Big Man on Campus

Dr. Tony Brannon helped create a nationally recognized school of agriculture by “building it on the ground and then standing it up.”

By Claire Vath | Photos By Art Meripol

Tony Brannon, right, with his brother Tim, owner of AGCO farm equipment dealer, B&G Equipment in Paris, Tenn.

Tony Brannon, right, with his brother Tim, owner of AGCO farm equipment dealer, B&G Equipment in Paris, Tenn.

Gravel crunches under the tires of an imposingly large Ford pickup as it comes to a halt, its paint the color of milk chocolate. One is immediately put at ease when Murray State University’s Dr. Tony Brannon slams his truck door shut and greets you with a smile that’s equal parts friendly and mischievous.

As he leads visitors on a campus tour, his fervor for the Hutson School of Agriculture is infectious. The 2013 Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) National Educator of the Year knows every inch of the school, where he’s served as dean for 10 years. He also knows the faces of just about every student who passes by on his or her way to class.

Some credit him with saving the agriculture program at Murray State, but Brannon, as modest as he is affable, shrugs such a notion. He’s famously tight-lipped about himself, but get him started on the Hutson School of Agriculture, and he’ll talk your ear off.

Raised on his family’s farm full of Allis-Chalmers equipment, just south of Murray and across the Tennessee state line, Brannon earned a bachelor’s and master’s from MSU, and his doctorate from Oklahoma State University before returning to his original alma mater in 1988 as assistant professor.

Back then, the ag program at Murray State was small, and, well, it was foundering. The overall industry was in crisis. But Brannon, with his ever-sunny disposition, prefers not to dwell. Rather, he relays this analogy: One year, he took a group of tobacco farmers to the top of the Empire State Building in New York.

Looking upon the city’s twinkling lights, Brannon was informed one of the farmers was so terrified of heights he couldn’t even climb up into his own tobacco barn. When he reached the man whose heels were dug in against the inside wall of the New York skyscraper, Brannon asked what he thought of the view.

The petrified farmer replied: “Man, if I had built this, I would have had to have built it on the ground and then stood it up!”

Brannon believes it’s the perfect analogy for the Hutson School of Agriculture. “We have always had a strong foundation in agriculture at MSU; the teachers when I was here as a student formed that,” he says.

“However, we have taken it to the next level by building it on the ground and then standing it up. We have gained new heights, now reaching more and better students from not only our 18-county service region, but also from all across Kentucky and surrounding states. Our programs are now more complex and in-depth.”

Under his steady hand, the university has been aggressive in recruitment efforts, but Brannon believes the key to enrolling and retaining students in ag schools comes down to quality. “I don’t care how much you recruit and say what you do; it won’t work if you can’t do what you say and perform. To have a quality program, you must first have quality people. Certainly, you must have excellent facilities, livestock, land and equipment, but people and leadership are so much more important.”

Brannon also believes a sterling reputation is crucial. “When students, parents and industry leaders hear others outside the university brag on the quality of our programs, it means so much more than hearing it from us,” he says. “We have been able to consistently build on our excellent reputation to the point that people all across the region and state know of our program and respect it as being one of the best. Frankly, our program may not be the biggest, but we are large enough to serve you and small enough to know you,” he adds heartily.

<< See the full story, “Major Changes: The New Boom in Ag Education”