By Tim Leeds
Paul McCarthy started as the new Hill County agricultural cooperative extension agent in the third year of a drought and just before the beginning of the 2001 Great Northern Fair.
"I've been putting out fires," he said today.
McCarthy joined the Montana State University Hill County Extension Agency July 2, replacing Bob Brastrup, who retired last fall.
McCarthy said he's been answering a lot of questions about problems in Havre for the last three weeks.
For instance, he said, with the lack of water in rural areas, many insects that normally aren't in town have moved in.
"A lot of pest problems you usually see only in the country have been coming to the city," he said.
He added that the vegetation in town is suffering from the drought and he's also dealing with some of those problems.
McCarthy said his main duty as the ag agent is to help area producers.
"My primary function here is to help the farming community with any type of problems they have," he said.
One of his goals is to look at developing more value-added products that can bring a better cash flow.
McCarthy said farmers can't do very much more to improve crops now because of the lack of moisture and the lateness of the season. He said most farmers he's talked to are getting 100 percent written off because of the drought, and are cutting the crops to use for feed.
The crops' nitrate content is another problem, he said. He said most of the work he has done since he arrived, outside of the problems in town, is testing for nitrates. Many of the samples brought in have tested positive for harmful levels of nitrates, requiring additional testing, he added.
The extension office sends the samples to a laboratory in Wisconsin, which tests the total nitrate content for a fee. Once the total content is known, the feed can be blended with clean feed to keep animals from dying of nitrate poisoning.
McCarthy said he is looking at planting several varieties of crops that could better withstand the drought. The crew at the Northern Agricultural Research Center at Fort Assinniboine has been very helpful, he added, offering him the use of some land for those alternative crops.
While different varieties may help production, he said, the situation won't improve much until the drought ends.
"The bottom line is: Nothing really grows well without water," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he also will work with the research center on livestock issues. McCarthy said he has not had much training or experience with livestock, while the research center's staff does.
"I'm depending on their knowledge until I come up to speed," he said.
The preparations for the Great Northern Fair have also kept him busy since he arrived, McCarthy said.
"I think it looks like it's going to be a lot of fun," he added.
McCarthy said becoming an ag agent is something he has always wanted to do.
"Montana State University is allowing me to fulfill what I've been wanting to do my whole life," he said.
He received his doctorate in plant pathology from the University of Idaho. McCarthy worked there for a year, then worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Corvallis, Ore., for a year before coming to Hill County.