UACES Facebook Sherrie Smith retires after 18 years as manager of Arkansas Plant Health Clinic
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Sherrie Smith retires after 18 years as manager of Arkansas Plant Health Clinic

By Rebekah Hall
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Feb. 29, 2023

Fast Facts:

  • Sherrie Smith joined Arkansas Plant Health Clinic as plant pathologist in 2006
  • Smith oversaw clinic’s move from Lonoke to Fayetteville in 2009, helped update lab with modern diagnostic equipment
  • Arkansas Plant Health Clinic receives more than 3,000 plant disease samples during each growing season

(1,741 words)
(Newsrooms: With art)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — When Arkansans get stumped by plant problems — whether they’re a home gardener or a row crop farmer — the Arkansas Plant Health Clinic in Fayetteville is here to help. After 18 years of service, Sherrie Smith, plant pathologist and instructor for the clinic, will retire Feb. 29.

PLANT PUZZLES — Sherrie Smith will retire as plant pathologist and instructor for the Arkansas Plant Health Clinic, supported by the Cooperative Extension Service, after 18 years of service. Smith helped diagnose tens of thousands of plant samples received by the clinic, and she played a significant role in updating the lab with modern technology. (Division of Agriculture photo.) 

The Plant Health Clinic is supported by the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Smith joined the clinic in 2006 after completing her master’s degree in plant pathology from the University of Arkansas.

“I’m excited about retirement, but I’ve loved my job so much that it’s kind of a pang to let go of it,” Smith said.

Ken Korth, professor and department head of entomology and plant pathology for the University of Arkansas System, said Smith has played a significant role in the success of the Plant Health Clinic.

“Sherrie and her guidance of the Plant Health Clinic have made a huge impact on Arkansans for almost two decades,” Korth said. “The clinic is viewed as an invaluable resource by clientele statewide, and this is a testament to the dedicated performance of Sherrie and her staff.”

Korth said Smith oversaw the move of the clinic from its original location in Lonoke to Fayetteville in 2009.

“That was a major undertaking, and she was responsible for designing and setting up the lab space which is now housed at the Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center,” Korth said. “She has also grown with the position, and over the years the clinic has effectively adopted new technologies for pathogen detection and identification.”

Since 2006, Smith said she’s seen tens of thousands of plant samples and made many more diagnoses.  

“I’ve seen a lot of samples,” she said. “And the thing about the samples is there may be more than one diagnosis. You may have a turf sample and it has a patch disease, but it also might have insect damage, so some of our samples receive more than one diagnosis with more than one recommendation.”

Smith said most of the samples that the clinic receives are from county extension offices throughout the state. During the busy season, which runs March through October, Smith said the clinic typically receives 3,000-4,000 plant disease samples.

“Things start slowing down as winter approaches and we become less concerned about what happened to our tomato plants,” Smith said. “We do get some during the winter months, but one day last summer, we had 72 samples.”

The Arkansas Plant Health Clinic is one of the few plant diagnostic labs in the country that doesn’t charge for its services, which include several different kinds of diagnostic tests.

“Most of our samples end up going under the microscope, the dissecting scope and the compound scope for diagnoses,” Smith said. “We also run some serological tests that operate the same way, say, a pregnancy or a COVID-19 test works. But probably the biggest part of our tests is simply through an old-school microscope.” 

Pest and pathogen problems

During Smith’s career at the clinic, she’s helped provide molecular diagnosis for plant diseases that were new to Arkansas or even new to the United States.

“The following year after I first started, we found Asian soybean rust in the state for the first time, which caused a great deal of concern among our soybean growers because in South America and other places, it causes devastating losses to soybean crops,” Smith said. “But that has not occurred in the U.S., it just spooked everybody in the beginning.”

At the end of the 2023 growing season, Smith said the clinic received a sample with a pathogen that had not been seen in the United States previously. Clinic personnel are currently awaiting confirmation of the virus. If a sample is confirmed and considered to be a “quarantine pest,” state officials are notified, and a protocol is followed depending on the type of pest. Smith said sudden oak death, which is caused by Phytophthora ramorum, is a quarantine pest that the Plant Health Clinic has identified more than once.

Smith said that during most summers, the clinic is involved in what is called a ‘trace forward’ to track sudden oak death when it has been found in wholesale nurseries outside of the state.

“Then, all the state officials — not just in Arkansas, but in any state that received shipments from that nursery — have to go around to all the nurseries and check for symptomatic plants, take samples, bring them to their diagnostic labs, and then we run a test for species,” Smith said. “If we get a positive, we extract the DNA and send it to a lab that is qualified to run a test specifically for Phytophthora ramorum. So, we are involved in these kinds of projects for quarantine pests, and you really don’t know what you’re going to find.”

