Sarah Vest pulled her feet into her muddy boots and trekked onto a field with pen and paper in-hand.

The Virginia Tech animal and poultry sciences major was there to interview a farmer whose cattle died from Theileria orientalis, an emerging parasite that is transmitted through the saliva of the Asian long-horned tick and was killing cattle around the commonwealth.

It was part of a research project she was doing for a class in which she had to interview local Virginia Cooperative Extension agents on their experiences helping local producers find practical solutions. Her local agent, Tom Stanley, had told her about the two T. orientalis cases that sprung up in Rockbridge County. She interviewed C.S. Fitzgerald, the farmer who lost cattle to the disease.

“The emerging issues around the Asian Longhorn Tick and T. orientalis were clearly going to be important issues in the near term,” Stanley said. “A select group of veterinarians in Rockbridge County and at Virginia Tech were on the leading edge of understanding T. orientalis in Virginia and Sarah’s well-timed and thorough investigative article proved just the thing to get the word out to cattle producers in the Mid-Atlantic ahead of the 2020 tick season.”

The need pointed out by Stanley helped further guide Vest’s research, and the interviews further cemented the emerging importance of this disease.

“Fitzgerald told me about how the cattle on his farm seemed fine one day, but the next day he found one dead in the field,” said Vest.

Additional cattle then began to show symptoms – anemia, labored breathing, foamy nasal discharge, fever, diarrhea, lethargy, anorexia, and weight loss — and Vest reached out to the veterinarian who confirmed the diagnosis. After speaking with the veterinarian, Vest learned that not all cases of the disease are fatal.

“I realized that there are ways cattle can overcome the disease, and that research is being done to develop a vaccine for T. orientalis,” Vest said.

In April, Vest was named the outstanding senior in the College of Agriculture and Life SciencesDepartment of Animal and Poultry Sciences. After graduation this May, Vest wants to become an Extension agent. She will now be the one inspiring youth to excel, whether in an agriculture-related field or inspiring them to be higher achievers.

“My Virginia Tech experiences opened my eyes to the other parts of agriculture and I saw that there's so much to it,” Vest said.

A national stage

A few weeks after she published her research, Vest received a call from a Washington Post reporter who wanted to quote her T. orientalis work in an article.

“He said he could tell that I put the time into speaking to the right individuals and making sure that the information was accurate and in a form that was easy to understand.” Vest said.

Identifying the disease early has been proven difficult since it is often too late to save the animal after they are symptomatic. Early testing is required to prevent the spread of the tick-borne disease.

Sarah Vest

Sarah Vest

“After my article was published and the Washington Post story came out, some farmers reached out to the Extension specialists to ask them if they were testing all their bulls for the disease,” Vest said. “That's not something that's happened in the past because no one's known about T. Orientalis. It’s a big deal that the discussion about preventative testing is happening.”

After conducting the research, Vest realized how much she “really did love helping people become more aware of topics that impact their daily lives and their livelihood.”

“This was very rewarding and made me confident that I was pursuing the right path to become an Extension agent,” Vest said.

Building on history

Agriculture is a family affair for the Vests – her father and grandfather run a cow-calf Angus beef operation that has been in their family for five generations, and her mom runs a farm where she trains horses and teaches riding lessons. Her father has also worked in agricultural conservation with Trout Unlimited.

“I've always looked up to my grandfather because you can just tell that he has a love for agriculture,” Vest said. “He also has a life-long drive to learn, and he's such a hard worker.”

Involvement with 4-H as a child further influenced Vest, but what truly sparked her interest in agriculture as a whole was an experience that she had the summer before starting at Virginia Tech — competing in the Outstanding Young Agriculturists Competition.

“It opened my eyes to the other parts of agriculture and I saw that there's so much to it,” Vest said. “I realized the importance of what farmers do and even though they don’t make a lot of money, they farm because they love it. We would not survive without all their hard work that goes into producing our food.”

Involvement continued in college, with Vest joining the Collegiate Young Farmers Club when she had the opportunity to advocate for agriculture and network with farmers around Virginia and students who have a passion for agriculture.

I love this organization and was truly honored to serve as the president for this academic year. We had a variety of outreach events planned for this semester, such as reading books in local elementary schools and hosting a panel for kids to learn about Virginia Tech and about how they should come to Virginia Tech to be in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,” Vest said. “These won’t be happening this semester, but we’re exploring ways to have our outreach efforts go digital in light of current events.”

Vest and her father – who was also an animal science major – even had some of the same professors, including  Dan Eversole in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences.

Through Vest’s journey as a Hokie, she received the support of a variety of donors, including receiving the Arden N. Huff Scholarship from 2017 through 2019 and the Fred Campbell Horse Industry Student Leader Scholarship in 2019. College of Agriculture and Life Sciences donors, as well as donors of the university, supported Vest’s desire to better herself and the communities she touches.

Near the end of her junior year, Vest realized there was a need for people to be working hands-on in the communities, helping the community members be successful. Vest applied to the online masters of agricultural and life sciences program and was accepted in July 2019, starting in August 2019.

“As I was taking a lot of these courses over the last two semesters, I realized what it is that Extension does,” Vest said. “To me, the most impactful part was realizing that there are so many people who don't know what Extension is — including myself. I didn't realize how significant their role is in communities. That is motivating to me.”

“I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me after graduation. The agricultural industry means the world to me, and I hope I can devote my life to helping it thrive,” Vest said. “I am so grateful for my family, the Virginia Tech faculty, my peers, and many other agricultural professionals who have supported me on this journey. I wouldn’t be where I am today without each one of them.”

—    Written by Max Esterhuizen