County agent carries on legacy

Linda F. Benedict, Blanchard, Tobie M.

Tobie Blanchard

Surrounded by 4-H’ers and show cattle, LSU AgCenter county agent Mike Hebert directed youngsters and their animals moving in and out of the LSU AgCenter’s Livestock Show ring. Hebert was there to help the judging run smoothly and to keep the cows in line.

Hebert has been a county agent for 36 years, spending most of his career in Lafourche Parish, but the model he is working from dates back to the late 1800s.

“I’m still doing a lot of the same things my predecessors did,” Hebert said. “They had advisory meetings. They had field days. They had grower meetings. We’re still doing that. It still works.”

The early incarnation of extension agents covered a region, but it was soon determined that the county, or parish in Louisiana, should be the unit covered. In 1907, two agents were appointed to county work, one in Minden and another in Grand Lake. These were among the first county agents in America.

The first agents had to travel treacherous roads to get to far-flung farms in rural areas. H.C. Sanders, a county agent in Bienville Parish in the 1920s and a former extension director, wrote in his book, “Memoirs of a County Agent,” of busted tires, cars stuck in muddy embankments and the hours it would take to get across a parish.

Today travel is quick and easy, but county agents have to navigate rapidly changing technology.

“Technology is happening so fast,” Hebert said. “The way we farmed cane 15 years ago is almost completely different than the way we farm cane today, so that is challenging to be able to stay on top of that so I can relate it to the producers.”

But Hebert said technology makes his job easier in many ways. Before smartphones and email, it could take days or months for farmers to get problems diagnosed. Now information moves in minutes.

“Farmers can take pictures on their phones, so we don’t always have to go out to their house. They can email it to us, and if we don’t know the answer, we can forward it to a specialist and sometimes in 30 minutes have the answer for them.”

While Hebert has new devices to help him better do his job, the way it is done dates back to the birth of extension. The demonstration is one of the first tools extension agents employed to improve farming practices.

Sanders wrote that demonstrations started with cotton, but they “soon realized this could work in other crops, and the demonstration idea spread rapidly.”

Hebert said the demonstration method has lasted because seeing is believing.

“If I do a ryegrass variety demonstration, you can see the performance of each variety,” Hebert said. “It is not left up to anybody’s interpretation. They see it,” he said.

Hebert has seen farmers adopt practices because they witnessed results from demonstrations.

He also said he has encountered farmers resistant to changes because they are doing what worked for their parents and grandparents.

“They only way to get these people to change is if you can get their neighbors and friends to change,” he said.

A characteristic of the county agent 100 years ago that Hebert said is still necessary today is the ability to be flexible. He said many days do not go as intended.

“It’s hard because you can have a day planned, but people come in and you need to help them out, so you do that.”

County agents must be aware that that person’s problem is the most important thing in his or her life at the moment.

Working with youth has also been a long tradition with county agents. According to Sanders, it was administrative policy in Louisiana that all personnel had to assist with 4-H club work. That policy remained for decades.

Hebert started as a 4-H agent in St. Landry Parish and continued 4-H work in Lafourche.

“There are a lot of 4-H members that I still see today that are in jobs they got as a result of some of their experiences in 4-H.” He also sees former club members that now have their children in 4-H.

The county agent, guided by unique extension philosophies, was and in many ways still is the agricultural leader in his parish. Farmers can get information from many sources, but the county agent remains the trusted source.

“We work with all ag commodities in the parish, so when someone has a question about agriculture, the first person they usually go to is the county agent,” Hebert said.

Extension agents have been helping Louisiana thrive for 100 years. They have always been educators improving the way food and fiber are produced. But today their reach goes beyond the farm, helping people eat healthier, garden better, recover from disasters, build stronger homes, improve finances and live well.

“I spend a lot of time working with non-ag clientele,”

Hebert said. Hebert, like the agents that went before him, lives in the community he works. He is invested in his parish.

“It is more than just a producer-extension agent relationship. I’m friends with a lot of them, so I want to do everything humanly possible to help them succeed.”

Tobie Blanchard is an associate communications specialist, LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Watch the 2-min video, Agents of Change: County Agents.

6/16/2014 8:37:28 PM
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