Blonde retires after 36 years as Waupaca Co. Extension ag educator
WAUPACA – The spring of 1984 was a bittersweet time for 21-year-old Greg Blonde. While he was looking forward to graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Platteville, he was also still reeling from the passing of his father, Merlyn (Butch) Blonde, at age 47, in late March.
At the time, his 10-year goal was to start out teaching high school agriculture, and then explore opportunities with UW–Extension.
“I had seen growing up both my father as a high school ag instructor in Shawano and then for 10 years as a county Extension agent. When I was 12 years old, I’d go on farm calls with him and see firsthand that part of the job, and that aspect really appealed to me,” Blonde recalled.
However, he didn’t have to wait 10 years or even 10 weeks to begin his 36-year career with Extension. The Monday after graduating from Platteville, he began a three-month fill-in for the Green Lake County agent who had gone back to school.
“I helped organize some field days with the soil conservationist, and helped with the county fair. Based on that experience, I decided this was what I wanted my long-term career to be like,” he said.
Move to Waupaca
Later that summer, the position in Waupaca County opened up when longtime agriculture agent Joe Walker retired. “My dad and Joe Walker knew each other well and worked together on the Cow College and other programs,” Blonde noted.
“I think Dad’s death hit Joe really hard, and he was at the point where he could retire, and I think, for many reasons, Joe felt that was the right time for him to retire,” he said.
That summer agriculture was in the middle of a farm financial crisis when Blonde interviewed with the Waupaca County Board’s Agriculture and Extension Committee. His sales pitch was, “I’m young, energetic, and enthusiastic, which is just what agriculture needs right now. Besides that, I can start tomorrow, and I’ll work for the minimum.”
His first day on the job, August 22, was also the first day of the Waupaca County Fair. “I walked up to the gate, and of course nobody knew who I was, and I had to pay to get into the fair. After that I got a pass to get into the fair, and I met a lot of great people there,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, Waupaca was the perfect move and perfect opportunity for me,” Blonde stressed. “Mom (Gloria Blonde, who passed away in 2016) was still teaching physical education in Shawano, and I able to get up there almost every weekend to help her.”
Greg Blonde and Waupaca County were a perfect fit for one another. “It’s been a great county to work in, and I’ve had great support from great farmers and great ag professionals to network and collaborate with and great support from the county board,” he said.
His only absence from Waupaca County was from June of 1986 to July of 1987 when he returned to UW-Platteville to earn his master’s degree while working on a research project studying the whole-herd buyout dairy policy proposal, specifically looking at what it might do to the beef market and cull cow markets.
Time to retire
After 36 years as Waupaca County Extension agricultural educator, the time had finally come for Blonde to consider retiring. “My wife, Kathy, had retired from teaching second-grade a year ago, and our daughter, Katherine, had graduated from UW-Whitewater. Also after four tough years, it looked like the farm economy was improving, and I was feeling the time was right to retire,” he said.
When he announced at the beginning of the year that he would be retiring in early June, Blonde never envisioned that he would have to spend his last nearly three months on the job working from home.
When the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in March, Blonde considered delaying his retirement. “We could see what was going to happen to the markets, and product prices. But there’s always a challenge, and working with the farming community I learned that things will always change, and that’s what I respect so much about the farm families I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” he said.
“I haven’t seen any of the farmers panic. They’re still farming like they always have. But it’s added stress for them, and that’s what’s most uncomfortable and frustrating about the timing. Hopefully this is short-lived and things will continue to Improve,” he added.
Blonde has earned the respect of farmers and other ag professionals throughout Wisconsin, as well as his peers in Extension and member of the Waupaca County Board.
Board chairman Dick Koeppen said, “Greg Blonde is quite simply the 'icon' of Waupaca County agricultural education. He is not only highly educated but highly respected by all who he has touched in their agricultural education. And most importantly a good friend and a great guy!”
Looking back over three decades, Blonde says UW Extension has changed significantly, but still remains a partnership between the state, who employs the agents, and the the counties who pay a portion of the salaries and provide support staff, office facilities and local operating budgets for phones, mileage and related expenses.
“Extension is restructuring toward more specialization,” Blonde noted. “We have program teams with specific program managers in farm business management, dairy, livestock, crops and soils, and horticulture to try to help plan and develop and coordinate those programs.
“However, most of what we do is still the same. As much as we talk about specialization, and focus on a particular discipline, it really comes down to teaching and being good educators. It’s still a people driven effort and our ability to connect with people and develop a relationship with them. And that’s what attracted me 36 years ago and has kept me here,” he emphasized.
Blonde says technology has brought many changes to farming over the last 36 years with precision planting utilizing GPS guidance systems, robotic milking systems, and genetic modifications in corn and soybeans and alfalfa. “That’s a good thing as long as we keep it in perspective and apply it in a proper fashion,” he stressed.
New technology has aided Extension agents as well.
“When I started in 1984, there were no personal desk computers, no voice mail, and no mobile phones. There was one computer for the entire office used to connect with the university. Once a day we’d connect with the university to print off messages. A decade later there were personal computers on every desk, followed by emails and cell phones,” he recalled.
“Those tools really expanded the ability of what we did and how and where we did it,” he stressed. “These last few months working from home with my computer and cell phone, I have been able to continue with nearly everything except the personal farm visits, which I think are so important.”
With help from a member of the county’s Information Technology department, Blonde was able to develop mobile phone apps over the last five years for pricing wet corn and standing hay.
The apps integrated computer spreadsheet programs into a simple process of entering numbers and answering questions, while also providing access to marketing information, and having a share function.
“So whether I was at home or on a farm I could enter the data, run an analysis in real time and share by automatically linking to an email, and send that information immediately to the farmer’s phone or computer,” Blonde explained.
Looking to the future
Blonde has no immediate plans in retirement. “That’s probably a good thing because the pandemic would probably have derailed or certainly altered any plans we might have made,” he said.
“I would like to stay working in agriculture in some capacity part time, whether that’s on a professional basis or physically helping out on neighboring farms for a few days seasonally whenever they need it. I also want to focus on physical well-being and look forward to being more physically active in retirement,” he said.
An avid outdoorsman, Blonde enjoys hunting and other related activities. “I also enjoy physical labor because, as a young kid, that’s where I was exposed to farming, making some hay on our own little farm and working at a neighboring sawmill, peeling cedar posts for 10 cents each, hoping I could get 100 done in a day and make $10,” he said.
There are no plans to move from Waupaca. “The natural resources here are just tremendous. It’s centrally located so we can get to almost anywhere we want to go in the state in about two hours. It’s been a great place to live and work. I don’t see anything changing, at least in the near future. We really enjoy it here.”