PANHANDLE PERSPECTIVES: Extension Educator Jim Schild retires

As Nebraska Extension Educator Jim Schild prepares to retire from a 35-year Extension career – 30 of them spent in Scotts Bluff County – he says what he’ll remember most is the connections he’s made with people over the years.

“I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of in my career,” Schild said. “Meeting a lot of great people, developing lifelong friendships, helping people, making their lives more productive, helping them save a tree or shrub, seeing 4-Hers growing up to be leaders in their communities.”

Schild is retiring at the end of January.

Born and raised in the North Platte Valley, Schild attended Gering High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1980. In 1983 he received a master’s degree in soil science from UNL. After working for five years as a county extension agent in Kansas, Schild returned to Nebraska, to Scotts Bluff County.

While in Kansas, Schild had been stationed in Graham County as a county agent, working mostly with winter wheat, beef range cows and 4-H.

When he returned to Nebraska, Schild connected with Dave Nuland, a horticulturalist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center who worked on a number of dry edible bean projects. At that time, crops such as dry beans and potatoes were labeled under horticulture by UNL Extension.

One of Nuland and Schild’s first projects was on-farm testing comparing the response to nitrogen fertilizer of new varieties of dry beans, such as Marquis and Beryl, to existing varieties. The data showed a positive yield response to the nitrogen, and Schild and Nuland worked together to issue a Nebraska Extension publication with revised nitrogen fertilizer recommendations for dry beans. The revised recommendations are still pretty much followed to this day, he said.

Nuland and Schild also conducted research into helping bean fields recover from hail storms. Several different mixtures of fertilizers, fungicides and copper products were applied following hail damage to test their effect on yield. The research showed treatments improved yield if the hail occurred early in the season, but when the hail occurred later the treatments either delayed maturity or had no impact on yield.

Another of Schild’s projects was researching grape production in western Nebraska to see whether it was economically viable and could produce quality wine. A vineyard was started a UNL’s Mitchell Ag Lab, north of the Panhandle Center, to test varieties. As proof of the research’s results, Schild points out that two of the three wineries he worked with are still in business in the Panhandle.

Nuland retired in 2001 and Schild took over the dry bean variety testing for the past 16 years. Over the years, Schild said the biggest change in dry bean variety trials has been progressing from one trial location, where every plot was harvested by hand, to multiple location that were harvested by machines. 

Schild acknowledged the work of Research Technician Bob Hawley, who worked for Nuland, and then Schild. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.”

In the last few years, as Schild took on some administrative duties at the Panhandle Center, Extension Educator Gary Stone has been instrumental in filling in with several different projects, such as testing hops varieties for craft beer brewers as part of a statewide project.

In his earlier years as an educator, Schild did a fair amount of work with 4-H. Over the last two decades, his involvement has been mostly limited to helping with the county fair. “But I still value 4-H and the positive impact it has on youth,” he added.

 Schild also has worked with the Master Gardener program. “I’ve developed some long-lasting relationships with a number of master gardeners who were involved in the community, helping others be better gardeners and stewards,” Schild said.

With master gardeners, his focus has always been on sustainable landscapes, selecting plant material that doesn’t need expensive chemicals every year, buffalograss turf that uses less water and chemicals, tree species that can live in challenging western Nebraska environment.

“With the Master Gardener program, a lot of it is about relationships and friendships that develop,” Schild said. “We’re teachers, but a lot of times we learn from Master Gardeners and the problems that they bring in their experience.”

What Schild said he likes about his job is helping people solve problems and be more sustainable. Sustaining resources and water quality was a major focus of Master Gardeners, but even the dry bean variety trials were aimed at improving economic sustainability, he pointed out.

Schild has observed many changes in his 35-year career.

The biggest, perhaps, is an organization shift in how Extension chooses which programs to emphasize. When Schild started, individual educators made a lot of decisions about programming. Today, Extension programming decisions are made more at the state level and focus more on bigger issues.

A related shift is in the focus that each educator brings to his or her position. Several decades ago, county extension offices had home agents and agricultural agents. Today, each educator is more focused on a narrower range of programs. In the Panhandle, extension educators are focused on beef, cropping systems, community vitality, Early Childhood, and food, nutrition and fitness and community environment.

“When I started in Kansas, I covered crops, livestock, and 4-H,” he said. “Even a little bit of canning questions when the home agent wasn’t in.” Today, most of the questions Schild fields have to do with dry beans, or lawn, turf and landscape-garden issues.

Schild’s plans for retirement include spending more time with his wife, Deb, who recently retired from teaching for Gering Schools, and his grandchildren, ages 7 months to 13 years. The grandchildren are spread around the eastern half of the state. There will be more time for fishing, one of Schild’s passions, as well, and just an overall slower pace of life.