Gallery of Stars

People’s History in Texas presents our Gallery of Stars, featuring some of the incredible individuals that have made invaluable contributions to Texas history.

Gallery of Stars Index: Bruce Auden | Susan Auler | Jennifer Bailey | Heather Ball | Michael Bauer | Brad Blanton | Sam Biscoe | Martin Burrell | Juanita Cox | David Currie | David Davis | Ben Delgado | Susan DeMarco | Robert del Grande | Alice Embree | Nancy Epstein | Kate Fitzgerald | Rebecca Flores | Lonnie Fogle | Lacy Fryer | Karen Haram | Casey Hayden | Melissa Hield | Barbara Lange | Paul Lewis | Thressa Lockridge-Ali | Robert Maggiani | Jim Marston | Mack Martinez | Mac McGowan | Pete McRae | Demetrius McDaniel | Pauline Medrano | Barbara Meister | Becky Murphy | Jesse Oliver | Alfred L. Parks | Freddie Richards | Brigid Shea | Judy Smith | Gus Townes | John Vlcek | Sarah Vogel | Andy Welch | Ellen Widess | Cather Woods

Bruce Auden

It really was the wine that had the biggest impact for the restaurant scene because we could sell wines and use wines that were high quality. You don’t see change unless you were there when it was different. Jim Hightower was a totally different person from everybody we’ve had since him…I just took it for granted that what he was doing was not unique for Texas but then I found out that he was very unique.

Bruce Auden came to Texas in the 1980’s and quickly established a reputation as a leading chef for Southwest cuisine. Back then, he recalls that Tex-Mex was put down or Southwest was elevated, but now, Tex-Mex, Mexican, and Southwest may use similar ingredients, but they all have very different outcomes. They’re all very respectable cuisines.

Susan Auler

“He (Hightower) was wonderful. That was the first time any state agency had given agriculture any attention, so it was incredible. I do believe we did some trips to either New York or Philadelphia. I need to sit with Bruce (Auden) and Robert (del Grande) and lean on their memories, go back and look at some photographs. He stirred up a lot of attention over Texas agriculture, Texas wine.”

Susan Auler is co-founder of Fall Creek Vineyards, which brought home one of the first Gold Medals for a Texas wine at a California competition. Susan and husband Ed realized that they needed to diversify out of cattle and planted some of the first vinifera grapes. Susan created the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, to turn the spotlight on Texas. She invited local vintners to offer tastings of their Texas wines paired with dishes from well-known Texas chefs. The festival also had a food fair, featuring different TDA (Texas Department of Agriculture) designated food producers.

Jennifer Bailey

“No matter how the brand changed, Taste of Texas products still today, international, national, and local markets always sell. Opening markets for products, giving opportunities for small producers to market their product and gain visibility in the market so they can grow, and have a homegrown product that is recognizable in the market is the seed that was planted by the Taste of Texas program that still resonates in the market today. The symbol may have changed, but the message is still the same.”

Jennifer Bailey first and only job has been with the Texas Department of Agriculture. She started as an ag business development specialist under Jim Hightower and retired as district director for the Houston office. When she started, there was no easily accessible internet. She helped assemble the information for the pick-your-own Christmas tree directory, the blueberry pick-your-own directory and the farmers market directory. The directories were designed to tell the average consumer, here are some places that you can venture out and do things on the weekend and support your local Texas business.

Heather Ball

“The only element of TDA’s Farm Policy Reform Act of 1984 that made it into the final legislation was the Conservation Reserve Program. This was the first time farmers were paid to put some of their acreage into longterm sustainable cover crops to improve wildlife habitat, water and air quality, and reduce soil erosion, as well as raise commodity prices by limiting production. It is now the largest carbon-reduction program for agriculture in the US.”

Heather Ball was drafted immediately after joining the department to develop the economic case for the Farm Policy Reform Act of 1984. Doug Zabel, Fred Lundgren, Leland Beatty and Susan DeMarco had developed the structure, but wanted Heather to analyze how the proposed parity prices would impact, say, the price of cheeseburgers at McDonalds and the cost to taxpayers and consumers. Heather later developed the cost-benefit analysis for new pesticide regulations and innovative programs for cash-strapped farmers, like Country Crafted Texas and the Hunters Clearinghouse.

Michael Bauer

I remember back in ‘81 or ‘82 with Routh Street Cafe, Stephan (Pyles) would sometimes use local Texas antelope when he could get it. The supply chain hadn’t really been established. It was catch as catch can, that’s what kept chefs from using it. They wanted to, and they were talking about local products, but it was hard to find the farmers who were doing it. I remember getting releases and things from the Department of Agriculture. Jim Hightower was so important because he really promoted Texas products and what was happening in Texas.

Michael Bauer was restaurant editor for the Dallas Morning News. At the time, Dallas was still stuck in the whole French continental. He asked himself, ‘Okay, what do you do as a journalist, do you sit back and just report or do you try and get things moving?’ He was at the first meeting with the Gang of Five, a group of chefs led by Anne Lindsay Greer McCann, Robert del Grande, Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, Avner Samuel, and Amy Ferguson. That group started getting together and talking about food in the Southwest. That led to a whole bunch of Southwestern-focused ideas. Dallas was ripe for this because you had Jim Hightower doing what he was doing with getting organics, you had chefs who were starting to look at our local products.

Sam Biscoe

“But we adopted them (the pesticide regulations). Well, the big producers sued us. But the lawsuit was here in Austin. So we won that lawsuit. And for a short time, you know, some of the farmers had come around and farmworkers became accustomed to being protected in the fields. The other thing is that, the most frightening part of all of this, was that on occasion, the aerial applicators would apply pesticides when farmworkers were in the field. How dangerous can you get? So we outlawed it.”

