By Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
From an early age she knew she was meant to be in agriculture. In fact, she was born to do it. Bertha Venegas grew up as the second oldest of five children born to Jose and Berta (Flores) Telles. They ranched and raised cattle in Eagle Pass, Texas. While their house was in a Colonia community in Eagle Pass, all she wanted to do was be on her family’s land outside of town taking care of cattle, horses, pigs and her 4-H show sheep. When she and her siblings were given a chore list, she always picked the ones where she could be outside -- feeding livestock, watering fields, fixing fences, working cattle, and other ranch work.
In Her Genes
Studying soil and plants on their land fueled Bertha’s curiosity for natural resources even more. She watched and learned how natural things like droughts and flood affected land and livestock, as well as man-made things like irrigating crops and moving cattle to different pastures. As a child on the ranch she got a lot of dirt and mud on her jeans, but interest in soil and natural resources was truly in her genes.
“My mother grew up in LaMadrid, Coahuila, Mexico, on a vegetable farm, about two and a half hours south of Eagle Pass,” Venegas explains. “They grew avocados, pecans, corn, lemons, peaches and many other fruits and vegetables. Growing up, I would spend almost every summer visiting LaMadrid and watched and learned from family members as they grew and harvested crops. At the time, refrigeration of foods was scarce. We would harvest the food we ate daily so our food was incredibly fresh. If we needed something we didn’t have, then we would trade our food for what we needed. It was awesome.
“The town is surrounded by mountains and they had a canal system in the backyard of every home that was fed by rainwater draining into the town from the mountains,” she continues. “The canal system connected every single home, and this was their source of fresh water.
“I drew a lot of inspiration from this farm and was amazed at how much technical knowledge my family had gained from just experience especially one of my aunts,” she emphasizes. “She knew the type of insects that affected each plant, when the soils were too wet or too dry, or when they needed nutrients and when was the best time to harvest. She did not have a degree in agronomy other than the hands-on, ‘live and learn’ knowledge. Very inspirational to say the least.”
Four Life Changing Letters
Venegas remembers going with her mother to the local county Extension office, now known as the Texas AgriLife Extension, because they offered an educational program to teach housewives how to cook different types of food and the many ways to utilize fruits and vegetables in different dishes. At the same time, they would use USDA products that were donated to families, especially those in need. As a young girl learning to read, those four big letters “U-S-D-A” printed on the food caught her eye, and her interest.
“I wanted to know who was ‘USDA’ and how is it that they were feeding our community?” she says. “I remember thinking ‘Those must be some really good people.’ And I knew right then ‘This is what I want to do!'"
At the time, she did not know USDA was the second largest department in the United States with many agencies. 4-H, via the Extension office, served as an outlet for her love for livestock and also leadership, as she served as the 4-H club president through her high school years. She grew up raising show lambs and competed in area livestock shows as well as some of the major shows such as Houston and San Antonio. That hard work with her lambs helped provide financing for college with the majority of her college scholarships coming from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
She attended Southwest Texas State University, now known as Texas State University, and was involved in many campus activities, including being a member of the Rodeo Club. While at SWTSU, she was the President of the Future Farmers of America (FFA), a member of Delta Tau Alpha, an Agriculture Honor Society, and served on the Dean’s Advisory Board. She was selected as Outstanding Member of the FFA and Outstanding Agriculture Student for the Agriculture Department the same year she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture.
A job with one of the agencies of the USDA was still a career goal for her. The summer before her senior year, she learned about an internship opportunity with one of those agencies, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). She applied, but it was one of the years when there was a hiring freeze after they announced the positions, so she never got hired.
Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture, Venegas had job interviews lined up with the Texas Railroad Commission’s Reclamation Division, the Texas Department of Agriculture and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in their Cotton Division. And while gaining employment was her number one goal as a fresh college grad, she couldn’t stop thinking about the USDA’s SCS where she could work one-on-one with producers in lots of different locations and address all natural resources, not just one or two. And, she wanted to be able to work directly with farmers and ranchers one-on-one, on their property. As she says, “That’s where the real action is – on the ground, where food is grown!
