By Robert Lucke
The Farm Service Agency office in Hill County is long and low, with up to nine employees working with farmers and ranchers who don't smile much as they come through the door these days.
There are charts of market rates and loan rates, and lots of plants around to make the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Hill County office more pleasing to those who use it.
And it is big business. Bigger than a lot of the banks in Northern Montana. Consider this. The payments the office made in 2001 to Hill County farmers and ranchers totaled almost $44 million. That means that every employee in that office is responsible for almost $5 million apiece.
"That's a lot of pressure," said Mike Zook, director of the Hill County FSA office. "Not only that but the people get something back from each person who gets a payment."
Zook is a ball of energy, charm, and love of the land as well as a love of people, all rolled up in one individual. In spite of the hard times, he keeps optimistic.
"This is a good place to work," Zook said. "My bosses are a locally elected county committee. I also have to answer to a district director who goes through the government, but what this office does is give local people a voice. We have a responsibility to the feds but we try to make service a verb within the Farm Service Agency."
Zook said his office has contact with 98 percent of the farmers and ranchers in Hill County. They can try to go it alone but more and more it is financially important for farmers to be tied to FSA.
The office sees all sorts of people. In fact his office crew has taken suicide prevention classes. With several years of drought and low prices, they talk to potentially suicidal farmers.
All that rings a bell with Zook becuase he grew up in the Miles City area where his folks ran a hog and cattle ranch. He made a deal with his parents that he would get a degree before he came back to the family farm. But while he was in college, his folks lost their farm and Zook fell back on his degree to get employment.
"I taught ag education for three years in Colstrip," he said. "Then I got an extension job in Libby, about as far away from Miles City as Texas, (and) spent some five years in Hamilton before getting this FSA job in 1993."
It was instant love between Zook, his wife, Darcy, and the Havre community. Last year the couple adopted a young daughter, Meggie.
And both Zook and his wife are head over heals involved in community affairs. He was just ordained an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Havre last week. She has taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school. Both sing in the choir.
"I used to sing in the barbershop chorus," Zook said. "But I had to back off some things last year to spend more time with my wife and daughter. They are my life."
Zook in his spare time works with the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Business Committee. The people on the committee are doers, not talkers, he said.
"I am on a high today," he said. "I just came back from listening to Bob Rice. I think something wonderful is about to happen to Havre. That is why Darcy and I chose to come to Havre. Lots of times feds get placed. We chose."
The theater at Montana State University-Northern takes lots of the Zooks' spare time. He serves as secretary of the theater group and they are both involved in upgrading electronics in the Little Theater in time for two February productions.
And if that is not enough, Zook is flying to Washington, D.C., in March to work on behalf of the National Employees Organization. Not only that but he takes time to be the president of the Havre Optimist Club.
He also takes time to worry about doing a better job with area producers.
"I honestly wish we could do a better job in this office, that we could do it more efficiently," Zook said. "And I must say that I am pretty darn proud of my staff. Things get done and get done in tough times."