Sam Biscoe worked as a civil rights lawyer, successfully suing the State of Texas to improve prisons and the Austin school board to desegregate their schools. He was recruited by Jim Hightower to serve as General Counsel to the Texas Department of Agriculture, negotiating with farmworkers and producers to develop enforceable pesticide regulations. Sam also had a hand in the landmark organic standards, enforcement of weights and measures, and groundbreaking trade agreements with Israel and several Mexican states. He was subsequently elected the first black urban county judge in Texas.

Brad Blanton

“The people who owned the theater chain in New York were embarrassed, particularly by the demonstration out there talking about the other demonstrations, and about them maintaining segregation. When they integrated all at once is like we certainly were victorious. We integrated 90 to 120 theaters. I can’t remember how many but a lot of theaters it was were suddenly desegregated.”

Dr. Brad Blanton was interviewed as part of The Stand-ins, a documentary about the use of direct action to desegregate movie theaters in Austin. He is the author of the international best selling series of books, most notably, Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth.

Martin Burrell

“His (Jim Hightower’s) initiatives about working with small and minority businesses. That was one of the things that I learned from him, and I was able to use that. I’ve been using that, essentially built a career around strengthening the environment with women and minority business because his initiative was whenever we spend money, look for opportunities to do business with small and minority firms. To this day, that’s what I do…Those two initiatives came directly from the leadership that he created with this emphasis on small minority business…The first contract that went to a minority firm to run the State Fair for two years went to two African American women because he insisted on inclusion of these small businesses. That’s what I remember most.”

Martin Burrell joined the Texas Department of Agriculture as the Dallas District Director. He supervised the regulatory and marketing staff working out of the Dallas office, and was responsible for weights and measures enforcement , ensuring that consumers received accurate measures of items such as gasoline at the pump, food on scales in grocery stores, grain in elevators, and egg size and quality. Martin also was responsible for implementing Hightower’s policy that everybody should be a part of spending the state’s money, through inclusion and diversity initiatives for minority, women and small business owners.

Juanita Cox

“(W)ith Hightower, we were very proud, we were able to get even stronger pesticide regulations than what California had at that time….It was the combination of having people in office that cared about the people that harvest the food for this world. It was the power that the union had built in farm workers that said we want you to eat, we’ll get you your vegetables and fruits to the store but we’re not willing to die for it and therefore we’re going to stand up for our rights and say, we feed you, but you need to not kill us with pesticides.”

Juanita was director of the Texas chapter of the United Farmworkers Union. She and her fellow union organizers took the crop sheets that the Texas Department of Agriculture prepared to the fields and gave them to the farm workers to tell them that if they were exposed to these pesticides that the farmer was using, if they felt dizzy or had some symptoms of being exposed to pesticide, then they should take it to the doctors. The crop sheets let the doctors know what the worker might have been exposed to and how to treat it.

David Currie

“In the agricultural world, what we’re doing with these farmers markets, in the GDP of the agriculture of Texas it’s not huge, but to the individuals that come here and sell these products, it may be why they get to keep living in this community. The other young lady that came after me, Bernadette (Pfieffer), the African American woman. That stretched me. I told John, “You’re hiring an African American woman to go work with farmers?” He said, “They need to be stretched, they need to be challenged.” You gotta at least be able to relate to them. But she did a good job. And that’s where he helped me grow. John would stretch me. I was good pretty good for a high school graduation class of five, to have gotten that far.”

David Currie was recruited by John Vlcek to organize farmers markets and later became special assistant to the director of marketing. John asked him to start six to eight farmers markets a year. He started 50 in three years. David also became the department’s sheep and goat specialist. He went on to serve as the executive director of Texas Baptists Committed for 22 years. David is now a homebuilder and rancher in the San Angelo area.

David Davis

“I always thought the state government was there to protect the people. Big business has their own protection, but nobody was protecting people. That’s why we looked at consumer services as one of the things that we should do. I don’t know what they’re doing now, because we would certify under consumer services that the scales in the store when you buy your meat, you buy your products, are working properly, and you will not be ripped off…. To me, I always thought that somebody needs to be out there looking out for the small person.”

David Davis was the first black division director at the Texas Department of Agriculture. He oversaw the training of pesticide applicators, including aerial applicators. As pest management director, Davis administered the required applicator training program, which had previously not been required for licensure. Davis also managed the rapidly growing export inspection program, ensuring that Texas agricultural products met foreign standards.

Ben Delgado

“I was the mechanic, the admin guy who knew how to do contracts, knew who to call, figure out how to hire people how to bring people on board, how to schedule things out, how to organize meetings, all the understated and underappreciated, even to this day, admin stuff that has to happen in order to make an organization work…I think on every initiative we tried we moved the ball forward. We made a huge impact on encouraging minority farmers to be involved with the programs at the agency. John (Vlcek) was phenomenal at going out and meeting people and getting involved with local groups, farmer associations, and minority groups. They’re out there – you just have to go looking for them. He would set things up and then we would come in and talk to them. The main thing was getting their perspective on how policies would affect them.”

Ben Delgado served as Associate Commissioner for Administration at TDA. He worked closely with Mike Moeller, the Deputy Commissioner, and Dudley Harrison, the Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, to protect TDA’s budget. Ben recalls that he wasn’t Hightower’s favorite person because the things that he did in his realm were things Hightower wanted done without having to bother with them.

Susan DeMarco (D)

“The natural state of food production is that it’s small-scale, agrarian, and local. This is because plants and animals are living creatures. Economies of scale are achieved at a surprisingly small level, with both productivity and quality being enhanced by the ability of farmers and artisans to be personally involved with their crops and livestock. But the agribusiness powers perverted agriculture production from the high art and science of cooperating with nature into a high-cost, high-tech process of overwhelming nature.”