“I wanted to work for the Soil Conservation Service so much that I looked back through my internship application and decided to call the HR coordinator listed on the job announcement,” Venegas remembers. “So, I called Rodney Hyatt at their state office and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me from my application last summer….’ And he did! He helped point me in the direction to apply for some entry level positions with the agency.”
Hit the Ground Running
Through her tenacious pursuit of employment by the SCS, Venegas joined the agency in June 1988 as a Soil Conservation Technician, right in her hometown of Eagle Pass.
“I lucked out that my first “boss” (District Conservationist) Herb Senne used to hold the position of State Range Specialist, so I learned a lot about plants and grazing lands,” Venegas says. “My first visit with a landowner was an experimental planting of Old World Bluestem on the DIP Company Ranch, owned by the Rhodes family. I was born and raised in Eagle Pass so I knew the Rhodes family very well, and in fact, I still keep in touch with them. I wrote an article about the experiment, and it was published in the local newspaper.”
The job turned out to be everything she hoped it would be and she loved working with farmers and ranchers.
“I enjoyed learning from them and being able to provide them with technical knowledge related to conservation of natural resources,” she reflects. “At the beginning of my career, I learned more from them than they learned from me, but I knew programs and how to best utilize those programs in what they were trying to accomplish.
After her soil conservationist stint in Eagle Pass and San Antonio, Venegas was promoted to District Conservationist in Johnson City. In 1997 she become an NRCS Resource Conservation and Development Coordinator based in San Antonio serving an eight-county area. In 2011 she accepted the positions as State Outreach Specialist, which she currently serves based out of the Boerne Field Office.
“As an RC&D Coordinator I was able to work with community leaders to develop goals to help communities be sustainable and assist with their basic needs,” she says of the position. “These goals sometimes stretched beyond natural resources conservation, so I enjoyed the challenge.”
Some of her RC&D board’s goals also included health, education, welfare, and infrastructure issues. She worked closely with other USDA agencies, as well as foundations and other funding sources, to get projects off the ground and completed.
“My first DC always told me to learn from everyone around me,” she remembers. “He would say pick up the phone (that was back then) and call the range conservationist, soil scientist, agronomist, etc. They have a wealth of knowledge and they will help you.”
That wise advice stuck with her through the years. She now laughs and says, “I realized a few years ago that now I am that person that employees call upon! I enjoy working with employees and helping them in my role as outreach specialist.”
She is so passionate about helping other employees reach their full potential, she has served as Acting National Hispanic Emphasis Program Manager (NHEPM) and helped develop and served as lead instructor for the course “Working Effectively with Hispanic Producers,” providing training to employees nationwide. She traveled to different locations across the nation for 10 years, teaching it to over 350 employees in groups of 30 or so, twice a year.
Now that Venegas can devote all of her time as outreach specialist, she is able to focus on the historically underserved farmers and ranchers, minority and beginning farmers, and try to help them get their farm or ranch started utilizing USDA programs.
“It’s quite a challenge already as a farmer or rancher when your family has been in the business for years so starting anew is even a greater challenge,” she says from experience. “Being able to develop partnerships with universities and nonprofits and working with urban farmers is very rewarding as well.
As the Beginning Farmer representative for NRCS, Venegas is getting so many calls right now from people that are worried they aren’t going to have food.
“The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has started this,” she expresses. “People want to know how to become a farmer. But they have no experience. They have no clue that they are going to have to work 24 hours a day and they might still lose their crop in an instant. Like we saw happen in February of 2021.
“Pictures and movies make it sound like a fun and rewarding job, and it can be, but the reality of it is that it can be very hard and there is a lot that goes into it, physically and financially,” she stresses.
She has developed information to help point them in the right direction for resources and puts them in contact with their local NRCS field office. She takes the extra step of contacting the field office staff in advance and giving them a heads up about these potential new farmers and ranchers that might be calling them.
Being bilingual has extended her ability to spread conservation information to Spanish speaking agricultural operators.
