Montana State University

Home spun and home grown, "Montana AgLive" is a Sunday tradition

May 13, 2008 -- By Carol Flaherty, MSU News Service

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The characters are not actors and the questions are real on "Montana AgLive," Montana's own Sunday night public television staple.

Home spun and home grown, Montana AgLive has been aired Sundays at 7 p.m. on Montana PBS for 15 years. It was the brain child of Jack Riesselman, a Montana State University Extension plant pathologist who is now retired -- but still on the show.

"Honestly, I believe we expose the people of Montana to a lot of what goes on at the university," Riesselman says. "We're not just a teaching and research institution. We have an Extension mission, and (the program) shows people that we do care about them."

The caring is reciprocated by loyal viewers, like Kris Fedro, a Bozeman interior decorator.

"Our Sunday evening line up is '60 Minutes,' 'AgLive' then 'Desperate Housewives,'" says Fedro. "Every Sunday night I learn something I didn't know." She adds that the show also helps her feel as if she hasn't left her grandma's house in Iowa too far behind. "When I watch AgLive, I feel very much connected to that background."

Riesselman says he's talked with people all over the country who have watched the show.

"In Portland, Maine, a woman came up and said, 'I know who you are. You're on that TV program,'" Riesselman says. When they visited Big Sky last May, her husband wouldn't go out to dinner with the family on Sunday because he refused to miss the program. She asked for Riesselman's autograph to prove to her husband that she had met him.

Caring and characters are undoubtedly cornerstones of the show, and it would be difficult to find someone who didn't consider Hayden Ferguson a real character. He's an outspoken, folksy soil scientist who hails from 25 miles south of Big Timber. The first in his family to get a degree -- let alone a Ph.D. -- his grandparents were homesteaders, and he's never forgotten the need to be practical. The show's moderator since its inception in 1995, it's the unusual program he's not on.

You have to get your question past Hayden to get it to the panel -- and calling him "Ferguson" just to follow newspaper style just doesn't hack it. He's Hayden, and that "Hayden is Hayden" pretty well says it all.

"It gives me a sense of working without doing anything," Hayden says. "I don't want to work." Though he retired from MSU in 1990, he still schedules most vacations around the program, which airs live for 10 weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall with reruns Sunday mornings.

"I think it provides a great service to the people of Montana," he adds. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't think that."

Calls start before the show is on the air, and the program frequently gets 40 or 50 calls more than the panelists can answer on the air. Hayden says he selects questions that haven't been answered on other programs, questions that are real and not veiled attempts to promote an agenda or product, questions that aren't just flat statements.

"We often get questions that I don't put on the air because they simply don't have an answer or they're ridiculous or they're political," says Ferguson. "And I don't think we should be involved in things that have any element of being partisan."

Even though the program is called "AgLive," calls and e-mailed questions reflect urban and rural backgrounds. Frequent panelists include Extension specialists Cheryl Moore-Gough for horticulture, Dennis Cash and Perry Miller on agronomy, John Paterson on livestock issues, Nina Zidack and Mary Burrows on plant pathology, and Gary Brester on agricultural economics. Plus, each week a special guest is part of the panel. Guests have ranged from a mushroom expert to the governor of Montana.

Questions reveal the concerns of people new to Montana who have culture shock when trying to garden in a state that generally ranges from climatic zones 3 to 4, and those of people who have lived here for generations.

On a recent Sunday night, a Missoula caller wanted to know how to get a live oak tree to grow in Montana. (Answer: You can't. Select plants and trees that are hardy.) From Miles City, a caller says she has alkaline water and a problem with her lilacs. What should she do? (Prune the bushes to three feet tall, but understand that water with a high salt content will continue to cause drought-like symptoms.) What to do with an apple tree with fireblight? This is a frequent question, but one that Hayden asks Riesselman, knowing he has a short answer: "Smoke a pig with the dead wood." (For a less extreme answer, see an MSU Web story with Zidack at

The caller from Victor was concerned about box elder bugs (vacuum them up). The guy from Missoula wanted to know how to take care of ants and earwigs in his strawberry patch (traps for the earwigs, but if there is a major ant hill, move the strawberry plants). What about wind energy generation? (Contact MSU Extension Specialist Sara Hamlin (406) 582-5700.) From Havre, where can I get more information about the "natural beef" program (the Montana Department of Agriculture is still developing natural beef guidelines). From Bozeman: "I just chased 11 deer over into Hayden's yard. What can he do about them?" (a fence nine feet tall or a dog).

The questions go on, from night crawlers to wind-powered irrigation, how to measure timber before a sale to how to keep woodpeckers from pounding on cedar siding.

"Here's one from someone who's called twice," Hayden says on a Monday after the show. "It's underlined with exclamation points. That means they were angry."

Even when people get angry, Hayden says moderating is the easiest part of the show.

"I don't have to know anything," Hayden says. "They've been looking for 16 years for someone who knows less than I do, but they haven't found anyone so I still have the job."

Program producer Chris Seifert says she's not looking for anybody else to moderate; she doesn't want to face the angry calls she would get if she did.

"If Hayden isn't there, we get calls," says Seifert, who has produced the show since its fifth season.

"As I understand land grant universities, we are supposed to get information to folks and to gather information," Seifert says. "A MontGuide (factsheet) is great, but there is no reciprocal information. On AgLive, we hear what people are concerned about."

Even with volunteer panelists and telephone operators and students behind the cameras, "Montana AgLive" wouldn't be possible without contributions and sponsors, Riesselman said. Sponsors include the Montana Department of Agriculture, MSU Extension Service, Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, the Montana Bankers Association and Gallatin Gardeners Club.

Contact: Jack Riesselman, Chris Seifert, Kris Fedro