Susan DeMarco co-founded the Agriculture Accountability Project and co-authored Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times and several other books. She served as Assistant Commissioner for Marketing and Agricultural Development in the Texas Department of Agriculture from 1982-1985.

According to TDA press secretary Andy Welch, “DeMarco could be very personable . We’d have a reception and there would be these large guys, Ray Pruitt from Citrus, Ed Small, the cattleman. Carl King, he was of a different era. These big Bubba’s, and here was little DeMarco. She had such a competence and personality, she could just charm them. I remember one time during the open legislative session they were in town doing some business. I don’t think they had actually been invited inside the walls. She had a meeting with them. One of the knocks on her was that she was a vegetarian. I don’t know if that’s true, but she did not care for beef. She got a little plate of steak tartare. When these cattlemen came into her office to talk to her and make sure she understood how important the beef industry was to the Texas economy and how the TDA had always worked to serve the beef industry, Beef Council and all of that, she had sitting there this little plate of raw sirloin. She reached over and took a bite and then invited them to have some. These guys love their beef well done. And with a baked potato and green beans, I was not in the meeting, but we all knew what was going to happen afterwards. Their eyes were wide open. I’m sure as soon as they left, the phone lines lit up with, “Oh my gosh, she ate raw meat!”

Robert del Grande

“Jim Hightower was the more eloquent voice of all of us and drew us all together. It helped everything because we all concluded that we were individuals but we would be better if we all worked together as a group. I remember saying that one restaurant cannot support one purveyor. The purveyor, the grower, the farmer need multiple people so let’s share our sources… With certain cuisines, namely European ones, there was always a wine food connection. So you always had Bordeaux and Bordelaise cooking, Burgundy and Burgundian cooking. You had Chianti and Tuscan cooking. We saw that early on there should be some connection. We joined in right away to say wine needs to be part of the picture. It was just barely starting out. We all carried them and all worked with them because we had them at the dinner. It was another part of the picture that was fitting together.”

Robert del Grande came to Cafe Annie in 1981. He recalls that white tablecloth restaurants like his were all doing foreign food: French food or Italian food. Texas cuisine was always there but not at the higher-end restaurant level. Robert says the Southwest chefs took ideas from the local cantina and revved them up. For Robert it was always the enchilada. How far could he take this? He believed that the French could tell us how to do French cooking but there’s no way they can tell us how to make an enchilada—Texas chefs will be the judge of that. Click here to see his video interiew.

Alice Embree

“I think the Rag is like the movement. It’s the idea that you can make history, that you don’t need to wait around for the next election. You can create something that will change people, change opinions, build a community, build a social movement.”

Alice Embree was a founder of The Rag in 1966, and is featured in PHIT’s documentary about The Rag. She was active in civil rights and antiwar organizing at the University of Texas in Austin and put on disciplinary probation for an antiwar speech in 1967. She helped found Red River Women’s Press in Austin in the 70s. She serves as a director of the New Journalism Project, writes for The Rag Blog, and is an editor of Celebrating The Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper, published in 2016, and a companion book, Exploring Space City!: Houston’s Historic Underground Newspaper, published in 2021. She is active with the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans (TARA). Her memoir, Voice Lessons, was published by the UT Briscoe Center for American History in 2021.

Nancy Epstein

“(W)we were the first state exchange with Israel. At the time that I left, there were 21 states that had their own memoranda of agreement with Israel. They weren’t all agriculture, some were commerce, some were technology. But we were the first that created a whole movement… There was funding from the Meadows Foundation to begin a demonstration farm in Laredo on the campus of what was then Laredo Junior College. .. We were trying to focus on the flowers for where there was a real market niche for Texas: the flowers that had a very short shelf life. …We were focused on irises and gladioli. Irises, as I recall, had a two- or three-day shelf life. Where was it that it was so important that they’d be grown close to market. …On that small acreage, you could grow high value crops using sustainability, because we also brought drip irrigation to Texas and modeled it in Laredo.”

Nancy Epstein was Director of Special Projects under Hightower. She managed the Texas-Israel Exchange Program, which was designed to demonstrate that Israel, which was on the same latitude as Texas, with a semi-arid and arid environment, was overcoming some of the issues Texas family farmers faced. It’s a very heavily agricultural state, where people work on very small plots of land, and they market together, and they’re making a living. The goal was to figure out how Texas could bring some of those methods, including drip irrigation and specialty crops, to help our family farmers stay on the farm, and earn a living and be ecological, sustainable and environmentally sound.

Kate Fitzgerald

“(M)y mandate from Hightower…was: “Do something with existing resources within TDA to help create new markets for farmers and at the same time address hunger.” …In the same way that agriculture was becoming concentrated, the grocery store industry was becoming concentrated…The effect it had was the creation of what’s now known as the food desert. (Hightower) saw it as a market failure that could be addressed through coordination. The first thing we did was work with Paula (de la Fuente) and the farmers markets to develop farmers markets in urban areas. Third Ward in Houston. We went and looked at cities and essentially tried to lure farmers to come into inner city areas, and also create markets in rural communities, which were losing their grocery stores with Walmart’s push into rural areas. That was the basic idea. First of all, get farmers markets into these areas that had lost access to affordable, nutritious food. The next one was getting farmers markets authorized to accept food stamps.”

Kate Fitzgerald started as an intern at the Texas Department of Agriculture researching hunger in Texas. The mid-80s was the time that Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and other big hedge funds were doing leveraged buyouts of the grocery store industry. Large investment or hedge fund companies came in, bought out locally- or regionally-owned family grocery companies, closed their lower net profit locations, which tended to be inner city and communities of color. They would close those locations, pay off debt, invest and build grocery stores in lower cost, higher revenue suburban communities. The Texas Department of Agriculture applied for a grant for a pilot project to organize farmers markets in the parking lots of the WIC (Women Infants and Children) clinics and accept coupons for fresh fruit and vegetables. The pilot program became the national WIC Farmers Market nutrition program and today has an annual appropriation of approximately $17 million dollars a year. In addition, the seniors program receives around $21 million dollars a year.

