By Jody Kerzman | Photography: Photos by Jacy
Jackie Buckley is a self-described tomboy.
“I just told someone the other day that I probably should have been a boy, because I’ve never liked to carry a purse!” laughs Jackie.
With or without a purse, this tomboy paved the way for many other women in the agriculture industry.
“Agriculture has always been a part of my life,” says 61-year-old Jackie, who recently retired from her career as a county extension agent. “I was raised on a ranch by Belfield, North Dakota. We had about 100 head of registered Hereford cattle and some small grains. I was the oldest of five girls, so I was my dad’s hired man. I drove tractor, I drove combine, I did all the ‘guy’ things.”
After high school she attended North Dakota State University. She graduated in 1979 with a degree in animal science. Not sure what she wanted to do next, Jackie returned home to the ranch where she once again became her dad’s hired hand.
It was an ad in the paper that led Jackie to a career she loved.
“I saw an ad in the paper that there was an assistant extension agent position open in Bismarck, so I applied,” recalls Jackie. “I didn’t get it. But at that time once you applied for one job you were also considered for other openings.”
TOUGH ROW TO HOE
In September 1979, Jackie was hired as assistant county agent in Traill County. She moved to Hillsboro, North Dakota to begin what would become a 37 year career as a county agent. But it would be many years before her peers truly accepted her.
“The agents at that time told me they didn’t want a girl. They would be in big trouble if they said that now! One of the agents, who I love to death, told me he didn’t think I could lift 50 pound bags of pocket gopher bait or carry fence posts. I told him I was raised on a farm and I knew what I was doing.”
Still, it took awhile to convince her fellow agents and producers of that. Jackie was only the second woman hired as a county agent in North Dakota. Lynette Nieuwsma was the first.
“She and I talked a lot about how many times we were interviewed for jobs before they would actually hire us. We were women and at that time women were not in agricultural jobs. It was man’s work,” remembers Jackie. “At first when I was hired there were people who didn’t trust me because I was a woman. They wouldn’t come to me for advice or answers. They thought because I was a woman, I wouldn’t know anything.”
Comfort & Community
After two years in Hillsboro, Jackie was itching to get back to western North Dakota.
“I always said when I moved there I wouldn’t marry a sugar beet farmer! I made it well known I wouldn’t be there long,” laughs Jackie. “I always felt more comfortable in the west.”
So, in 1981, Jackie headed west to Bowman, where she took the job as extension agent for Bowman County.
“I felt really accepted when I moved to Bowman. I was basically a hometown girl because I grew up in the area. A lot of the people in Bowman knew me already or knew my parents. I had many friends there from my 4-H days.”
Jackie and her family—husband Sam and sons Jack and Jerry—lived in Bowman for nine years. In 1990, Jackie felt it was time for another change. She accepted the job as Morton County Extension Agent and the family moved to Mandan.
“The boys were young when we moved to Mandan—first grade and two and a half years old. They didn’t want to leave Bowman. It was hard at first. I was so used to going to the grocery store and knowing everyone, and here I didn’t know anyone. It was a little overwhelming. I remember thinking maybe I bit off more than I could chew. But the people here were very welcoming and friendly and once we got to know some people we really felt like we were a part of the community.
“We always felt it was important to be involved in our community. When I took the job with Morton County, I knew we needed to live in Morton County because the Morton County taxpayers were the ones paying my salary. I needed to be a part of the community,” Jackie explains. “And my boys were involved too. They were in 4-H, FFA, band, and football at Mandan High School.”
Jackie says being a part of the community helped her do her job better, a job that required her to know a lot about many different topics. Extension agents do a little bit of everything, from agriculture to family and consumer sciences.
“I had great people in my office that handled the family and consumer science piece while I focused on the ag side. We help farmers with cropping decisions, such as herbicide applications and planting the correct varieties. We advise producers a lot on custom rates and rental rates. Our office gets lots of calls from absentee landowners; they may live in Florida or California and inherited land here and want know how to take care of it. That’s an education piece because typically they don’t know much about agriculture. We do a lot of work with estate planning—teaching producers how they need to transition the farm to the next generation. It’s not always an easy thing to talk about.”
