On the evening of Monday, Feb. 21, Flathead County Montana State University (MSU) Extension Agent Pat McGlynn attended a 4-H packing meeting. The next night she attended the Flathead 4-H Foundation meeting, followed by a sheep committee meeting on Wednesday and the horse committee meeting on Thursday.
She spent each evening that week at various 4-H meetings after a full day working in the county’s extension office, where McGlynn is the office director and the agriculture, natural resource and community development agent. In her role, McGlynn teaches a variety of courses, including master gardener, beekeeping and land stewardship, conducts horticulture research, reviews MSU faculty who are up for tenure and represents the university on state and national committees.
Notably missing from her job description is any mention of 4-H.
The 4-H agent position at Flathead’s extension office has been vacant for two years, and rather than see the program shuttered, McGlynn stepped up and has essentially worked two jobs without any additional pay or benefits.
“I have not taught any classes or continued my research,” McGlynn said. “I have been able to answer the thousands of emails and phone calls I receive, but not as timely as I wish. Consultations are done in my office using photographs instead of site visits. My evenings and weekends are dominated by the 4-H calendar.”
Following a busy summer last year, McGlynn decided her dual roles were untenable, and if no 4-H agent was found she would leave the Extension Office. She announced her retirement on Feb. 15 and her last day is May 1.
With McGlynn’s impending departure, there is a new urgency to fill both her role and the vacant 4-H position. If neither is filled before she leaves, the county may be forced to close the office, a first for any extension office in the state.
Extension offices are an outreach program provided by each state’s land grant university, MSU in Montana, and each county and tribal reservation has at least one extension office, or a shared office for some low-population counties. Statewide there are 94 extension agents and 26 subject matter experts that serve local communities with research-based education on a wide variety of subjects, most related to farming, agriculture and natural resources.
Flathead County’s first extension agent was employed in 1914 and, according to McGlynn, the office once had three full-time agents plus two support staff. By the time she arrived in 2008 there was only one agent for 4-H, and McGlynn was the first agriculture agent in 15 years.
According to County Commissioner Randy Brodehl, since extension agents are employed and paid by MSU, the county does not control the hiring process. He has reached out to the university to find a way to keep the office open.
A letter sent from the county commissioners to MSU President Waded Cruzado expressed the county’s “deep concern with the ongoing vacancies and the perceived lackluster effort to fill the position of 4-H agent.”
In the letter Brodehl noted four separate occasions he had requested assistance to fill the opening and stated that the county “may need to temporarily close the office until suitable staffing decisions are made by MSU.”
According to MSU Extension Executive Director Cody Stone, the 4-H position has been listed four times, but the office has been unsuccessful in finding a qualified applicant.
“Not unlike other government agencies and many private businesses in Montana, MSU Extension is struggling with hiring due to the twin forces of extremely low unemployment and very high housing prices, not just in Flathead County, but in many parts of the state,” Stone wrote in an email. “MSU Extension is committed to running 4-H in Flathead County and has never considered closing the office or pausing the 4-H program.”
Brodehl said in an email that some options being discussed include making an interim hire or temporarily relocating an agent from a neighboring county.
McGlynn said that in preparation for the worst, she’s trying to brainstorm how to divide up some of the extension duties among other agencies in the county. Since 4-H is run through the county’s extension office, a closure could pause all programs in their official capacity, impacting more than 650 families, as well as hindering the county fair’s livestock sale, which brought in more than $800,000 in revenue last year.
“I’m really hoping that we don’t get to that point,” McGlynn said. “There’s just going to be a hole that can’t be filled.”
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