Rebecca Flores

In July of 1988, Cesar (Chavez) started a fast, and he call it the Fast for Life. And this was really around the issue of pesticides, because he had seen that even though we’d been talking about it and we knew there were cancer clusters and we knew children were dying at a very, very young age. They’re like 10,11 and 12. They had all these cancers, tumors and all of that. He (Cesar) says still nobody was paying any attention to it. He said, ‘It’s my issue, and I have got to make this the most important in my life.’ And so he fasted for 25 days.
That night when he broke the fast, Jesse Jackson said, ‘How many of you will continue this fast that Cesar started, so that we can we can take it to the different communities that we come from?’
We started talking about how we could promote this fast, not only the fast but also the knowledge that pesticides were killing us. Hightower was one of the one of the individuals that continued to fast…He did it for three days, and then he would hand it off to somebody else. And so we would at that time organize it and the next individual and the next and the next to the next. And so we continued that link and chain for a long time, and and in the process continuing to educate people about the chemicals that are used on the food that we eat. And so we thank Hightower for doing that because that was when he was Commissioner.”

Cesar Chavez tapped Rebecca to organize and then lead the Texas chapter of the United Farmworkers. In 1979, after a year of organizing committees across South Texas, they had committees in 25 colonias in Cameron, Willacy, Hidalgo, and Starr counties. Each colonia had its own leadership, its own responsibilities and duties. Over 1,000 delegates attended the first UFW convention that year. 

Rebecca’s name is engraved in the concrete of downtown San Antonio, surrounded by stories of other local labor leaders in the city’s new Labor Plaza. The plaza is in the River Walk Public Art Garden on Market Street across from the Henry B. González Convention Center.

Lonnie Fogle

In Nacogdoches the theaters integrated. When they said ‘integrated’, it means the blacks sit in the balcony and the whites sit downstairs. But in Austin on the Drag, we were not even offered that opportunity at the Varsity and the Texas Theater.
There was a newspaper article that featured Booker T. Bonner sitting on a upside down bucket with some crackers and bread on a hunger strike in front of the Texas theater. That was probably the motivating factor that caused us to join in and start demonstrations. All you had to do was go to one meeting and you were in and that was what I did.

Lonnie Fogle was one of the first black students to attend The University of Texas at Austin. Fogle graduated from the College of Natural Sciences with a bachelor’s of science in chemistry in 1966. Now a retired senior chemical engineer from Dupont, Fogle is currently the president of the Precursors, a group made up of about 100 individuals who were among the first black students that attended the university from the late 1950’s to mid 1960’s.

Lacy Fryer (D)

Lacy (Fryer) took me underneath his wing. I would not have been a regional director had he not been here. Before he left, he said, I have been training you, I’ve been watching you for years because I want to leave a legacy behind. I want someone to follow in my footsteps to make sure that the things that have been done in the Department of Agriculture are carried on. I feel that you’re the person that can step in my shoes… I’ll coach you in the background, but I’ve been coaching you all along. You’re good at it,” recalls protege Jennifer Bailey.”

Lacy Fryer served as Regional Director of the Texas Department of Agriculture, where he retired after 36 years. He was the first African-American to be employed by TDA. During his tenure, he received numerous accolades for his outstanding service to the State of Texas.

Karen Haram

He (Hightower) was such an enthusiastic promoter, and that he did such a good job getting the word out about Texas foods and Texas wines. California was always the end-all, be-all with the whole California food movement. Suddenly, we were doing the same thing here in Texas, with more personality. I think we sold it better, frankly. What I remember is that this food scene that we have rivals and exceeds anybody’s in the country.”

Karen Haram started writing about the San Antonio and Texas food scene in 1980 for the San Antonio Express News, and served as Food Editor for 30+ years.

Casey Hayden

I wanted to do direct action.

Casey Hayden Casey Hayden (she was known then as Sandra Cason) had been instrumental in organizing the Students for Direct Action, based in the University Y near the campus. Her group talked and decided on a creative strategy. They would all go in a group, line up, ask to buy a ticket for themselves and their African American friend, and when denied, get back in line, and ask again when they got to the front. They jammed up the lines, but strictly followed the law. It had a sizable affect on sales. The Stand-in effort was incredibly successful. It took a year, but they achieved national exposure, and inspired similar efforts. Eleanor Roosevelt took notice and wrote about it in her national syndicated column. The Paramount Corporation caved, and, with one announcement, changed their policy of segregation throughout the South in all their theaters.

Melissa Hield

I co-founded People’s History in Texas in 1976 to bring to life stories of ordinary people and significant social and political movements.

Melissa Hield is PHIT’s executive director. A founding member of PHIT, she also serves on the board. In 2019 she retired as an executive at a Texas state agency where she specialized in strategic, business, and project planning. Hield has a M.A. in American Civilization from The University of Texas at Austin. She is a writer, researcher, and interviewer on PHIT projects. Melissa was honored by the Executive Women in Texas Government as the 2022 Woman of the Year.

Barbara Lange

“If you remember one thing, it’s the educational part (of the Black Farmer Conferences). We talked about taxes. We talked about tax credit. We talked about funding, we talked about developing….That’s where Gus (Townes of the Texas Department of Agriculture) and the rest of the high-tech people came in. They knew where to go find specialists. There’s so many different entities, you got to know something about. If you don’t know where to go find a specialist, you’re up a creek without a paddle.”

Barbara Lange has been a member of the Landowners Association of Texas since the early 1980’s. She worked with the Texas Department of Agriculture to organize their annual Black Farmer Conferences, which continue today with support from the U.S. of Agriculture.

