By SUSAN HAYHURST
ROCKVILLE, Ind. — Being a “guide on the side” with a desire to serve others recently garnered Parke County resident Mark Spelbring the Indiana Extension Educator’s Assoc. (IEEA) Agriculture and Natural Resources Career Award.
Since 1976, Spelbring had dedicated his career to the values and educational bent the Cooperative Extension Service offers. He retired as Parke County extension director in 2012.
“Extension offers an opportunity to do good work helping people, and there is a lot of variation in the work, so it’s not the same thing every day,” he explained. “It offers a chance to serve your communities, and to use your skills to make practical use of the knowledge and information from the university you’re representing.”
Spelbring’s farming background and his late father’s dedication to conservation played an integral role in his future interests.
“I was raised on a livestock farm near Poland, in Clay County. My dad believed in conservation and helped start the Clay County Soil and Water Conservation District. Our family hosted a school conservation tour for 25 years, so education was ingrained in us.”
He received his bachelor’s degree in animal science from Purdue University in 1974 and his master’s from its Department of Animal Sciences in genetics in 1976. Serving as a teaching assistant while at Purdue further cemented Spelbring’s enjoyment of teaching.
Upon graduation he learned Purdue was only hiring new people for 4-H youth positions so he accepted an extension livestock agent slot in Pasco County, Fla., near Dade City.
“I was in Florida from November 1976 through January 1985 and found the position to be challenging, as agriculture was so different,” said Spelbring. “I learned Southern forages and gained experience working with 4-H leaders and youth in livestock projects.”
Spelbring returned to Indiana to help his parents when his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He then worked in Vermillion County extension for 10 years, until he volunteered to take a split position in Parke and Vermillion counties to release funds for a full 4-H youth educator in Vermillion.
His split position lasted seven years, with one year on special assignment as a statewide land use specialist on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus. In January 2002, Spelbring settled full-time in the Parke County’s extension office.
Those recognized for this award often cite others who made an impact on their lives.
Spelbring quickly listed three men.
“My county director in Florida, Mike Demaree, who was originally from Linton, Indiana, was a big influence in helping me recognize what was needed to be successful in extension,” he began.
“The late Don Foltz, from Clinton, Indiana, interviewed me for the Vermillion County position, and he recounted when he was in extension that he often helped farmers by explaining government rules to them. He felt, though, he could serve them better by helping write the rules, so he ran for state legislature. He also led efforts to put county agents on area planning commissions because the agents understood agriculture. Don also worked on school consolidation and creation of the Purdue veterinary school.”
Spelbring’s third inspiration was Purdue extension Director Hank Wadsworth. “Hank influenced me with his comment extension should ‘work on problems that make grown men cry’ in order to be valuable to our communities. His point was to address real concerns in our communities, not just work on corn yields when families are losing their farms.”
These men’s tutelage helped set the stage for Spelbring’s mark on extension. He is proud of helping lead many successful bi-state – Illinois and Indiana – extension programs in agriculture and natural resources. The group includes educators from both states, with most speakers coming from Purdue and University of Illinois campuses.
“Having (noted livestock expert) Temple Grandin in to talk about livestock handling, and then talking to local educators about autism the same day, was outstanding. The bi-state programs have been a great way to get top-quality programs and draw enough people together to make them practical,” he explained. “I also included forestry and timber programs often and those were a highlight because they are often overlooked.
“I worked to bring Parke County’s Amish farmers into extension programs, and having a positive influence on many 4-H members and helping to make improvements in both Vermillion and Parke county fairs were high points. Starting the Master Gardener program and working with it for several years meant a lot to me. I’m also grateful for the IEEA’s career award in Economic and Community Development I won several years ago.”
Foltz’s comments to Spelbring resonated so much that the latter ran for a position in the state legislature in 2012. “I’ve had an interest in politics for many years, probably since Hoosier Boys’ State in high school, and I’ve had the Don Foltz story in mind my whole time with Purdue. I thought helping and serving people in extension was good training for a legislator.”
While Spelbring’s run was unsuccessful he values what he learned: “It takes money to run a strong race, and how districts are drawn matters … It’s difficult to get around and talk to all the voters, but personal contact is important. Campaigning is mostly knocking on doors, not giving speeches.”
Following his noted career, Spelbring intends to care for his home farm, including working on the hay crops his family harvest themselves and considering other uses for the farm that would fit its rolling terrain. He also plans to travel with his family, and will consider other work and political opportunities.