This scientist brings research, teaching and private industry experience – plus a knack for diplomacy and a problem-solving approach – to his new job leading the Prestage Department of Poultry Science.
Dr. C. Michael Williams has spent his life immersed in the world of agriculture. While growing up on a tobacco farm near rural Bunn, he spent many of his high-school days caring for chickens and cleaning up their litter for a local pullet producer.
Throughout his career, Williams has built on that agricultural background. He’s come to be a widely respected agricultural teacher and scientist – one who led one of the largest and most politically, socially and economically important research efforts in N.C. State University’s history.
And today, he finds himself at the helm of academic, research and extension programs of one of the world’s leading – and indeed, one of its few – university poultry science departments.
In September, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Richard Linton named Williams head of N.C. State’s Prestage Department of Poultry Science.
In announcing Williams’ appointment, Linton said that while Williams served as interim poultry science head for a year, he had shown the kind of outstanding service worthy of leading a world-class department.
Despite Williams’ farming roots, with his crew cut, conservatively starched suits and an immaculate Scott Hall office, he doesn’t fit the stereotype of agricultural-researcher-turned-administrator.
And neither does his resume.
In addition to his academic research and teaching experience, Williams has worked in the private sector and among global executives, scientists, entrepreneurs, government regulators, farmers and event politicians.
Through it all, he’s earned a reputation for taking a sophisticated approach that takes into account the varied viewpoints that surround complex agricultural issues such as waste management and antibiotic use.
That approach has taken Williams around the globe as a leading poultry scientist and waste management expert and speaker. But he’s never strayed far from his humble agricultural roots. Or from N.C. State.
That’s because he appreciates the opportunities he has been given at the university. He likes the people involved in agriculture. And through his research and teaching, he loves taking on the most complicated challenges that affect American agriculture today.
Williams first came to the university to study zoology in the early 1970s. It was then that he took a CALS honors course that, as he put it, “introduced me to research and essentially launched my career.”
The class spurred him, he said, to stay at N.C. State after he graduated in 1975 to study for a master’s degree in poultry science and to serve as a teaching assistant. He earned a master’s in poultry science in 1977, and, because he had proven to be a good teacher, longtime biological sciences coordinator Dr. Charles Lytle asked him to stay on as a biological sciences instructor.
In the 1980s, Williams began pursuing a Ph.D. one course at a time while continuing to work as an instructor. For five years, he studied with Dr. Jason Shih, now an emeritus poultry scientist, on research related to bioenergy from waste products. After spending his nights, weekends and summers studying and conducting research, in 1989 he got his Ph.D. in nutrition, with a minor in microbiology.
It was around this time that Williams took his only hiatus from agriculture. With the expertise he’d gained in waste-related research, he took a job as a laboratory supervisor for a waste remediation company in the Research Triangle and worked his way up to associate vice president.
While he was happy with that job, when CALS’ administration came calling to offer him a job to develop what became known as the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center, or APWMC, in the 1990s, he didn’t refuse.
Under Williams’s guidance, the College established the center in 1994 with partners from other universities and from the agricultural industry. The APWMC quickly became a national and international focal point for research and development related to waste management systems for animal agriculture.
It was a time when hog and poultry production had been rapidly expanding in North Carolina, and it was not long before the hog industry’s lagoon-and-spray-field system, used for decades to manage swine waste, took center stage as a political issue.
In February 1995, one of the state’s top newspapers published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of reports that brought attention to the environmental effects of that system. And in July, a lagoon at a large Onslow County hog farm overflowed, spilling more than 20 million gallons of waste into the New River.
Amid a public outcry over odor and the potential for more spills, the state General Assembly placed a moratorium that limited the industry’s growth. Then in 2000, Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms entered into an agreement with the N.C. attorney general to fund research and development activities aimed at finding better ways to treat animal waste.
N.C. State’s chancellor tapped Williams for the dubious honor of leading that $17 million effort. While related research continues, the project officially culminated in 2006 with Williams reporting on a combination of waste management technologies that he considered had met the requirements described in the agreement as “environmentally superior” to the traditional system.
