Extension reaches “Across generations, across Montana”

MSU Family and Consumer Science Extension Agent Denise Seilstad stands outside the Fergus and Petroleum counties Extension office Monday morning.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman


For some, MSU Extension is an ag-focused set of consultants for farmers and ranchers. For others, it’s the parent organization of 4-H. A few may have never heard the name. The truth, though, is easy: MSU Extension is a public resource.


Education: More than a status symbol

As the name hints, MSU Extension is a program run through its namesake: Montana State University. However, the program’s origins lead back to the federal level, and began at a time when the working class wanted to know as much as their upper class peers.

In 1862, Congress passed the first Morrill Act. This created land-grant institutions to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics, as well as the classical studies.

The legislation was a response to a cry from the working class. Although higher education was available in America, most focused on classical studies, including ministry. In addition, the university education in Europe, the inspiration for its American counterpart, came into the 19th century as more of a status symbol than a practical career tool.

The first Morrill Act gave each state land it could sell. Those proceeds then went to fund a new college for the state, where the “leading subjects” would be agriculture and mechanical arts.

In 1887, Congress expanded on its land-grant system by creating ag experiment stations to be established in connection with land-grant colleges.

Finally, in 1914, extension came into the mix. While experiment stations provided a way for land-grant colleges to do agricultural research, there was no method of getting the research out to those who needed it: the public. The Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension Service for that purpose.

Each land-grant college, including Montana State University, now had an extension program. MSU’s Agricultural Extension Department was organized a year early, in 1913, and hired two county agents in its first year. One, of course, was designated for Fergus.


Across generations, across Montana

Today, Fergus shares its Extension staff with Petroleum County, and the program’s scope goes beyond spreading agricultural research.

Although one agent is leaving, the Fergus and Petroleum counties’ Extension office is normally staffed by two Extension agents, a 4-H program manager and an office manager.

Denise Seilstad works as the office’s family and consumer science extension agent. It’s a job title that can lead to misconceptions at times, according to her.

“There are people who see me as the ‘Green Acres’ extension agent,” she said.

A popular 1960’s television show, Green Acres followed the comic lives of a rich New York couple turned rural country farmers. One of the supporting characters was the county agricultural agent, a man purported to know everything about farming. He actually knew very little, often forgot names and was known for leaving mid-conversation.

It may have been a cute character, but Seilstad said today’s Extension agents are a far cry from that stereotype.

For one, they are prepared to answer questions, and they’re prepared to answer queries about more than agriculture.

“We’re supported by county tax dollars, and we receive university and federal support,” she said. “The taxpayers support us, so we work for them: Anyone can call me and ask for an educational piece, if it’s in my area of expertise.”

So what does extension do? What service does it provide to the community? Seilstad’s explanation started with a general summation.

“We are research-based education,” she said. “When you come to us, we try and find you a research-based answer, whether it comes out of our university or a different one.”

One of the reasons Extension is a good resource, Seilstad continued, was because of its network of agents across the state. Another stereotype she encounters is the idea all extension agents are the same, but Seilstad’s peers are actually each specialized to the area they serve.

“You could go to another county, and their Extension will do different things,” she said. “We vary across the state. For our community, including Fergus and Petroleum counties, we generally cover agriculture and horticulture, and my area covers housing, family and community health.”

In contrast, Seilstad pointed out, Silverbow County’s Extension agent covers community development and horticulture. Those, she said, are focuses that best serve that particular community.

In turn, the statewide network of agents creates a strong resource for answering the public’s questions. Seilstad is a great person for other agents to call about canning: She fields lots of questions about the activity in the fall.

If she’s asked about a topic she cannot research locally, she can turn back to the network. For example, she said, an Extension agent for an eastern-Montana county would be her go-to source for questions on cooking paddlefish.

“It’s not that we, as an agent, know everything,” she said. “But we’ll direct you to the right resources.”


Getting down to specifics

The idea, according to Seilstad, is that MSU Extension is a public resource. It provides answers based in university research, or first-hand experience, for most of the public’s general questions. So what services does Extension provide?

Seilstad can list several.

It’s true, she said, that MSU Extension does provide local 4-H programs and events. Seilstad said adults can even join 4-H as project leaders. But Extension offers other services, too.

“We do one-on-one, where people call or stop in,” she said.

If it’s in her area of expertise, Seilstad works to answer any questions a person has.

“Out of our university, we have these free publication,” she said. “They’re called MontGuides, and there are hundreds of them.”

Available for free in the office, or as an online download, MontGuides summarize common topics, such as estate planning or establishing a successful alfalfa crop. They source their information from research, university staff and Montana law.

More importantly, MontGuides are written in laymen’s terms and often point readers to additional resources.

Extension agents also hold education workshops on specific topics. Diabetes education and tools for caregivers are two topics Seilstad covers in community workshops. She clarified extension services were available to organizations as well, saying she has done education presentations and workshops with various community groups.

“For example, I teach food safety at Nexus Treatment Center,” she said.

Almost all of the Extension’s services are free, and any fees associated with a workshop often go to cover the cost of materials, according to Seilstad.

Despite this, and all of Extension’s other services, Seilstad is encountering a new misconception about the program.

“I would say, right now, some people wonder why we’re around because there’s the internet,” she said. “When you come to us, it’s research-based.”

Extension agents are also pretty great to talk to, too. But, that’s just a reporter’s opinion.


Want to learn more?

Seilstad said Extension events are often published in the Lewistown News-Argus and over local radio stations, but she encouraged people to contact the local office for more information.

Address: 712 West Main Street

Phone: 535-3919

Looking to see what resources Extension has about the things you want to know? Check out the program’s free-to-download MontGuides at its online store: msuextension.org/store



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