Strange samples

The Plant Health Clinic receives samples from every county in Arkansas, and it also has an Animal Plant Health Inspection Services, or APHIS, permit, which allows the clinic to receive samples from anywhere in the continental United States.

“We’re relatively close to both the Missouri and the Oklahoma line, so we get some samples from strawberry and blackberry growers in Oklahoma, and we get some wheat and tomato samples from Missouri,” Smith said. “Sometimes we will get a sample clear from the opposite side of the country. We don’t get an out-of-state sample every day, but it’s not unusual to get one several times a month during the growing season.”

The Plant Health Clinic is part of the Southern Plant Diagnostic Network, or SPDN, which is a partnership of 14 states and territories in the southeast United States that work together to detect pests and pathogens in the region. Smith said the SPDN hosts an annual contest for “who got the kookiest sample in.”

“We didn’t win the contest this year, but the winner was a very strange horned object,” she said. “It had little spikes all over it and was slimy, and it turned out to be part of a rubber ball that someone got out of a ditch and didn’t recognize because it had been so discolored and weathered and had goop on it. They thought it was something that had been alive.”

Smith said there’s never a dull moment in the Plant Health Clinic.

“About eight years ago, I opened an envelope and a little squashed dead bug fell out,” she said. “I looked at it under the microscope, and it was a bed bug. The company that sent it said it was running across the secretary’s desk. I thought, ‘Oh no!’”

Outreach and education

As part of her role as an instructor and plant pathologist, Smith also traveled to flower and garden shows, extension field days and Master Gardener events.

“I started attending the big flower show the first year I took the job, and since then we’ve built a portable diagnostic lab with traveling microscopes and a big TV screen that hooks up to the microscopes so people can see what we’re looking at,” Smith said. “We also hand out literature and answer questions and receive samples.

“The benefit of all this is that it puts the word out to the community that there is a lab that will look at their samples and help them,” she said. “It’s good publicity for both the Cooperative Extension Service and the University.”

Korth said Smith’s commitment to education has helped Arkansas growers of all scales and skill levels.

“For over 18 years, Sherrie has been diagnosing and helping to solve the problems of gardeners, farmers and commercial operations in Arkansas,” he said. “Just as importantly, she is an effective educator and was very active at garden shows, extension events, and other public outreach activities. She has also helped to train students over the years, and several of these have gone on to very successful careers as professional plant pathologists.”

Smith said she has particularly enjoyed being part of the service extension provides to Arkansans.

“I do love the outreach part of it,” she said. “While it’s always fun to solve a puzzle and get an answer, I love that we are helping people — whether it’s a granny with a rose in the yard or a grower with 5,000 acres of soybean and corn, we are providing a service that helps people, either emotionally, if it’s a plant you’re attached to at your home, or if it’s your livelihood.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in being of service to people and really, that’s what the extension service is about: being of service to people in Arkansas,” Smith said. “The extension service is out there doing the work, and it’s an honor to be associated with the people who do that work.”

Ready for retirement

Rick Cartwright, former director of the Cooperative Extension Service, said he originally hired Smith at the Plant Health Clinic and that she “brought a can-do attitude and outstanding work ethic.”

“Over time, she transformed the clinic into a 21st-century model, with quick turnaround and timely results,” Cartwright said. “Her articles and searchable newsletters are widely used by county agents and the public, including me, both in Arkansas and around the country.

“I received many accolades over the years about her exceptional dedication and importance in extension,” he said. “She will be sorely missed, but I wish her all happiness and satisfaction in well-earned retirement.”

Smith, who lives in Joplin, Missouri, has been commuting 87 miles one-way to work in Fayetteville for the last 13 years. She said she’s “pretty tired of dodging deer in bad weather,” and she looks forward to taking a break from traveling for a while. In her new spare time, Smith’s six-month-old puppy, a golden doodle named Betty Boop, is sure to keep her busy, as will her flower gardens, her koi pond and her indoor 125-gallon tropical fish tank.

Reflecting on her time at the Plant Health Clinic, Smith said she will be leaving with many valuable friendships.

“I have made some really good friends here in the state among county agents, among government officials, and broadly across the United States, because plant pathology is a small world,” she said. “A lot of us know people from all over the place, even outside of the country. It’s been a delightful experience for me.”

Visit the Arkansas Plant Health Clinic website to learn more, search the Clinic Archive or the plant disease image database.

To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit Follow us on X and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on X at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on X at @AgInArk. 

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact:
Rebekah Hall