“People feel more comfortable being able to talk to me in Spanish if that is their first language,” Venegas says. “They want information and the latest technology, and they feel more confident telling me what they really need when they know I can communicate with them in Spanish. They are hesitant to ask the government for things when they don’t understand all that we can offer them. It helps form a bond with them right away and establish trust.”
Conservation Goes to Town
Venegas has spent her career coming up with something new and different, recommendations, and ideas to make the agency better and to help people around her. She has a knack for developing creative solutions to identified problems. Such is the case with NRCS Texas’ urban conservation projects that have made a national impact when duplicated in other states.
“As Outreach Specialist, I was expressing to our state conservationist that there was a lot of need for us to work with urban communities,” she explains. “Our state leadership staff has always talked about wanting urban people wanting to know what we did because their tax dollars are helping our agency accomplish so much across the Texas landscape. So, I said, ‘Let’s get some programs going in urban areas so they can understand how they benefit from our services, even if they aren’t a typical farmer or rancher.’”
So, she developed a plan to get just that accomplished. In 2017 she created the Texas NRCS Urban Conservation Project (TURCP), in an effort to challenge community organizations, educational institutions and Indian tribes, to focus on local grassroots conservation efforts for the betterment of people and the environment. The goal of this grant project is to address hunger in urban areas where local, fresh, and nutritious foods are not available addressing these food deserts on multiple levels.
Then in 2018 she developed and managed the Texas Urban and Rural Conservation Project and Project G.R.E.E.N. (Growing Roots for Education, Environment and Nutrition), an acronym she came up with herself. This grant project is directed at schools and have four components–community gardens, pollinator habitat, high tunnels and rainwater harvesting systems. Rural areas were included as part of the project to continue the assistance to community organizations not only in urban areas but also rural.
In 2020 alone, Venegas oversaw more than $175,000 in grants provided through the Texas Urban and Rural Conservation Projects (TURCP) and $112,000 through the Project Growing Roots for Education, Environment, and Nutrition (G.R.E.E.N.) to organizations, schools and institutions of higher education for 31 projects.
Venegas was recently recognized as the 2021 recipient of The National NRCS Individual Civil Rights Award, which recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to NRCS in civil rights program delivery. Not surprisingly, this is actually the second time (1997) for her to receive this prestigious honor. And her other honors include: Outstanding RC&D Coordinator for the Southwest Region of RC&D Councils, Visionary and Leadership Awards from the National Organization of Professional Hispanic NRCS Employees (NOPHNRCSE) and a Service Award from the Latinos in Ag organization.
Throughout her 32-and-a-half-year career with the agency, she has served on the outreach planning teams for numerous organizations including the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the Texas-Mexico Border Coalition, the Minority Landowner Conference and the MAFO Farmworker Partnership. Her outreach program, for which she develops an annual plan, encompasses the highest number of farmers and ranchers in the categories of Hispanic, African American, Women, Veterans and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.
Her accomplishments over the last several years have been above and beyond her normal job role as evidenced in the collateral positions she currently holds: FPAC Beginning Farmer and Rancher (BFR) Coordinator for Texas, Advisor to the Texas Civil Rights Advisory Committee, and the Texas Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Coordinator .
Being named the National NRCS Civil Rights individual is an honor she doesn’t take lightly, but it’s also one she generously shares.
“It is not a one-person team when it comes to civil rights and outreach,” she says. “Texas is a big state! Being able to develop strong goals to roll out in the state and having the support of staff and leadership is very important. I want to thank the Texas NRCS field staff for being committed to civil rights and outreach. And, I want to thank the Texas NRCS leadership for supporting both the staff and myself and helping me go far and beyond my goals for the state.”
And, as always, she remains passionate about exceptional customer service to our historically underserved farmers, ranchers, and community leaders in the state.
The USDA mission statement is “provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.” Even though that mission statement covers 16 agencies under the USDA umbrella, ironically enough Venegas has held positions in NRCS that have accomplished each aspect of this statement.
USDA made a big impact on Venegas as a child. In return, she has spent her lifetime making a big impact on USDA.