RBC | There are individuals living and working within our communities who impact a lot more lives than we might expect. The county extension agent is one of those positions, and for the last 32 years, Bill Ekstrom has held that role in Rio Blanco County. He’s retiring this week, and replacing him isn’t going to be an easy task.
“An extension agent brings research information from Colorado State University and presents that unbiased information to the clientele,” Ekstrom said. The clientele includes youth in 4-H and adults who have questions about everything from improved ranching methods to insect infestations in backyard trees. These days he fields a lot more questions about small acreages than he used to, like how to raise goats on a five-acre parcel. This year, he’s had questions from ranchers concerned about how to deal with the high cost of hay during the current drought conditions and helped a homeowner save water by changing his sprinkler system.
The strangest question he’s been asked? “Does a fertilized egg have more cholesterol than a non-fertilized egg?” He says yes, but it’s probably a nominal amount.
Ekstrom, who started his career as a teacher at the age of 21 in Utah, said county extension agents used to need to be knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects.
“The new agents are more focused on a specific interest, or direction, and then we help each other. I do a lot of outsourcing,” he said.
His career in Rio Blanco County has included 32 county fairs. While the fair is organized by the fair board, Ekstrom has been responsible for the 4-H program, which includes about 200 kids and 60 4-H leaders. He’s also been in charge of 12 state fair horse shows. That’s more than 6,000 kids he’s worked with through the 4-H program.
He also goes into the schools at the request of teachers and does STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) presentations. He was instrumental in getting the funding for the new extension building, the community pens in Rangely and now in Meeker that give town kids a chance to raise a 4-H animal, has written grants for various pieces of equipment, raised money for scholarships, and implemented “floor money,” which creates a pool of funds to help balance out the lower priced animals at the livestock sale. He also supervised the food pantry program for the last several years, which supplies $200-300 worth of food to about 120 people every month.
“There are more (people) this year than in previous years,” he said. Whatever is left goes to the local food banks or churches.
Like most highly productive people, his retirement—which he says is partly because “I want to have some fun” and partly because of his health (he suffered a major heart attack last year)—will still be busy. He and his wife Kim own and operate a lawn care, landscaping and sprinkler business, and he’s embarking on a new project: industrial hemp production.
“This new hemp project could be huge for Rio Blanco County. All the research stuff I’ve been doing I’m now redoing. The potential spinoff for this community is unbelievable,” he said.
In addition, he’s considering joining the ranks of the local 4-H leaders, continuing with the STEM classes, and said he’s still available to answer questions. “There’s a lot of things I’ve learned here and would still love to answer those questions. People are welcome to call.”
Finding someone to replace Ekstrom will be at least a six-month process, maybe longer. Meanwhile, Carla Farrand, the Garfield County Extension Agent, will serve as interim agent for Rio Blanco County. Interestingly, Ekstrom was the interim agent for Garfield County for five years at one point during his tenure.
The county commissioners will determine what’s needed here now and develop a job description, which goes back to CSU and is advertised nationally. The national search creates a pool of applicants, which is narrowed down to three or four to be interviewed at the county level.
“They’re not going to find someone with a really broad background,” he said, adding that he hopes they find someone with experience. “It needs to be someone that likes people, they’ve got to be knowledgeable about their subjects, and have to be able to let a lot of stuff roll off their shoulders.”
Rio Blanco County is a single agent county, with two part-time administrative positions and two part-time 4-H coordinators. The county pays $13,000 a year toward the agent’s salary, and the rest comes from state and federal funding. Ekstrom has tried to come up with ways to make back that county money.
He’s confident in the fair board and staff at the extension office to handle things in his absence. “I don’t see anything being adversely affected. RBC has a super fabulous fair board.”
There will be a retirement party for Ekstrom at the fairgrounds on Sept. 6. that will be open to all community members from 5-6:30 p.m., followed by the public input fair board meeting.
By Niki Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org