Retiring Extension agent displays on three a long time in agriculture


Jack Stivers retired Feb. 15 as Lake County-MSU Agriculture Extension Agent – a post he’s held for more than 32 years. During those three-plus decades, he’s witnessed a dramatic shift in his role, and agriculture overall, driven largely by technology.

When he first joined Lake County Extension Dec. 17, 1990, the office was located at 1212 Round Butte Road in Ronan and equipped with one “rudimentary” computer, used for word processing, and a profusion of typewriters.

Extension has since moved to its current location at the Ronan Community Center. “I don’t know where I’d even find a typewriter now,” he said in a recent interview.

Instead, his office, along with farmers and ranchers across the county, rely on the internet to access information and answer questions that once required a trip to the Extension office.

“The internet has just changed so much of what Extension does,” he said. “The information system is so much quicker, research is done so much faster, and the application of data can be almost immediate.”

Has the internet and the prevalence of computers and smart phones made Extension irrelevant?

“There’s always something more to be gained and that gain is where Extension finds its niche,” he said. “We will always have something to offer that’s not at everyone’s fingertips as readily.”

The Extension Service was established as a means of delivering educational programs and services available through the nation’s land-grant universities to rural communities. In Lake County, that means channeling the experts, research and information Montana State University has to offer available through its satellite campus in Ronan.

MSU pays the salaries for two agents – one who oversees agriculture and a second whose province is family and consumer science, a post currently held by Claudia Andrade.

Lake County is part of the mix as well, providing both office space and support staff.

“I have to complement the commissioners of Lake County for their support,” said Stivers. “It’s a cooperative approach and because of the commissioners’ decision each budget season, Extension is allowed to stay in Lake County.”

Stivers grew up near Colorado Springs, earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University, and a master’s in animal science and nutrition from MSU. Employment was scarce in Montana in the late ’80s, so he and his late wife, Phyllis, went elsewhere for work.

Phyllis was a native of Trout Creek, and the young couple was anxious to return to western Montana. The job with the Extension Service offered a means to accomplish that.

Phyllis, who taught school in Charlo for several years, died unexpectedly in 1999. Stivers still hears from her students “about how much influence she had on their lives.” Her death was a tragic loss “for me, of course, and the whole community.”

Over the trajectory of his career, Stivers has witnessed major shifts in agriculture. In addition to the changes wrought by technology, he’s seen growth in organic farming, community-supported agriculture and farm-to-table arrangements that allow growers to provide goods directly to consumers. These strategies have helped those with smaller acreages develop a market for their products.

“Those who want to be part of agriculture, who want to be working on the land have had to be innovative, have had to be creative,” he said. At the same time, “Lake County’s climate, water resources and land resources have all benefitted people who want to do that sort of thing.”

He notes that small dairy operations – once a key component of agriculture in Lake County – have nearly vanished, due in part to fluctuations in the value of milk, the distance from markets and the shift to giant multi-cow operations.

He estimates “there were nine times more dairies here 30 years ago than there are now.”

The cost of buying or leasing agricultural land has skyrocketed, especially over the past few years, making it more difficult for agricultural producers to contain costs or expand operations. Stivers estimates that it costs 2.5 times more to lease land now than it did in the 1990s.

“There’s always been a strong demand for leased land for grazing or crop production,” he said. But as the population grows, the pressure on available land intensifies. The Mission Valley’s “desirable living environment and desirable views make it harder and harder” to keep land in agricultural production.

Environmental regulations, trade policy, commodity prices, weather and market trends are among the factors that impact local agriculture. “Some hurdles never change, some just get bigger, and some of them change names but are constantly in place to threaten and challenge agriculture in the U.S. in general, and specifically Lake County,” Stivers said.

Still, he says, Lake County is close knit and diverse – two attributes that have made his career rewarding.

“The thing I’ve enjoyed most is getting to know people, getting to understand their livelihoods, their desires to succeed and the communities themselves,” Stivers said. He describes the county and its mix of small towns, as a “community of communities” with a unifying attitude of “we’re all in this together.”

He also appreciates its blend of land ownership and jurisdictions, including tribal, federal and state lands, and the wide range of crop types and livestock production.

“The diversity of Lake County is unique to anywhere in the world,” he said. “That’s really kept things interesting. Some counties have wheat and barley … and wheat and barley.”

He’s also enjoyed working with youngsters through 4-H and the Lake County Fair. “Seeing youth come through 4-H and successfully contribute to society and their livelihoods – that’s been a lot of fun.”

Now that he’s retired, Stivers plans to pursue other interests, including travel, recreation, and finding ways to put his acreage near St. Ignatius to use. “I know I have to have a livelihood after Extension because I can’t get by on my looks,” he joked.

He also plans to stay connected to the place he calls home. “I’m not going away,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed this community so much, I want to remain part of it.”

Although MSU has not settled on a replacement for Stivers, he’s confident that the agricultural community will continue to get the support they need until a new agent is hired.

MSU and agents in adjacent counties will be available “to help Lake County get through the transition so there shouldn’t be any kind of delay for clientele,” he said.

“Extension isn’t going anywhere.”


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