Paul Lewis

When I got there, everybody but Jerry Avaya was white. It wasn’t like we said we want people of color. We said we want people with experience, and language ability, and cultural experience from these areas that we’re trying to do exports to. That’s what drove it. It wasn’t like we had a quota or anything.

Paul Lewis, as Director of International Marketing, reported to John Vlcek. He expanded the department’s already successful livestock export to incorporate the new Taste of Texas program. His staff recruited Texas companies to come with them to international food shows and either supply products or actually come themselves. If the companies made contacts, Paul’s staff would assist them meeting the requirements of international buyers and finding financing to fund their growing sales.

Thressa Lockridge-Ali

The story of the Department is really a big story. Before (Jim) Hightower took over, that agency was pretty white. There weren’t very many minorities in that agency and that’s one of the things that was a real concern to Hightower…I feel like, if you have a more diverse department, then you have a better department, because you have a diversity of ideas. That’s what I did for that agency.”

Thressa Lockridge-Ali was recruited as the Equal Employment Opportunity coordinator, and rose to become the Director of Human Resources. She focused on outreach for departmental vacancies to improve how those vacancies were announced and who got that information. She traveled to places like Stephenville and Tyler, and up in the Panhandle, because when she joined the department, there wasn’t very much representation for people of color in those particular places.

Robert Maggiani

(T)hat’s another legacy relationship that we have, industry has, with HEB, because Hightower and the staff really put a lot of energy into making it happen. We did a lot of behind the scenes work that nobody saw but it did make it happen. HEB did a lot of promotions, still do a lot of promotion. They have a big effort now called, Pick of Texas, which they identify a lot of their value-added stuff that comes from Texas. They have a contest around the state now, they promote Primo Picks. That’s the legacy out of what we did with Hightower with HEB to promote Texas grown stuff.”

Robert Maggiani was part of TDA’s direct marketing staff. Their focus was twofold: farmers markets (direct to consumer sales), and grower coops (direct farmer to retailer sales, without having to go through a wholesaler). Farmers would come together and do their own wholesaling and keep more of the dollar in their own pockets. Robert now works for the National Center for Appropriate Technology, NCAT. They provide assistance with the same direct marketing techniques done under Hightower at TDA. Technical assistance on issues such as: How do you access the market? How do you make Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) work,? and Howw do you do your bookkeeping?

Jim Marston

Hiring an openly gay guy to do important work and interact with folks – it’s kind of a statement that the Department of Agriculture hadn’t had before. Our state government was generally very white, male, straight but the Ag Department was really that way. We started hiring people who didn’t go to Texas A&M. That was a shock to many, many people in the department and the farmers. They had gone to schools in the east and the west and hadn’t grown up as members of the Corps. It was opening up state government… It was a little unusual, I guess a lot unusual to raise money for government agencies at that time. It helped that the legislature would turn down requests so you could show there was a need and you tried to get government money and it didn’t work. It was an exciting time for people who thought outside the box. Government could be different.”

Jim Marsten was an environmental attorney working for Lloyd Doggett’s law firm during the time Hightower was running for office. He first learned of Hightower from his writings at the Texas Observer. When Hightower decided to run for the Railroad Commission, he was a very early volunteer. After losing that race, Jim Marston encouraged him to set his sights on the Texas Department of Agriculture. Jim Marston provided legal advice on campaign-related matters. After Hightower was elected, he also organized lobbied the legislature in support of various programs, such as pesticide regulation. As a private attorney, he felt he could be more aggressive that an elected official could be. He could do things like connect the dots between contributions to the legislators for their campaigns and individual votes.

Mack Martinez

“I think Hightower has pushed and has made some headway, it’s an ‘us’ issue. Until we’ve all crossed that line, until we’re all equal, ain’t none of us equal. I think that came across, and that’s why he was respected by African American leaders and by Hispanic leaders. It wasn’t an accident that John Vlcek also happened to be gay. That was a big plus because he helped reach out to that community. He brought everybody to the table.”

Mack Martinez worked as a statewide organizer in Hightower’s first campaign for Ag Commissioner. After the election, he served as Special Projects Coordinator. In part due to Mack’s work, Hightower’s campaign recruited the farmworkers in south Texas in the 1982 race. They had never been included in an agriculture commissioner race. No one had ever gone to speak to them, no one cared. They were just this outside group, and Hightower’s staff were the first ones that reached out to them and started working with them and finding out what their issues were. They were at the table, they were a part of the inner circle. Click here for a short video of Mack’s reminisces of some of those struggles.

Mack Martinez worked as a statewide organizer in Hightower’s first campaign for Ag Commissioner. After the election, he served as Special Projects Coordinator. In part due to Mack’s work, Hightower’s campaign recruited the farmworkers in south Texas in the 1982 race. They had never been included in an agriculture commissioner race. No one had ever gone to speak to them, no one cared. They were just this outside group, and Hightower’s staff were the first ones that reached out to them and started working with them and finding out what their issues were. They were at the table, they were a part of the inner circle. Click here for a short video of Mack’s reminisces of some of those struggles.

Ed “Big Mac” McGowan (D)

Mac McGowan started with the Federation of Southern Coops and was quickly recruited to join the direct marketing team at TDA. He helped organize the Hempstead Watermelon Coop. He was the instigator behind the Fort Bend Vegetable Growers conference, which continues today. This conference is 50 percent minority farmer attendance still thirty-five years later. An award in honor of Mac is given out each year.

