Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.
Anaconda, Mont. - Rose Nyman is wearing an apron and shuttling back and forth between the kitchen, where she has a lasagna in the oven, and the dining room, where she pours tea into mismatched china. Nyman, who's in her fifties, does pretty much the same things she's always done. The difference is that these days she's making a living at it. Instead of waiting on her five kids, she's running a bustling 60-seat restaurant.
Rose's Tea Room, furnished elegantly with wingback chairs and floral curtains, illustrates the mini-renaissance occurring in this small town near Butte in western Montana. The breakfast-and-lunch-only establishment sits in a recently remodeled mining-era warehouse, a neglected, cavernous building Nyman bought for $26 as part of the town's new urban homesteading program.
How did Nyman, an Anaconda native whose only work experiences were as a nanny and dental office receptionist, pull off selling Scottish scones in a busted smelter town? The same way that ranchers for decades have increased hay yields and tested new fungicides: with help from the local county extension agent.
"I could not have done all this," says Nyman, arcing her arm over the lace-covered tables, "without Barb."
If Rose's Tea Room is a new breed of business for Anaconda, Barb Andreozzi is the new breed of Montana extension agent. Breaking out of the confines of agriculture and home economics, Andreozzi passes along such skills as writing business and marketing plans, conducting threshold studies, maximizing tax codes and reinvigorating the central downtown through architectural renovation and landscaping.
"When I was a girl, extension agents taught you how to make angel food cake," says Nyman. "That was fine, but it's not going to help solve the town's problems."
If there's a Montana town that needs someone like Andreozzi, it's Anaconda, perhaps best known for its retired, monumental smokestack. Now part of the country's largest Superfund site, Anaconda is desperate for clean, stable economic development. Farming and ranching have never been the county's forte; it ranks 54th out of 56 Montana counties in agricultural production. After the smelter shut down in 1980, the town's population plummeted from 15,000 to 9,000. Deer Lodge County didn't need a livestock specialist; it needed a superhero.
"It's so nice to see businesses again in what were big hulks of empty buildings," beams Andreozzi, a lean, energetic woman bearing a passing resemblance to Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman. In the seven years she's been the extension agent here, she's seen Anaconda's population climb to its current 10,000 and has helped start numerous small businesses, including a bed and breakfast, a gift shop and several restaurants. She also spearheaded the town's "visioning" process, a series of community planning meetings that culminated in a 120-page report financed by Montana State University in Bozeman. Out of the document came such recommendations as sprucing up downtown facades (Andreozzi brought in a team of Montana State architecture students to draw up plans), preserving the antique street lights (Montana State engineering students rewired the old electricity) and planting trees downtown (this fall Andreozzi helped locate and replant a dozen hardwoods). Responding to a need for sustainable industries, Andreozzi put together workshops last year on farm and ranch tourism and how to start a bed and breakfast.
While Andreozzi spends most of her time on economic development projects, she can't entirely escape the more traditional extension duties. She still routinely fields phone calls asking for information about canning foods and corralling loose bulls, as well as next week's 4-H activities (the latter she gratefully parcels out to her assistant). The books on her cluttered office shelf reveal the varied topics she must master: The Joy of Cooking, Home Composting, Weeds of the West.
While the town is mostly effusive in its praise for Andreozzi, not everyone likes the new direction she represents. As agents like Andreozzi do more social and economic work, fewer remain to carry the traditional rural torch. Even in agricultural counties, extension agents are expected to spend time on such issues as youth-at-risk, drug and alcohol problems, parenting programs, nutrition and aging, says Oakley Winters, MSU's dean for outreach.
"Agriculture is not the only game in town," Winters says. "Land-grant universities may once have been rooted to big interests like agriculture, but if we're going to survive, we have to serve the whole community. That means old people, young people, poor people and regular folks trying to make a living in the state."
To drive that point home, Montana State University took a radical step four years ago when it removed the extension program's administrative office from the College of Agriculture and relocated it under the dean of Academics. The change endowed every academic department in the university with an extension and outreach mission: Political science, economics, psychology, architecture, engineering, education and every other department is encouraged to take MSU's "outreach" mission seriously. The conduit for all this information is - you got it - the county extension agent.
So where does that leave the more traditional extension clientele? As farmers and ranchers become increasingly sophisticated in the use of computers and in their knowledge about world markets and the specifics of their crops, they have grown less reliant on individual extension agents. This is as it should be, says Gerry Wheeler, who until recently ran the university's science and technology outreach program.
"There's a lot more to extension than cow shit," says Wheeler, a charismatic physicist who now directs the National Science Teachers Federation in Washington, D.C. "Thirty years ago, an extension agent was an expert, but now agriculture, like medicine, is too complicated. You can't turn a general practitioner into a heart surgeon. A good agent is one with a network of experts, a bridge between the people and the varied specialists in the university."
"We still have rural needs"
Rural women are perhaps more upset than anyone about the transition occurring in Montana's extension service. For decades, home economics went hand in hand with agricultural extension. Many counties had a male "ag" agent and a female "home ec" agent. As teacher, workshop leader and font of information on everything from newfangled kitchen appliances to basting hem lines and testing pressure canners, the home ec agent was the center of civic and social life for Montana's rural homemakers.
"Extension is not really working with women at all anymore as caregivers or homemakers," laments Elaine Schlenker, 55, who for 25 years has been a member of Gallatin County's "extension homemaker's club." Clubs like Schlenker's have existed all over the rural West as an audience for extension demonstrations. The clubs also offered a structure for rural women to get together and learn new skills or crafts. But in Gallatin County and beyond, the clubs have fallen on hard times since commissioners cut funding for the home ec agent two years ago.
"To meet our needs now, there's no one," explains Schlenker. "For example, I know a woman who wanted to know if it was okay to eat soft cheese after the expiration date, and the new agent didn't know anything about cheese safety. It's a real loss."
Molly Descheemaeker, 57, says that in following its new mission, extension may be spreading itself too thin. "It's not extension's role to be getting into social programs," says Descheemaeker, a founder of Women in Farm Economics (WIFE) who also sits on MSU's public advisory committee. "They're trying to urbanize extension, but Montana only has 800,000 people in the whole state! We're still rural. We still have rural needs."
Florence Williams writes from Steamboat Springs, Colorado.