Experience & Perseverance
In her more than three decades as an agent, she also came to love horticulture, lawn and garden care, and working with 4-H kids.
“All those things are offered at no charge to residents and they kept me busy all summer,” says Jackie. “I met a lot of neat people when I’d go look at lawns and I got to see amazing yards and landscaping. It’s something I really enjoyed. But I had to learn it. I was an animal science major. I took zero horticulture classes in college. I also didn’t know much about crops. But when I worked in Hillsboro there were very few cattle so I learned a lot of agronomy in my years there.”
Despite her knowledge and accumulating years of experience and trust from the public, there were still obstacles.
“Shortly after I moved to Mandan I had a gentleman come to my office and at that time I had an intern for the summer also. The intern came back to my office and said ‘this guy doesn’t want to see you because you’re a lady.’ The intern told me the gentleman’s question, I gave him the answer, and he gave it to the man. I was frustrated because he trusted my intern simply because he was a man.”
But Jackie persevered, and her perseverance helped build bridges for future women who would pursue ag careers.
“It wasn’t always easy. None of the men I worked with wanted me there, but they learned to accept and trust me,” Jackie says. “I guess I feel like I really helped young women who wanted careers in agriculture. When I started as a county agent, I was only the second female to have that job in the whole state. Now over half of the agents in North Dakota are women.”
Health & Family
In 2016, Jackie decided her work was done and it was time to retire. December 30, 2016 marked her last day in the office, and her last day of a career she loved so much. She still gets teary-eyed when asked about the decision.
“I had breast cancer three years ago. The diagnosis didn’t surprise me—my mom and two of my aunts all had breast cancer and one of my sisters passed away two years ago from breast cancer,” says Jackie. “I tell everyone I wasn’t surprised. And because of my family history, I had been having mammograms since I was 35 years old. When they found the cancer, it was a stage zero. I only had to have radiation and a lumpectomy. I’ve been cancer-free for three years.
“But cancer made me realize I wanted to spend more time with my family. Extension work is not a five day a week job and it’s not 8 to 5 work. I worked many nights, evenings, and weekends. My kids were sometimes bitter about that but they are grown now and they are better people because of what I did. They work pretty much like I did.”
Her sons not only inherited her work ethic, but also her love for agriculture. Both have agriculture degrees from NDSU; Jack is a loan officer for Farm Credit Services in Carrington, North Dakota. Jerry worked for a few years as an extension agent and is now an agronomist in Halstad, Minnesota.
Sharing Her Ag Experience
While cancer inspired Jackie to slow down and spend more time with her family, it also forced her to evaluate what she truly loves, which is working with kids. Jackie continues to coach the Morton County livestock team, something she says she’ll do as long as she’s needed.
“Working with youth has been the biggest highlight of my career,” Jackie says with pride in her voice. “The judging teams that Morton County has put together have been so successful. I’m now coaching kids whose parents I took on national judging trips. It’s a program that’s been successful for many years and I just love working with the kids.”
Jackie also loved working with the media during her 26 years as Morton County Extension Agent. She wrote a weekly news column, did an hour long radio program twice a month, and was a weekly guest on KFYR-TV’s morning and noon shows.
“The KFYR thing started when I was visiting with Al Gustin at his niece’s high school graduation party. He asked if I’d be willing to be a regular guest, I said yes, and I ended up doing that for 16 years,” Jackie recalls. “I loved doing those segments. It was a free way to get our word out. People come up to me all the time and say ‘You’re Jackie Buckley. I saw you on TV.’ So I know we reached a lot of people beyond Morton County.”
Now that Jackie and her husband are both now semi-retired—both say they’ll never stop working completely—this “tomboy” is grateful she persevered and followed her passion for agriculture. She says that passion has blessed her with an abundance of knowledge, experiences, and led to some amazing friendships. She is a woman that people in all walks of life respect, trust, and admire—purse or no purse.
Watch an exclusive video of Jackie talking about her sons’ careers in agriculture, here.
And, see more photos of Jackie by Photos by Jacy, here.