Pete McRae (D)

“In 1985 is when the entire ag industry, business leaders decided to come after Hightower and attempt to defund the agency in various components. Those guys hated (John) Vlcek and hated the marketing program. They just thought we were nuts and that Hightower was nuts by focusing on small farmers, which of course was exactly what Farmers Union wanted. Vlcek was gay. These guys just could not stand Vlcek, that was the big issue in my memory, they came after his marketing program. They came after all types of regulatory programs to attempt to defund through the legislative process, but they really wanted Vlcek gone…Alex Moreno was a state representative and lawyer from Hidalgo County. I was talking to him one time about trying to bring people to the table and negotiate some of these farm worker protection issues. He was a leader on our behalf on farmworkers’ behalf and Hightower’s behalf. He just looked at me with those glinty eyes and he said, “Pete, sometimes to solve a problem, you’ve got to make an even bigger problem.” Which was his way of saying, I’m gonna throw a metaphorical grenade right in the middle of those Farm Bureau guys and, as I recall, he did a number of times.”

Pete McRae was a lobbyist for Texas Farmers Union when Hightower recruited him to join the Department of Agriculture. Texas Farmers Union represented small family farmers and supported many of Hightower’s initiatives, including pesticide regulations. Practically speaking, most Farmers Union members weren’t big enough to have farm workers. In traditional row crops you don’t really need that type of labor. You’ll usually have one or two or three guys that assist in planting and harvesting, but in most row crops, the commodity programs support, you don’t need that type of labor. It’s really fruit and vegetable production, planting and picking, where you need farmworkers. So the Farmers Union board agreed in principle to the pesticide regulations, because it didn’t really gore their ox. Once a traditional ag group like Farmers Union was supportive, it gave Hightower something to promote, to brag about. Pete is president of Prevailing Trends, Inc., which specializes in City, County, RMA, and Transit Authority Issues across the State of Texas.

Demetrius McDaniel

“I put together the Black Farmer Conference. That was my doing, that was my first big assignment that Hightower gave me…. Hightower says “I want the title to be Improving the Future of Texas Black Farmers.” He said we don’t want to rehash the past, we want to talk about how we have helped Black farmers to maintain land, and to give them an opportunity to produce their crops and sell their crops in a more profitable market, as opposed to having to just do truck stands or farmers markets. We want them to be in the whole of agriculture. He was pretty insistent, he said just make it happen.”

Demetrius McDaniel served as a travel aide for Jim Hightower on his first campaign for Commissioner of Agriculture. After the election, he was tasked with organizing the Black Farmer Conferences and running interference at the state legislature. Demetrius had to overcome a great deal of skepticism among black farmers about how much a state agency could do. He recruited speakers such as Mickey Leland and “Mean” Joe Green of the Pittsburgh Steelers to attract farmers” to the first conference, to ensure turnout. Demetrius is now ranked as one of the Top Ten Lobbyists in the Texas Capitol and raises buffalo on his ranch.

Pauline Medrano

We went door-to-door into the different neighborhoods and found out neighborhood associations, PTAs, we promoted them however we could. It was grassroots. It was churches, PTAs, neighborhood associations, neighborhood groups. We’d say, ‘We want to start a farmers market. What would be a good day? What would be a good morning?’ Olmos Park (San Antonio) said, Monday morning. And that’s when we did it, Monday morning. Tuesdays were another neighborhood.

Pauline Medrano was TDA’s Dallas District Director. She was concerned that, as a city girl, she didn’t know anything about agriculture. Jim Hightower reassured her, ‘You eat, don’t you? That’s enough.’ Pauline brought her experience organizing people to launch some of the first farmers markets in Texas. She went door-to-door and farmer-to-farmer until they found all the farmers willing to participate. These local farmers’ markets were revolving. It would go to several neighborhoods on separate days. Pauline promoted them, and the farmers sold everything that they brought in by mid-morning. Pauline currently serves as the elected Treasurer for Dallas County.

Barbara Meister

“It’s Hightower’s philosophy, go out and scour the countryside, find these folks who are doing these innovative things and bring them into the government structure.
Give them a computer, give them a secretary, give them a travel budget, and say, keep doing what you’re doing.
But do it in here, do it throughout the whole state. I remember that being a great model for what government could be. You go out and you find people doing innovative things and bring them those resources of a public agency. He (Hightower) created a model for other progressive politicians to emulate, taking that model and saying, that’s what a government agency could be. Doesn’t have to be stale and boring and stifling and regulating the life out of people. It can be stimulating and provide the necessary support or stimulation to help an industry grow or start or thrive.

Barbara helped develop TDA’s proposals for 1990 Farm Bill. She compiled policies the other progressive farm organizations were promoting, such as Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition, Prairie Fire, and the Center for Rural Affairs. She served as liaison to WIFE, Women in Farm Economics, made up of progressive women in Lubbock and Amarillo.

Becky Murphy

I remember one of the (California) grape growers said, we have a surplus of wine and a surplus of grapes in California and things are getting tough. Now we have all you other states competing with us. I said, wait a minute, you obviously never read Leon Adams. He said, if we had people growing grapes all over the United States, we would become a wine drinking country. I see grape growers, they’re just regular people, they’re farmers. They don’t go to fancy restaurants, they don’t know about fancy wines, they don’t care about fancy wines. Their neighbors see them, they’re growing grapes, they’re making some wine. Joe Bob has some pretty good wine down there. Real people are making wine, not people in fancy restaurants. It put it at that level. That’s when I said to them, we’re building a market for you. We’re not taking a market away from you.”

Becky founded the Lone Star Wine Festival to showcase Texas wines and to give them recognition from people who spend their days recognizing quality in wines from all over the world. The festival provided legitimacy for Texas wines. She worked with the Texas Department of Agriculture to put on the festival and then to take some of the out-of-town judges around to visit some of the wineries. They got to meet wine makers, got to see what they were doing. Becky later worked with Stephan Pyles at Routh Street Cafe as a wine advisor. She told him, “You got this Southwestern cuisine, you need to have certain kinds of wines on the list, you need to have some Texas wines on the list.” Becky has a regular column in Wine Review Online, and writes reviews there every week.

