Cunningham serves Fremont County ag industry
Lander – Pretty much anything can land on Fremont County Extension Educator Ron Cunningham’s desk, and one day in September it was a wicked-looking spider in a Gatorade bottle with a sticky note attached, asking for identification of the stripe-legged arthropod.
Cunningham has worked for the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service (CES) for 34 years and has been asked for all kinds of advice.
“I came back to the office one day, and here was this sack,” recalls Ron. “There was a note on it and it said ‘What’s wrong with my chicken?’ I opened the bag up and it was a dead chicken! I wanted to say, ‘Lady, it’s dead.’ Of course, they wanted to know what killed it, and I had to tell them I didn’t know, I’d need to send it to the state veterinary lab. Well, that would cost money they didn’t want to pay, and I had to explain that I couldn’t help them, then!”
Cunningham, the longest-serving UW Extension employee in Fremont County, graduated from Casper College in 1968 and continued on to the University of Wyoming to earn his bachelor’s of science degree in 1970. After college, Cunningham taught vocation agriculture in Gordon, Neb. for three years and worked at the Mills Ranch in Ten Sleep for two.
A native of Pavillion, Cunningham eventually returned to Fremont County to work for the Weed and Pest District, then one day the Extension Educator based in Lander invited him to breakfast and offered him a job.
“One of the neat things about working with Extension is that we do have a lot of variety,” Cunningham says. “It’s like farming and ranching, things change with the seasons. What I’m working on depends on the ranchers’ and farmers’ problems. This summer it has been the grasshoppers. I have been working a lot with people on spraying techniques, and hopefully we have minimized loses.”
Fremont County is the second largest county in Wyoming and has the most irrigated acreage of any county. In 1913, the City of Lander heard about the Extension program and requested the first county agent from the University of Wyoming. Today, Fremont County has three CES educators with support staff working from two office locations in Lander and Riverton.
“In my 30-plus years with Extension, one of the biggest changes in agriculture is that we have moved from small operations to much bigger ones,” Cunningham says. “We used to have over 30 active dairies in the county. Today there are zero. The reason was that the local milk processing became much more difficult, so the dairy farmers had to truck it farther and it just got too costly.
“We also used to have a lot of range sheep operations here, and now we just have one, the Philp Ranch, in Lysite. There have been others that bring in range sheep to graze in the winter, but they aren’t based out of Fremont County,” he says.
Though farm and ranch numbers have decreased, Fremont County has approximately 1,000 ranch/farm units. Though this number includes everything 40 acres and above, it is still the largest number of any county.
“A real concern, and a nation-wide one, is the aging of farmers and ranchers,” Cunningham says. “The average age of farm and ranch operators is 70, and one of the things we try to assist with are wills, estates and the transfer of ownership. There are real challenges as it is hard to financially afford to get into farming and ranching today.
“One of the neat things that agriculture families do try, if possible, is to bring the kids into the farm and ranch business. Some of them have been successful in doing it, but is the older generation out? No, they’re probably still involved, and then the operation has to support two families and finances are tight. Most commonly we find a spouse works in town to help supplement the income. It might also help the sanity level of the spouse, a two for one!”
Cunningham still works extensively with larger operations, but also does quite a bit with small acreage landowners. Around Lander, every valley, except for one, is subdivided into 40-acre parcels. The only reason the one valley was not developed into houses is because the owner put the land into a conservation easement.
“Most of the small acreage landowners have never lived out of town and have no country living or agriculture knowledge,” Cunningham says. “I find these people are often the easiest to teach, as they at least ask for help and seek information.
“One of the real resource abuses we see are the people who have five horses on a half-acre and pound it to dirt. It will take that land 20 years to recover fully. If we can work with the landowners before that happens, whether decreasing the horses or putting them in a dry lot and feeding them hay, it prevents that destruction.”
Though the face of agriculture continues to change, with sophisticated computers and global positioning systems, the 4-H program hasn’t changed as much as you would think in the last 30 years.
“Fremont County stays pretty close to 500 kids in approximately 40 4-H clubs,” Cunningham says. “I have seen many, many 4-H kids come through, and I really take pride in their successes in life as community leaders, ranchers and farmers.
“I judge livestock and crops for 4-H, and for me fair is a time of celebration and festivities. Fair is something I put in a lot of hours on as an Extension educator, and if I didn’t enjoy it, it would be miserable. But I have always really enjoyed fair time, and still do.”
CES educators now have area specializations, with an opportunity to focus on individual topics. Cunningham finds himself traveling farther distances for livestock activities in the Bighorn Basin.
“We still work with a broad range of things, though, like this spider in this bottle,” Cunningham says. “We get this type of stuff a lot, especially horticulture identification requests. I think Extension is a neat profession, because we do get to work a lot with agriculture, and one and one with farmers and ranchers.
“We get to change paces, and, though we have an office, we are out and about a lot. Also, everything we do in Extension is basically free, and I think that is a really important service.”