWhorter was only six, he still got plenty of farming practice during the summers when he was sent north to help his grand-dad out.
“He was a small farmer,” said McWhorter of his grandfather, Lorenza McWhorter, who grew sugarcane and row crops and also had beef cattle and dairy cows. “I remember milking cows, spreading fertilizer, helping him plant peas and sugar and corn,” he recalled. There were also two ponds of catfish that needed to be fed.
Right out of high school, McWhorter joined the U.S. Army as a communications specialist.
He had always wanted to serve in the Army as his father and grandfather had.
His father suggested he become a paratrooper because it was “fun.” McWhorter followed his advice, but got sent to Korea where “they don’t jump out of planes,” he remarked.
His work there involved monitoring satellite equipment, but McWhorter was anxious to get out in the field for more active work. He eventually landed orders to work as a communications paratrooper supporting the Green Berets in South America.
“It was definitely an experience,” said McWhorter, who explained his team provided communications support to the special forces training the Colombian military to fight narco-terrorists. He did 42 parachute jumps during that stint.
When his six-year commitment was up, McWhorter decided to study at Auburn University, looking to get back into rural life and back into ag.
While he was working on his bachelor’s and later his master’s degree in ag economics, he discovered extension. McWhorter decided, “this is the way I can help farmers.”
He liked the idea of being a go-to person to answer questions and do research for producers in the field. Right after graduation, he applied to and accepted the Highlands County position.
Of working in extension in Highlands County, McWhorter said he’s excited because of the large-scale operations found in Florida’s Heartland. “My impact would be a lot greater here,” he said.
So far on the job, McWhorter has been researching the native Florida forages, getting to know the cattlemen and working with producers to help solve some of their grazing problems.
He and Highlands County 4-H agent Katie Whidden have also opened up the extension office’s barn to 4-H members who need a place to house cattle or swine.
“We have 48 stalls, so we can have quite a bit of animals, and it’s a great place for 4-H kids to have them,” said McWhorter.
“I think we have a good team here,” said McWhorter of the extension staff, “I really would like the producers to know our extension office is somewhere they can come if they need help or have questions.”
“Highlands County extension is ready to serve,” he added.