Jesse Oliver

(O)ne of my first formal relationships with agriculture was at the Black Farmers Conferences and getting some history of what was going on with them and what had transpired…The few who held on, who actually worked the land and stayed there, were still facing difficult times, mistreatment by USDA, especially with respect to support farm loans, crop loans, crop insurance, things like that. It was something that was pretty prevalent and I knew about it. It was good to be able to be involved in the efforts of those conferences and see these people coming in and talking about their problems and getting information as to what could benefit them in terms of helping to be a little bit more prosperous. ..It was a well-balanced agency; it was probably better than any other. I can’t think of any other agency at that time that had that much diversity in its leadership.

Jesse Oliver was elected to the Texas House of Representatives the same year Jim Hightower was elected Ag Commissioner. Jesse believed in the programs Hightower campaigned on, especially farmworkers, and helped him with legislation where he could. Later Jesse took Sam Biscoe’s place as General Counsel at the Department of Agriculture.

Alfred L. Parks

“We had a guy that came in from the Dallas area. He had no farming background, but he had married into a family that’s local here… “My family has land not far from Prairie View, and we want to get into watermelons.” He created a supply chain. What he had done was go out and develop some markets with Luby’s. He signed an agreement with Luby’s and a couple of stores, and Luby’s said they would buy all you can produce. We helped them form a co-op. We helped them get a storage building, and that lasted for a while. That’s been an ongoing process.”

Dr. Al Parks worked with the Texas Department of Agriculture to organize the Hempstead Watermelon Coop, one of the early successes in opening up markets to small farmers through coops. He was a speaker at the Black Farmer Conferences, focusing on how to make the land profitable, understanding the value of the property, and why they should hang on to it. He also highlighted the problems if black farmers died without a will. The land became “heir” property, and thus very difficult to get all the heirs to agree. The Texas A&M University System (TAMUS) Board of Regents recently named Dr. Al Parks, professor at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) as a recipient of the Regents Professor Award. Parks was named a 2021 Fellow by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association — the organization’s most prestigious honor.

Freddie Richards

“Initially, the (Texas Agricultural Finance Authority) program funded people who wanted to take ag from production to processing and marketing, from the commodity production side to the processing side. Then we tried to help people who wanted to fund specialty projects that included viticulture, bees and deer and Christmas trees which were also considered to be agricultural diversification. Not 100 percent from corn, cattle and cotton. The program even funded some projects that involved flowers and wine production.”

Dr. Fred Richards was recruited to be one of the initial members of the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority, which the Texas Department of Agriculture passed in 1987 to provide financial assistance for the expansion, development and diversification of production, processing, marketing and exporting of Texas agricultural products. & Applied Economics Association — the organization’s most prestigious honor.

Brigid Shea

“The (Clean Water Action) canvass had a unique ability to literally be this foot soldier army that could go out door-to-door and reach people who may not show up elsewhere, but who really agreed with the idea of better protections for the environment, and eliminating excessive use of pesticides that were poisoning people, and making opportunities for organic farmers to sell their produce. Hightower was the genesis of that. I saw that flourish under him. I’ve been really struck that he doesn’t get credit for it, and that there are genuine efforts to erase him from history.”

Brigid Shea came to Texas as the program director for Clean Water Action, where she helped create the programs and the policy initiatives for the organization, including support for the Texas Department of Agriculture’s programs such as organic certification, farmers markets and increased pesticide regulation. Brigid took a leave of absence to work on Hightower’s unsuccessful re-election bid, and then went on to become an Austin City Councilmember and Travis County commissioner.

Judy Smith

I see ourselves as the mentors or witnesses, I think it’s really wonderful we can talk about what it’s like. And remind women, I mean I see our role really is reminding women, what it was like, if Roe v Wade gets overturned. But I really do think that this is an entire generation of women who don’t understand this, who have never had to drive them into Mexico, who have never had to do any of that.

Like many of her contemporaries, Judy Smith followed the “classic” trajectory from the student protest, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s into the women’s movement of the 1970s. While pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Smith joined a reproductive rights group. Because abortion was banned in the United States, she sometimes ferried desperate women over the border to Mexico to procure abortions. Knowing her actions were illegal, Smith consulted a local lawyer, Sarah Weddington. These informal conversations sparked the idea of challenging Texas’s anti-abortion statutes, culminating in the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. From this success, Smith learned that “any action that you take . . . can build into something.”

Gus Townes

“A lot of these towns were drying up. They didn’t have anything in them, not even a farmers market. So our strategy was to try to revive rural towns using farmers markets…The first one I had Leroy [Biggers] put together. When we got there, that farmers market only sold roses. That’s a big rose-growing area up around Tyler. So that farmers market dealt mostly with roses. So I asked Leroy, what can we do to bring farmers’ products in here? You got farmers up there, not growing enough product to go to the wholesale, but too much for retail. It seemed to me like we could get some of these guys in; they could even sell some of the high- volume stuff after a while. But he started working on it. I guess after about six months he had about 30 farmers who said they will be willing to bring their products together. So we opened the next year, the Tyler Farmers Market. We sold more than just roses. We had, I guess, about eight or 10 different varieties of roses. It went from, ‘Can we get people to come to the farmers market?’ to just crowds of people coming into the market.”

Gus Townes was working for the Federation of Southern Coops when he was recruited to lead the direct marketing efforts at the Texas Department of Agriculture. He brought his expertise in creating farmer cooperatives, building farmers markets, diversifying crops and connecting producers with wholesale buyers for large chain grocery stores, where they could get a higher price than they could at a roadside stand. He helped organize the first large scale black farmer cooperative, the Hempstead Watermelon Growers, to sell directly to Kroger Foods.

