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Zone 5 Holds Virtual Plant ID Contest for Employees

By Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist - Zone 5 ♦ May 2020

When the COVID-19 virus hit America in the Spring of 2020, it affected everyone’s lives in different ways. Agriculture workers, including USDA employees, were deemed essential and were required to report to work every day, following strict safety guidelines.

People found themselves getting their jobs done in new settings – some teleworking and some as the only employee in the office working behind locked doors to serve their customers as best as they can. This new work environment can be very isolating with no personal interaction with people. To help with communication and engagement, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Texas Zone 5 Wildlife Biologist Ricky Linex initiated a Virtual Plant Identification contest among Zone 5 employees.

“Even while we were all in an isolated environment, I wanted to do something to keep people striving to be the best conservationist they can be,” Linex said of the contest. “This telework detail has cost us a lot of opportunities to be out seeing these young plants in their rosette stages or early flowering stage. I wanted to help employees make the most of the situation and continue their plant identification skills.”

Colter Gerald, NRCS district conservationist in Gatesville was the winner of the category with employees that have been with the agency 10 years or more.Prior to the contest, Linex started a “Plant of the Day” email to all Zone 5 employees beginning on April 1 with photos and plant descriptions for a wide variety of plants found in north central Texas. The month culminated in a Virtual Plant Identification. Linex launched the contest via email with a photo with 29 plants numbered for contestants to identify. He divided the contestants into two categories: employees with 10 or more years’ experience and employees with less than 10 years with the agency with the top three employees in each category earning recognition among their peers.

The contest was open for a week with a May 6, 2020 deadline. The results are in and the winners are:

Conservationists with greater than 10 years of NRCS service:

Colter Gerald, NRCS district conservationist in Gatesville was the winner of the category with employees that have been with the agency 10 years or more.1st Place – Colter Gerald, DC Gatesville  correctly answered 27 of 29

2nd Place – Jerry Gleason, RTL Graham  correctly answered 23.5 of 29

3rd Place – Jacob Shaffer, DC Weatherford, correctly answered 20 of 29


Conservationists with less than 10 years of NRCS service:

Alex Homesley, NRCS district conservationist in Gatesville was the winner of the category with employees that have been with the agency less than 10 years.1st Place – Alex Homesley, DC Seymour  correctly answered 25 of 29

2nd Place – Kristen Newman, SC Lampasas  correctly answered 16.5 of 29

3rd Place – Avery Smith, SC Granbury  correctly answered 15 of 29


Team with Highest Participation:

Stephenville team (Jacob Shaffer, Jason Stegemoller, Avery Smith, Travis Swift)

Honorable Mention Graham team (Jerry Gleason, Alex Smith, Tyler Maxwell)  

Field Offices with Highest Participation:

Tied with Cleburne (Matthew Pruner, Sheena Schemm) and Granbury (Jason Stegemoller, Avery Smith).

“The contrast between the over 10 year employees who are all landowners and operators as well as experienced employees with the less than 10 year employees shows the changing of the guard within NRCS ,” Linex noted. “The under 10 year group includes Kristen, second generation as the daughter of a retired DC from Brady,  Avery, new to the world of agriculture and Alex who is sharp as a tack. 

“These results showcase the best of both worlds - the older employees and the new generation of NRCS employees who are wanting to continue the tradition of ‘helping people help the land,’” Linex said.  

Linex graded all of the results and noted several interesting observations with the answers:

Plant 1 – Prickly ash. The second most missed plant with Alex Homesley and Jerry Gleason getting it correct.  If this had been a live plant contest more would have gotten this correct.

Plant 7 - Vetch. Third most missed plant with Jerry Gleason, Colter Gerald, Kathleen Traweek and Avery Smith getting it correct.

Plant 15 – Missouri primrose. This plant gave several trouble with Alex Homesley, Colter Gerald, and Avery Smith getting it correct.

Plant 19. Fragrant mimosa has the pink puffball flower correctly answered by Colter Gerald, Avery Smith, Melissa Sturdivant and Jacob Shaffer.

Plant 22 – Lindheimer’s copperleaf. The Most missed plant, Lindheimer’s copperleaf, page 68 in Range Plants of North Central Texas, found in zone 5 west of the Blackland Prairies.

Plant 23 – Inland ceanothus. Another hard plant missed by all but Colter Gerald and Melissa Sturdivant – will be covered by an upcoming Plant of the Day.

Plant 25 – Knotweed leafflower. I often describe this plant as the “smallest plant with the largest name” correctly answered by Alex Homesley, Colter Gerald and Avery Smith.

As the results indicate, not even the most studied and plant-knowledgeable employees got a perfect score. The plants were just 4-8-inch-long clippings of the full plants and identification by photo proved challenging. Linex intentionally provided some plants that challenged contestants in an effort to push their plant ID skills to new levels.

“One of the best ways to learn plants is to go with someone who knows the plants, someone in your field office can help with plants, or perhaps someone in your team,” Linex told fellow employees. “And involve the zone staff and grazing specialists for assistance in learning plants.”

Linex also encouraged employees to include plant ID walks or plant displays in field days and events with landowners, followed by someone identifying the plants and telling the value of the plants. 

“If you will take the pledge to learn one new plant per week you will likely learn at least 75 plants in a year because while looking up your plant for any week you will see additional plants in the books or online that you have seen in the fields,” Linex advised.  It just takes dedication to continuing each week.  Make it a challenge to check off a new plant on your weekly calendar.”

Congratulations to the top six winners and also to Linex for creatively engaging NRCS employees during an unprecedented time in history