From left to right: 4-Hers Joshua Puac-Puac and Qudre Joyner, 4-H Agent Guy Holly (with cacao pod), and 4-H Agriscience Associate Kurt Taylor at the U.S. Botanical Garden in January 2020.

From left to right: 4-Hers Joshua Puac-Puac and Qudre Joyner, 4-H Agent Guy Holly (with cacao pod), and 4-H Agriscience Associate Kurt Taylor at the U.S. Botanical Garden in January 2020.

The best Extension professionals see their work as more of calling than a job, and believe in the power of education to improve lives and communities. 

Kurt Taylor was one such person. As a 4-H Agriscience Associate with Extension at North Carolina A&T State University, he helped youth across the state and in some of its most under-served communities gain an understanding and a passion for agricultural science.

“He made this happen by introducing them to some fun projects and then connecting those projects to the power of science,” said Claudette Smith, Ph.D., associate administrator of Extension at A&T and 4-H program leader. “He helped young people see these projects as possible career paths that could lead to a bright future.”

Taylor was only 40 when he passed away in January 2021 after a short illness. But his commitment to providing innovative STEM and agriscience programs will continue to impact youth in North Carolina for many years to come.

Taylor was born and raised in Jamaica and was an N.C. A&T alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in Earth and environmental science and master’s degrees in plant, soil and environmental science and professional services agricultural education. He loved to tell stories about his family and was quick to laugh and make others laugh, according to those who knew him best. His expertise, experience, and dedication played a role in some of Extension at A&T’s most impactful programs, including growing greenhouse vegetables for Greensboro residents in food deserts, and helping troubled teens and young men build character and self-esteem through hydroponic gardening. His hard work and innovation resulted in a greenhouse at the Discover Ag site on the N.C. A&T University Farm, which grows plants both in soil and through an aquaculture system.

One of Taylor’s most lasting contributions to North Carolina 4-H was his creation of hydroponics systems and his dedication to teaching the basics of building and operating hydroponic gardens. He created the No Soil Just Water curriculum and trained 4-H agents, teachers, and 4-H members to present the program. He helped high school students in Bertie County set up a hydroponics system at their school—a project that provided new learning experiences for students and food crops for needy families. He accompanied two of those high school students to the National 4-H Youth Conference on AgriScience, where they taught No Soil, Just Water to their peers. For kids from a limited resource community, who often have few chances to travel or develop their leadership skills, this was an important experience that focused their career interests and built their self-esteem.

“I had no idea about hydroponics until he began to teach me how to do it,” said Guy Holley, 4-H agent in Bertie County.  “He expanded my horizons and helped me see how hydroponics can feed individuals and families.”

Holly brought Taylor to Bertie County to help build a hydroponics system at Bertie Early College High School in 2019. Taylor provided expert advice on assembling the PVC pipes, grow lights and water tanks that comprised the bulk of the hydroponics system, while allowing the students to do the actual construction. The students grew lettuce, cabbage, arugula and basil – as well as some animal feed crops, like barley, rye, buckwheat and sunflower. In January 2020, two Bertie Early College students—Joshua Puac-Puac and Qudre Joyner—attended the National Youth Conference on AgriScience at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where they taught the No Soil, Just Water curriculum to about 30 of their peers from across the country. Holly and Taylor accompanied them to the conference and Holly recalled a side trip the four made to the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington DC.

“We saw coffee plants and cacao trees and Kurt had stories about picking coffee beans as a kid in Jamaica,” said Holly. “Picking coffee by hand is very hard work and it made me realize why he was so capable of relating to the lifestyles of our limited-income youth in Bertie County. He grew up on a farm without the luxuries of technology. He understood their needs.”

Puac-Puac and Joyner also presented virtually at the 2021 National Youth Conference on AgriScience. Puac-Puac is now a community college student who plans to transfer to N.C. A&T in two years to pursue his interests in agriculture and technology. Joyner is studying business at Mount Olive University and plans to use his skills in an agriculture-related business.

“Kurt loved taking youth to the National Agriscience event, and he was never content to just take them—he urged them to present each time, and they did,” recalled Smith. “The goal was to help them grow their skills, not just in building a hydroponics system but in understanding science and cultivating critical thinking skills they can use throughout life.

“He was not just growing plants, he was growing positive, productive young people.”

Rosalind Dale, Ed.D., administrator for Extension at A&T said that although she wishes Taylor would’ve been with Extension and his family and friends for many more years, she nonetheless feels blessed to have known him and experienced his creativity, compassion, and humor.

“We all wish he was still with us, but his impact on the people he worked with and the youth of North Carolina is the mark of a life well lived,” she said. “He made the world a little brighter through his beliefs, his actions, and his ability to care for others.”