You don’t have to be an Old Testament scholar to know the story of Queen Esther, the average Hebrew girl whose above-average looks landed her a royal title and, more significantly, an audience with the malleable King Xerxes. She used this influence wisely, saving her people from a cruel fate and leaving her mark on history. As the writer of the Bible book bearing her name put it, she was made queen “for such a time as this.”
In the two and a half millennia since, the timing and talents of others have coincided in such a way as to remove all doubt that they were chosen for a specific challenge. Mitchell Pate is one of these people. While his task is admittedly less historic than Queen Esther’s, it is a weighty one, and there is no denying that he was cut out for it.
As director of the College of Agriculture’s Poultry Research Farm, Pate oversees the day-to-day operations of research within Auburn’s poultry science department, working with faculty and industry to ensure all trials are run correctly and, thus, yield accurate results. Pate, the college’s 2016 Alumni Service Award recipient, calls it a “dream job,” and it’s one he was well prepared for when he began it 10 years ago.
That preparation began on his family’s farm near Lowndesboro, Alabama, where he grew up helping out in his parents’ two commercial poultry houses. The Pates raised pullets, or egg-laying hens, and with years of experience under his belt, Pate naturally transitioned to paid work in the poultry industry when he graduated from high school.
“Growing up, I was always told, ‘You’ve got to go to college,’ ” Pate says. But with a good job at Sylvest Farms in Montgomery, he put off returning to the classroom for several years. Finally prevailed upon by his wife, Beth, and his boss, Maynard Sylvest, Pate decided to “take the plunge” and head to the Loveliest Village.
He completed his degree in poultry science in 1985 and went back to work in the industry he loves, spending time in live production with Gold Kist before returning to Sylvest to lead the company’s milling operations. Along the way, Pate was gaining invaluable knowledge, but that’s not all.
“Mitchell has a great network of friends and a strong reputation in the industry,” says Don Conner, head of the Department of Poultry Science.
THE RIGHT EXPERIENCE
When the department began searching for someone to lead the feed mill and research farm, these two factors helped make Pate the ideal candidate for the job.
And given what was on the horizon for the department at that time, it was vital that just the right person be hired. With plans in place to construct a state-of-the-art feed milling plant in the short term and, later, to replace the university’s antiquated farm entirely, the department needed someone with both the industry and academic know-how to help design the new facilities.
That’s just what Pate has spent the past decade doing. From managing research and production at the $7.1 million, 12,500 square foot mill to conducting tours of the facility to fundraising for future needs, there’s nary a dull moment in his work days—days he says are longer and more full than they ever were in his industry work. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s a good thing he enjoys hard work, because, like most folks in agriculture, he won’t be getting a breather any time soon. Construction of Auburn’s new Charles C. Miller Jr. Poultry Research and Education Center is now underway. When the center is completed, Auburn will be home to the world’s premier poultry research and education program. Because Alabama’s poultry industry employs more than 86,000 people, this research and education stands to have an enormous economic impact right here at home.
But Alabamians aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the vision Pate is helping bring to life. As scientists and producers around the globe search for ways to feed 9 billion people by 2050, animal nutrition research like that happening in Auburn is critical to increase efficiency and output.
And that makes Pate proud.
“We will soon be able to collect more data, more accurately, in a more biosecure environment,” he says. “That means more money for the farmer and more food for people.”
It’s a noble endeavor indeed, and one for which Pate was most certainly made.