Steve Pettis, shown here examining a yucca plant at the Memorial Arboretum, which is maintained by the Rockdale County Master Gardener Volunteers at the Georgia International Horse Park, is the new Rockdale County Cooperative Extension agent specializing in agriculture and natural resources. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
CONYERS — As a child, every fall, Steve Pettis worked side by side with his grandmother Uldine Land dividing and planting bulbs on their middle Georgia farm. So it’s no surprise that as a teenager he took advantage of working in his high school’s green house. The school grew geraniums and poinsettias and sold them to raise money for the school.
As part of that high school green house program, the class also took a trip to the University of Georgia to tour the horticulture department. That experienced sealed the deal as far his choice of careers.
“I didn’t really have designs on what I was going to study or even that I was going to college but once I got there I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s the first time I realized that I could go to school and study a field that was interesting to me particularly,” Pettis said.
That exposure to UGA and his passion for the plant world has led Pettis to Rockdale County, where he began work in August as the new Rockdale County Cooperative Extension agent specializing in agriculture and natural resources. He replaces former extension director Jule-Lynn Macie, at least in her duties, as an agent. The extension office is not set to name a director among the three agents, which includes Pettis, 4-H agent Brittany Johnson and Family and Consumer Science agent Katie Hiers, until Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, Pettis is getting to know the community and easing into Macie’s duties slowly, as she served in that capacity for 26 years.
Pettis said he’ll take his time before he makes any changes to the programming, but he does plan on providing commercial green industry trainings for pesticide licensing and re-certification. Green industries, such as turf-grass managers, landscapers and nursery and green house operators, are required to by licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
Pettis said that business owners can self-train but that the instruction he’ll offer will prepare them better for the certification.
“Our classes reinforce and explain the information and there is a higher passing rate when they take our classes before testing,” Pettis said.
Pettis’ connection to UGA continued after his visit to the horticulture department as a teenager, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture from the university.
He went to work for an ornamental tree farm and then returned to UGA to earn a master’s degree in plant protection and pest management, essentially training to become an extension agent, he said, which is a position he obtained in Gwinnett County after graduation.
Pettis then went on to become a research technician in a greenhouse at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. He grew and maintained trees that had been genetically modified by UGA scientists to in an effort to develop more productive timber. Pettis explained that the experiments were designed to increase the amount of the material inside of the tree that could be used to make pulp for paper.
The controlled environment of a greenhouse requires following a strict daily regimen of making sure the plants get enough, but not too much, water, said Pettis, and that all equipment in the greenhouse is working properly, as extremes of heat and cold will also kill the plants.
“It’s basically like managing an intensive care ward but it’s plants instead of people and if you turn your back on them, they start dying,” he said.
Pettis said he decided to pursue an extension office agent position again because he missed the social aspect it offers.
“I came back to the extension because I enjoy helping people. In my former job, I was working by myself. I really enjoy assisting people with plant problems… and natural resource problems, helping people with everything from roses to water quality in their wells,” said Pettis, who assists both residents and business owners.
Pettis said when the phone rings, he never knows what problem the caller will have — bats in the house, ants in the car, bed bugs in a hotel, turf questions.
“You can imagine that this job is pretty fun for me because I get to deal with all that stuff,” Pettis said.