BOZEMAN - Growing up on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation east of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, Verna Billedeaux always liked animals. As a high school student she spent summers working in MSU’s veterinary diagnosis lab as part of a minority apprentice program. That experience was the key to her future.
“I learned I didn’t want to devote my life to research, that I wanted to be on the people side of things,” said Billedeaux, who graduated from Montana State University in 1991.
Once enrolled at MSU, “I met all these kids with ranch backgrounds like mine, but they had skills in public speaking and animal judging,” Billedeaux said, noting her lack of experience in the same areas. “I said, ‘How did you learn about this?’ And they said they learned it in 4-H. They had to tell me what 4-H was.”
4-H is a network of youth clubs organized by the Cooperative Extension Service, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. Volunteer adult leaders help kids age 5-19 sign up for projects ranging from raising a calf to cooking to perfecting shooting skills. Record keeping, presenting demonstrations, participating in club meetings and exhibiting work at county fairs are commitments kids make when joining 4-H.
Billedeaux was so impressed with her fellow students’ skills that after she graduated, “I told my parents, ‘I’m going to start a 4-H club for kids around here.’” Then she heard about a job as Extension agent on the Blackfeet Reservation. She applied, was hired, and started work in 1995.
Now, it’s unlikely any child on the Blackfeet Reservation grows up unaware of 4-H these days.
“In the past five years our program has grown so that now we put on our own 4-H fair. We have nine clubs, and more than 100 kids on the reservation are involved,” Billedeaux said.
Eric Miller, Extnesion agent in central Montana’s Garfield County, was also unaware of the Extension Service growing up.
“I was a Navy brat,” said Miller. “But when you want to work in agriculture, you find out about Extension pretty quick.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in California, Miller’s interest in livestock brought him to MSU to study breeding and genetics. He received his master’s at MSU in 1998 and got the job in Jordan, Mont. (population 343).
“No one has tried to get rid of me,” joked Miller, noting that Garfield County gained notoriety in 1996 for an 81-day standoff between federal officials and the anti-government Montana Freemen.
While more populous counties have three or more agents, Miller runs a solo operation in Garfield County.
“I do everything,” he said. “Agriculture, 4-H, community development – anything people need help with that Extension can provide.”
That’s exactly what the U.S. Congress had in mind 100 years ago when it established the partnership between agricultural colleges, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and county and state governments known as the Cooperative Extension Service.
As Montana’s land-grant university, MSU is the administrative heart of Montana’s Extension Service, hosting a network of specialists who do research and provide up-to-date information. But it is the agents stationed throughout the state’s counties, Indian reservations and tribal colleges who provide the day-to-day contact with the people the 1914 Smith-Lever Act was designed to assist.
One thing that keeps Miller busy is noxious weed control, a responsibility he shares with Missoula County’s Jerry Marks, who has long been a field general in Montana’s war on invasive, non-native plants.
“Back in the ‘70s, the Missoula County Commission encouraged me to come up with biological weed controls,” said Marks, who graduated from Montana State in 1969. “Through the years we’ve worked with insects, grazing and revegetation. Now we’re looking at ecology, how to encourage desirable plants.”
Marks acknowledges he has seen “one or two changes” in his 45 years with Extension. “Our role is helping people deal with changes,” he said.
He grew up on a farm near Canyon Ferry Reservoir, east of Helena, where his family had been in agriculture since the 1860s.
“We’ve seen great change there.”
Western Montana has been in the vanguard of many changes.
“The discovery of Montana as a lifestyle began in western Montana in the seventies,” said Marks. “I started out doing community development work, dealing with changing land use.
“The latest thing is locally grown food,” he said.
Marks helped start Extension’s Master Gardener program and was involved in getting an Extension forestry office established at the University of Montana.
Extension helps Montanans adopt new technologies.
“In recent years we’ve started using GPS mapping in weed control,” Marks said. “When the City of Missoula passed a conservation bond, I helped figure out where people belong and where the wildlife fit.”
With retirement on the horizon, Marks said, “It’s been a good career. It’s allowed me to reinvent myself. And I like to help people deal with change.”
Dealing with change has rarely been as abrupt as it is for clients of Josie Evenson, in Richland County in the heart of the Bakken oil boom. Animal loving Evenson grew up in Flathead County doing chores on her grandparents’ farm. Although the physical environment is very different in Sidney, Mont., change is nothing new to her.
“Because of development pressures, my family sold their Flathead Valley farm and moved to the Hi-Line,” she said.
When Evenson arrived at MSU, “Bob Gough (then associate dean of agriculture) told me, ‘You don’t want to be a crop scientist, you want to be an Extension agent.’ I had never considered it,” she said. “But when I thought about all the things I got to do through 4-H, I thought if I could give those to another person, that would be a great career.”
The oil boom impacts Extension’s work, Evenson said.
“Even our travel time is affected by the oil traffic, “she said.
She is responsible for Richland County’s youth development efforts. They’ve seen increases in both permanent resident youth and more transient kids.
“We’ve got one new 4-H club that was organized by a family who came from Arkansas for the oil work and wanted their kids to have the 4-H experience,” she said.
A year into it, Evenson, who graduated from MSU in 2012, is happy with her career choice.
“If I can help anyone who comes through my door with research-based information that makes their lives better, that’s what I want to do,” she said.
As Missoula’s Marks like to say, “We’re the bridge between university research and the people of the state.”
Contact: Jodie DeLay, Extension relations coordinator, (406) 994-2502 or firstname.lastname@example.org