John Vlcek (D)

John Vlcek was recruited to run the direct marketing program. He and his staff successfully opened 125 new farmers markets, promoted farmer cooperatives such as the Hempstead Watermelon Coop, and connected small farmers upscale restaurants. John went on to become Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture and was instrumental in the adoption of statewide and then national organic standards.
The promotion to Assistant Commissioner enraged Texas agribusiness leaders, in part because John Vlcek was gay. He was committed to building a diversified leadership team, despite the misgivings of some of his staff. As David Currie, former farmers market organizer, tells it, “The young lady that came after me, Bernadette (Pfieffer), was African American. That stretched me. I told John, ‘You’re hiring an African American woman to go work with farmers?’ He said, ‘They need to be stretched, they need to be challenged.’ I thought, ‘You gotta at least be able to relate to them.’ But she did a good job. And that’s where he helped me grow. John would stretch me.” John died of AIDS in 1991. There is a quilt panel for him on the national AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Sarah Vogel

“It made such a difference to me to have Jim Hightower and Jim Nichols (Minnesota Secretary of Agriculture) out front, articulating these issues so beautifully and showing their vision was possible and starting these different programs. In North Dakota, my campaign, I had a long list of campaign commitments, things that I was going to do if elected. I nicked quite a few ideas from those two. I had some of my own and some were legacies from my grandfather and my father, the Nonpartisan League and Farm Holiday Association. But it was really helpful to me to have those two being point. I was running behind the guys who are tackling everybody, who made it easier and more fun.”

“It made such a difference to me to have Jim Hightower and Jim Nichols (Minnesota Secretary of Agriculture) out front, articulating these issues so beautifully and showing their vision was possible and starting these different programs. In North Dakota, my campaign, I had a long list of campaign commitments, things that I was going to do if elected. I nicked quite a few ideas from those two. I had some of my own and some were legacies from my grandfather and my father, the Nonpartisan League and Farm Holiday Association. But it was really helpful to me to have those two being point. I was running behind the guys who are tackling everybody, who made it easier and more fun.”

Sarah Vogel was elected North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture while Jim Hightower was Texas Commission of Agriculture. Previously, she was the lawyer who won a landmark case, Coleman v Block, that Coleman v. Block case, which stopped unconstitutional illegal farm foreclosures nationwide in ’83 – ‘85. Sarah’s recently published book, “The Farmers’ Lawyer” , details how Vogel, a single mother and penniless lawyer, sued the USDA. She won a class action suit that saved a quarter of a million family farms.

Andy Welch

I think you could take that eight years, and set it over here and say, This is unlike anything else. I don’t know of anybody that talked about farm worker safety before that. I don’t know of anybody that talked about organizing farmer cooperatives like that. Yes, there were cooperatives, but they were for farmers to gin their cotton or to store their grain, they weren’t for watermelon farmers of color. There was nobody who saw how important it was to protect the soil and land, and to consider alternative energy…That was really the beauty of it. It was taking state government, taking a cottage industry, attempting to make it sustainable, and saying, ‘Go forth and do good.’ You don’t hear that much before and you don’t hear much of that now.

Andy Welch was TDA’s Public Information Coordinator. His goal was to help facilitate the message and make it so that it didn’t sound like crop futures, market prices and stuff like that. He could help tell the story and get past the minutiae. For example, at Thanksgiving, he would break out what a pumpkin farmer gets per pound, per pumpkin, same with the turkey farmer. That was one of Andy’s gifts, to leading with the message: Farmers are not making any money off this turkey dinner.

Ellen Widess

“One of the provisions they (the Trump-era EPA) wanted to get rid of was the farmworkers’ right to have their doctors, or any other advocate, a lawyer, priest, worker center, anybody, union, get access to their pesticide safety sheets to know what they were exposed to, what the risks were and to be able to go after the company and get proper medical treatment and diagnosis. The industry was saying, ‘We don’t need it.’ I got this precise section of Texas law which dated back to Hightower’s administration to that very, very hard-fought law, and I said, ‘You won’t believe it but Texas, deep red, has the exact language we’re fighting for. If Texas could have this law, then everybody should.”’ Tom Udall said, ‘I’ll take that,’ and he went to the chemical industry, and he said, ‘See, Texas is living with it, and it hasn’t ended agriculture in Texas.”

Ellen Widess served as head of Pesticide Enforcement for the Texas Department of Agriculture. She implemented the newly-passed Right-to-Know law and oversaw the development of Crop Sheets, so that people would know if they were in West Texas or in the Rio Grande Valley, etc., this is the crop you’re working with, and these are the likely pesticides used in order of their toxicity. They were designed to be useful for the farm workers and their advocates, but also for doctors treating them, for environmental groups to know what was being used in the area and for family farmers, whose own kids, and family members were applying pesticides. She enlisted support from Hightower to build a whole Right-to-Know program and then recruited top environmental students from around the country to do trainings of farmers, farm workers, and advocates on the new Right-to-Know law. Ellen went on to work for the Rosenberg Foundation and serves on the board of Farmworker Justice. 

Cather Woods

“Jim Hightower was one of the best things for Texas in my experience, in my lifetime, and I’m 78 years old. So, I started working with farmers during that era. He was really nice. He worked hard to make sure that he made it better for blacks. By making sure that you knew what was there, by reaching out to the various committees, by bringing in people of color into his organizations. Because yourself, if you see somebody look like you, then you will trust the head more than you would if nobody there look like you. That was one thing he was famous for, was inclusion.”

Cather Woods was one of the early leaders in recruiting black farmers to join the Landowners Association of Texas and attend the Black Farmer Conferences. She understood that black farmers needed to organize in order to get the information they needed on the various programs offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to ensure that their requests weren’t ignored. She worked tirelessly to overcome the distrust many black farmers had about registering for government programs because they feared someone would take their land. Cather lives on her family farm, where she raises trees, cattle and hay.