For four decades Rowland Alston has watched and chronicled South Carolina’s transition from a rural to urban state as a Clemson University Extension Service agent. For almost two decades, Alston, who is a lake of agriculture and horticulture knowledge, has discussed those changes on “Making it Grow!,” the Emmy-award winning program produced by ETV and Clemson.
“When it comes to diversity and uniqueness, the Palmetto state is second to none,” said Alston, who has traveled the state talking to farmers and gardeners from the Grand Strand to the Upstate.
When it comes to expertise on how to make things grow, Alston is considered second to none. After 42 years working with the university, he’s retiring. He’s also turning over “Making it Grow” hosting duties to current co-host Amanda McNulty. Alston’s final broadcast will air at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ETV.
“I think it’s difficult to do something for 42 years and walk away and say you’re not going to miss something,” he said. “I was wobbling and 2012 came and I decided that was it. I do it with reservations.”
Alston, 64, grew up in Northwest Sumter County near Rembert and Horatio, and has always had strong rural connections. He was raised on the 600-acre family farm, a land grant from England’s King George II in 1735. Alston still has the official documentation. He attended Clemson on a conservation scholarship.
After college, Alston, wanted to enter the Air Force to fly the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine supersonic jet. He couldn’t because he was color-blind, so he turned to the Army, where he failed another physical.
“I had a hearing problem because I had shot guns so much,” he said. “But that’s what you do in the country.”
Alston returned to Clemson.
“Back then during Vietnam, they didn’t have anybody in graduate school,” he said. “Everybody was in Vietnam, so I went to graduate school.”
He began working for Clemson’s extension service in Sumter 1970, following the footsteps of his father, a 1942 Clemson graduate.
“I didn’t know my father,” he said of Rowland Alston, Sr., who died in 1950 at age 29 when the Alston was 2.
“He wasn’t able to fully pursue his career,” Alston continued. “His time was called. I thought it would be an honor to him. I always wanted to do what he did.”
Alston established an endowment in his father’s name at Clemson. (His son, also named Rowland, graduated from the school in 1999. He’s a Columbia attorney.)
“I’ve done everything to try and perpetuate his memory,” he said.
Things to talk about
“Making it Grow!” debuted in October 1993 and featured a large ginkgo farm in Sumter County and Cruse Vineyards near Chester. Since then, the program has featured gardens, artists, agritourism, museums and festivals, all shown through an educational lens.
Alston, who produced and hosted ETV’s “Agriculture Today,” a program that focused on commercial farming issues in the state from the late ’70s to 1993, thought he’d quickly run out of things to talk about on “Making it Grow!”
“We were unsure about how long it would last,” said the retired Ed Sexauer, who was a production manager and one of the co-creators of the show with Jim Barnard and Alston. “Rowland was certainly saying he would not be able to get many stories past the first year.
“Today, I’m sure he has files that are several inches thick filled with suggestions.”
The live call-in show, which has won six regional Emmys and nine Telly awards, began with Alston and three panelists answering questions and generally bantering with each other. Alston, who has written columns for several newspapers including The State, was a TV natural. And he never used a Teleprompter during the more than 500 live episodes.
“The way I try to do it is be who you are and not pretend,” he said. “Everybody has friends and they like you for who you are and not who you pretend to be.
“When you’re the host of a show and you’re running out of things to say, you have to dig deep. You have to keep moving.”
The “Making it Grow!” format is about the same as when it originated. McNulty, also a Clemson extension agent, has been on the show for nine years. Since she was in the extension office, Alston asked her to co-host.
“I didn’t have enough sense to be nervous,” said McNulty, who was raised near A.C. Flora High School where there was 30 acres of undeveloped land behind her house.
And now that she’s been named the successor?
“For one thing, if plants die, it’s not a person,” she said. “It’s really fun and our panelists usually have a great depth of knowledge. Live TV is great because you can’t start over.”
McNulty, who writes a column that is printed in The State, sees the show as the frontline of environmental protection. And her knowledge runs deep, too. For example, here’s why grass clippings should be left on lawns lest they get into waterways.
“If you put them on the street, they wash down the storm drain and they cause algae blooms,” she began. “And when the algae have used up all the nutrients in the grass clippings, they die and when the decomposers break down the algae all the oxygen gets used.”
And fish need oxygen.
“We have a real opportunity to make a difference to protect the waters in South Carolina,” McNulty said.
Watching it grow
Since he announced his retirement last month, Alston has been frequently asked about his most memorable moments from the show.
“I think it’s not necessarily about where I’ve been, but it’s about the people,” he said. “This state is so vastly different in people. Just some interesting characters.”
Alston recalled his time with Philip Simmons, the Charleston-based artisan and blacksmith who made wrought iron gates that have been displayed at the State Museum and the Smithsonian Museum. Simmons died in 2009.
“I think about him a lot,” Alston said. “Even with all the glory and publicity he got, he led a very simple life. In other words, his notoriety didn’t go to his head.”
Alston, himself, will return to a simple life where his time won’t be dictated by deadlines. He’ll be on his John Deere Gator, driving the 600 acres of woodlands and pastures, half of which is in conservation easement, meaning it can never be developed.
“I love the outdoors,” said Alston, whose wife, Martha, teaches English at Central Carolina Technical College. “Everybody thinks I’m a big gardener. I’m a wildlife gardener.”
Though he’s watched areas of the state transition from rural to urban, his land has maintained a bucolic ambience.
“The wildlife are getting squeezed out,” he said. “As South Carolina gets more shopping centers and houses, in many ways (the wildlife are) becoming a nuisance to homeowners. What I try to do on my property is provide three things that are essential and that’s food, shelter and escape.”
By food, he doesn’t mean tossing corn for deer to feed on during hunting season. For deer, he has oak trees and clover. While others marvel at Alston’s encyclopedic knowledge of nature, he doesn’t feel he’ll ever know enough.
“The more you get involved in science, the more each day you learn, the more you learn you don’t know,” he said. “I get stumped all the time. I don’t consider myself an expert at anything.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.