While Williams’ determinations have been controversial, they were informed by one of the university’s most significant research efforts ever. Some consider those efforts seminal, pushing the science of waste management ahead. Ongoing research focuses on making technologies more economically feasible and, in some cases, sources of commercially valuable waste byproducts.
Problem solving to find such win-wins is perhaps the hallmark of Williams’ approach to his ongoing duties as APWMC director and to his job as department head.
He wants the department to continue making a difference for food production globally, but particularly in one of the nation’s leading poultry producing state – North Carolina. Here, he noted, poultry production accounts for about 38 percent of all cash receipts from agriculture.
“Poultry production in this state accounts for tens of thousands of jobs and millions in economic activity,” Williams said. “We want to continue to see this industry grow and provide opportunities in North Carolina, and we want to see growth … that is environmentally sustainable to all citizens of the state.”
To that end, poultry science’s 17 faculty members are continuing to address environmental challenges while also looking to solve other industry challenges such as developing more affordable feed sources, improving production efficiency and animal health, and meeting consumer demand for alternatives to antibiotics.
And they are working hard to interest students in poultry science and prepare them for careers in a global industry that’s growing rapidly as an expanding world population increases the demand for affordable protein.
Amid this growth, “the industry’s number one message to us,” Williams said, “is that we need to produce more students. They need more poultry production and processing managers, veterinarians and quality assurance personnel, and they need graduates who are prepared to cross disciplines – who not only are skilled in science but also understand business.”
As a result, the department is planning to offer a professional science master’s degree in addition to its more traditional bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. And it’s working, Williams said, to increase the number of students enrolled in poultry science’s degree programs.
“As it stands right now, our graduating seniors typically have multiple job offers,” Williams said. “So we know we need more good students.”
One of the challenges to recruiting enough students to fill industry demand is that students with passions for agriculture tend to come from rural areas. And students from those areas, Williams explained, often don’t have the college entrance test scores they need to compete with prospective students from urban areas.
Two CALS programs are designed to help students past N.C. State admissions hurdles and prepare them for university success. Williams believes these programs are key to forging new pathways for such students to get into N.C. State:
A.S.P.I.R.E. (ACT Supplemental Preparation in Rural Education) helps rural students prepare for the ACT, a test that N.C. State requires of prospective students. Better test scores, Williams explained, means better chances for these student to get into N.C. State to pursue studies in poultry and other agricultural sciences. (See related story.)
While A.S.P.I.R.E. helps students raise their test scores so they can compete for admission, STEAM (Student Transfer Enrollment Advising and Mentoring) guarantees admission for agricultural students who meet certain criteria. As a CALS representative to N.C. State’s Faculty Senate, Williams lobbied hard for the program.
He explained that through STEAM, students who have made N.C. State waiting list status can study at a North Carolina community college and other university for a year, then transfer to one of N.C. State’s bachelor’s-level agricultural programs.
To qualify for guaranteed admission, a student must take targeted courses that will transfer to the university and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average at the community college or other university.
During their freshman year STEAM students get individualized mentoring and advising from university faculty members. And they take part in N.C. State classes during the summer that follows their high-school graduation.
The STEAM program started last year, and 12 students with plans to matriculate to CALS programs, including poultry science, are now studying at community colleges across the state.
Williams said he can relate to the students that A.S.P.I.R.E. and STEAM are reaching. Having grown up in a rural area himself, he went to Louisburg College for a year before being admitted to N.C. State as a sophomore.
Though he doesn’t point it out himself, one could argue that Williams’ career successes are proof that students who choose such unconventional routes can not only be successful, they can make significant differences in preparing agriculture in North Carolina and around the globe solve problems now and in the future.
“Agriculture has its fair share of challenges. And being a department head is a challenge, too,” he said. “In this position, what I hope to do is to listen, to be open-minded, to be a mediator, to treat everybody fairly – and in doing so, help position this department for continued success.
“We want to, and need to, keep making a profound and significant impact not only for the poultry industry that we are here to serve,” he added, “but for all the people of this state.”
— Dee Shore