Gifts from UGA alumni create CAES Rural Scholars Program

A new scholarship program funded by University of Georgia alumni and benefitting qualified students from rural areas of Georgia who seek to earn degrees from UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) is now recruiting students for its first cohort to begin in fall 2021.

Gifts and pledges totaling $500,000 from UGA Foundation trustee and CAES alumnus Keith Kelly (BSA ’80) and his wife, Pam Kelly (BSHE ’80), and CAES alumnus Robert Varnedoe (BSA ’83) will endow two CAES Rural Scholars Scholarship Funds and create two non-endowed CAES Rural Scholars Scholarship Funds, which will provide renewable yearly scholarships for a cohort of four to six students every fall.

The annual academic scholarship of $7,000 per year will assist in recruiting the most qualified students from rural communities in the state of Georgia who have excelled academically, have shown strong leadership abilities and community service, and seek a degree at CAES.

“The Rural Scholars Program will offer students from rural areas of Georgia a first-class undergraduate experience at UGA. Modeled after the University’s most prestigious fellowships and scholarships, the Rural Scholars Program is designed to give exceptional students from rural communities unique learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom,” said Josef Broder, associate dean for academic affairs at CAES.

Building on the success of similar UGA merit scholarship programs, the Rural Scholars Program will provide support for participating students through the cohort model, staff support and co-curricular programming. Scholars may have the opportunity to participate in additional activities to enhance the college experience, such as the Freshman College Summer Experience and experiential learning opportunities, supported by grants, that allow students to learn outside the classroom.

“I am grateful to these generous alumni, who are opening doors for students from rural areas of our state,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “The CAES Rural Scholars Program will help students achieve their educational and professional goals while supporting Georgia’s number one industry.”

Kelly, who earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from CAES in 1980, was inspired to support a scholarship program at CAES for rural students because he has observed and deeply understands the challenges rural families and students face when planning for the future.

“Part of our goal is to get young people to understand the need to go back to their communities and start something that will benefit those communities,” Kelly said. “We are excited about our students who are participating in entrepreneurship competitions, like FABricate, that allow them to formulate business plans they want to pursue. The opportunities within the agricultural industry are very diverse.”

While students from rural areas may be equally qualified, they may not have access to some of the resources available to students in larger school districts. With this in mind, Kelly committed himself to providing qualified rural students with a pathway to exceptional educational experiences, and the CAES Rural Scholars Program began to take shape.

He enlisted the participation of friend and 1983 CAES graduate Robert Varnedoe to endow the first scholarship funds. Varnedoe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science, grew up in Barney, a town of about 150 people in south Georgia’s Brooks County.

“Personally, I feel a strong desire to help students in agriculture. I think that it is still a great opportunity for young people to continue in a field that is near and dear to my heart and that is changing with the times,” said Varnedoe, CEO of Lee Container. “We don’t focus enough of our resources on rural areas, and I am proud to be able to offer more opportunities for rural students to succeed. These students are the future of agriculture and agribusinesses in our state and beyond, and this will provide them with a strong education to carry them and the industry forward.”

Information on the scholarship and an application timeline is available at

Down to Earth: How one alumnus found his passion in soil research

Frank Henning (PHD ’10) currently works as a senior scientist in the Duluth, Georgia, office of Woodard & Curran, an integrated engineering, science and operations company. Dr. Henning graduated from the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences with a Ph.D. in horticulture. He coordinates environmental field studies, scientific investigations, Clean Water Act permitting, environmental policy studies, restoration projects and environmental construction management.

Dr. Henning says he chose to study soil because “soil is the ultimate recycling bin; it has the most amazing capacity to transform wastes into life.”

While many think of soil as critical in the agricultural realm, he said it is important to study soil for conservation as well.

His appreciation for soil grows with every project. These projects include restoring native vegetation along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, developing geospatial tools to reduce erosion in fire stricken areas of California, and monitoring changes in salinity along the Georgia coast.

He also has worked on preventative projects to protect water resources from erosion during development and has designed urban landscapes that treat pollutants and infiltrate runoff.

If you’re interested in joining Dr. Henning in solving grand challenges that face our agricultural and environmental futures, please consider giving to the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Fund.

40 Under 40 reflections: Sam Watson

The 40 Under 40 program began in 2011, and celebrates the personal, professional and philanthropic achievements of young UGA graduates. To continue our 40 Under 40 coverage, we caught up with three agriculture professionals–Sam Watson, Travis Moore and Amelia Dortch–from the 2017 honoree class to learn about their career journeys and the wisdom they’ve gained along the way. 

Meet Sam Watson

  • 40 Under 40 Class of 2017
  • BSA ’02
  • Farmer at Chill C Farms and Georgia state representative

Sam Watson, 2017 40 Under 40 honoree

Sam Watson balances being a Georgia farmer and state representative by taking things one day at a time. As a farmer, he grows, ships and packs bell peppers, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, cabbage and tomatoes. He also raises cattle. As a state representative, he represents District 172 and serves on the rural caucus. We caught up with Watson to discuss how the 40 Under 40 program has impacted him a year later and about the value of a UGA education.

Nailing his dream job

“A career in agriculture is what I’ve always wanted to do. My first job out of college was with a large vegetable operation which led to my interest in produce. I grew up as a livestock kid so vegetable production was a big change for me.”

Being named 40 Under 40

“I am very appreciative. One of the driving forces behind my decision to run for the State House was to try to be a voice for rural Georgia and agriculture. It’s an essential part of our state’s economy, but there are only a few people in state government who have a solid understanding of the challenges facing communities like mine. Being recognized with 40 Under 40 gives me another opportunity to share the importance of my industry–and to advocate for, not just agriculture, but for rural communities across our state.”

Sam Watson, 2017 40 Under 40 honoree

Greatest risk–an even better reward

“In December of 2012, I quit my ‘real’ job to run for State Representative for House District 172 and farm full time. There were no guarantees that I would be successful at either, but I prayed about it and took a giant leap of faith, and here I am. Some months are certainly more stressful than others, but I remind myself to do the duty that lies nearest.”

Lessons from UGA

“UGA provided me with a quality education, but also forced me outside my comfort zone. If that didn’t happen I wouldn’t have ever left the farm and been able to help make an impact today.”

Words of wisdom

“Work hard – no amount of education can make up for a poor work ethic.”

Career destination

“My career goals are to grow my farming operation, help feed the world and continue to make our state a great place to live and to work and raise a family on the farm.”