‘Dedicated to Extension’
Byrnes retiring from role as Minnesota’s statewide Extension director of operations
MARSHALL — Marquita Banks was among the first of many to know that Bob Byrnes was likely to play an important role in Lyon County Extension and the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Banks was a member of Byrnes’ Lyon County interview committee in the late 1970s. The interview was a first step in what became a 40-year Extension career, one that ended this summer when Byrnes retired from his role as Minnesota’s statewide Extension director of operations.
“I saw right away that Bob was very interested in being a county Extension agent here in Lyon County,” Banks said. “He clearly wanted to move here, meet the public, and become part of things.”
She said the committee also took notice of the knowledge and people skills Byrnes could bring to his Extension role. Her evaluation was based on personal experience with Lyon County Extension in several different capacities; as a Marshall Middle School home economics teacher, a farm wife in Lynd Township, and an adult leader for the former Island Lake Zeps 4-H Club.
“He impressed us as a thoughtful, patient person who could relate well on a one-to-one basis with people from all walks of life,” Banks said. “That’s a very important quality for an Extension educator. They should be considered friendly and approachable.”
In an interview at his home in Marshall, Byrnes said he was given a choice of three rural Minnesota counties that had Extension openings.
“It was basically by chance at that point that I decided to interview in Lyon County,” Byrnes said. “I’d accepted a job that involved the marketing of corn by-products, but chose to take the Extension job instead. The interview process was part of what convinced me that I should use my skills in an educational role.”
At first his job in Lyon County was to serve as the assistant county agent, which included being in charge of youth 4-H activities.
He began his duties in mid-summer, only several weeks prior to the busiest time of the year for 4-H (the county fair season leading up to the Minnesota State Fair).
“Part of the pre-fair schedule was farm tours, when I’d visit families individually at their farms,” Byrnes said. “That was the best possible start I could have had with local Extension work. It was a great opportunity to get to know the people I’d serve.”
Byrnes had a strong foundation for knowing their rural way of life since he’d grown up on a farm in the northeast corner of Iowa operated as a partnership between his father and his uncle, Jim Byrnes. His youngest brother, Dan, now operates the farm and serves as a county supervisor (Iowa’s term for county commissioners).
His work in Lyon County soon transitioned to a focus on just agronomy, with a specialty in crop science. In that capacity, he played a main educational role during the early to mid 1980s farm crisis. It was a time of declining land values, low commodity prices, rising expenses, and cash flow issues for many farms that operated on a traditional moderately-sized scale.
“There were a lot of difficult situations,” Byrnes said. “Because of the financial pressures, mediation processes, and likelihood of foreclosures, it’s remembered as a stressful, unhappy time for farm families. It made me appreciate the farm-related work ethic more than ever.”
Byrnes remained a county-based agriculture agent until he assumed an administrative role during Extension’s regionalization process undertaken in 2003.
He said the structural change reflected how his job had been trending for the previous 20 years. The all-purpose county-centered role of Extension agents gradually gave way to more instantaneous public access to information and greater specialization in farms and agribusinesses.
“It used to be that I spent much of my time finding information about a wide variety of questions,” Byrnes said. “That kind of approach wouldn’t have worked in the 21st century, either in terms of costs or public service. We needed to take a more specialized approach to regional and state issues. It’s consistent with Extension’s basic mission.”
He said Extension educators continue to forge connections to individual residents. New program delivery methods, including partnerships with other service organizations, have supplemented traditional activities like farm seminars and township 4-H clubs.
After being a Marshall-based regional Extension director, Byrnes moved into his director of operations role and became the supervisor of regional directors who in turn oversee educators that as a group serve all 89 Extension locations (which include two each in St. Louis and Ottertail counties). Because of 21st century technology, he was able to remain based at Marshall’s regional location.
He said his successor, Kia Harries, followed a similar career path by starting her Extension career as an educator in southern Minnesota and then serving as a regional director.
“I enjoyed all of the stages of my career,” Byrnes said. “I’ve been blessed to start and end it with the same employer. I was also able to stay in a place that my family and I consider our home.”
He added that at all points in his career he was helped by outstanding support staff, a resource that’s proved just as vital in the Information Age as it was in the mid-to-late 20th century.
Bob and his wife, Brenda, plan to remain in Marshall. In addition to his Extension work, he has served as a Marshall city official for about half his life. He spent six years on the city council headed by former mayors Bob Schlagel and John Feda, and is now in his 26th year as mayor.
Minnesota West farm management educator Paul Lanoue, a graduate of Tracy Area High School and an alumni of the Amiret Busy Bees 4-H club in Lyon County, said Byrnes is one of the role models who motivated him to pursue the same kind of career.
“I have a lot of respect for Bob and for what he’s accomplished as an educator,” Lanoue said. “He has a gift for communicating his knowledge. I saw that both as a 4-H member and as one of Extension’s summer interns.”
Karla Engels, a Marshall-based Extension support staff member, said Byrnes’ prior field experiences served him well later in his career when he was responsible for leading many different educators.
“He’s very dedicated to Extension,” Engels said. “His knowledge and experience made him a good leader as it went through changes. When people in our region and many others around the state think about Extension, one of the first names that comes to mind is Bob Byrnes.”