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Published October 05, 2010, 11:05 AM

Dawson County ag agent is a Montana ‘green’ giant

GLENDIVE, Mont. — Bruce Smith is a big man in big Montana’s agriculture family.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

GLENDIVE, Mont. — Bruce Smith is a big man in big Montana’s agriculture family.

Born April 5, 1955, in Williston, N.D., Smith grew up a bit to the north and west, near a town named Dagmar, Mont. Home is just southeast of Plentywood, Mont., about nine miles west of the North Dakota-Montana line.

“My folks had a diversified farm and ranch — cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens,” Smith says.

Bruce was one of four boys in the family.

“I was the third child and first of the second batch. I don’t know if you’d call us subsistence farmers, but we ate what we raised. If you didn’t have the money to buy something, or couldn’t make it, you obviously didn’t need it,” he says.

His father, “Big” Ed Smith, was active in politics.

Ed had an eighth-grade education, but was plenty smart and still is at 90. Ed was in the Montana State Senate for 20 years and was the Republican nominee for governor in 1972. Big Ed was a “grass-roots conservative,” Bruce recalls.

“He said you can’t spend more money than you make. He carried most of the rural counties, but didn’t carry the urban areas,” Smith says.

Big at being big

The Smiths were known for sheer physical size.

Big Ed stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall. All of Bruce’s brothers are easily more than 6 feet tall. When Bruce stopped growing at 22, he stood 6 feet 11 inches tall. Two brothers were 6-7 and 6-8, and the three averaged more than 300 pounds.

Bruce graduated from Medicine Lake High School in 1973 and went to Montana State University in Bozeman on a basketball scholarship. He and his youngest brother, Rod, both played for the MSU Bobcats.

“There may be some genetic defect at work,” Bruce says. “My sixth great-grandmother was described in the history accounts as a ‘Welsh giantess.’”

Bruce met his wife, Karen, of Culbertson, Mont., at MSU, where he earned two degrees — one in animal science in 1977 and the other in ag business in 1979, both times with honors. Between degrees, Bruce played professional basketball in France.

In the 1980s, Smith returned to the farm. His older brother never had left. It didn’t work out.

“Between drought, grasshoppers and baling kochia and Russian thistle to feed the cows, It started to look like the place wasn’t going to support three families,” he says.

So Bruce and Karen went to California, and in 1987, Bruce got a master of business administration from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

MBA on the floor

“I thought I wanted to go into human resources,” he says.

But the folks from Green Giant Co. came to do interviews and they put him to work in a processing plant in Watsonville, Calif. The facility handled four primary products — broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spinach, and had re-pack for corn. The company was putting frozen vegetable products into microwave packets.

Smith started as a production supervisor on the floor.

“When I walked into the place, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was like going into Willy Wonka’s factory — people, ag products, machinery,” he says.

In nine months, he was quality control manager. He loved the business, diagnosing mechanical problems and making decisions — right or wrong.

Memorably, he was working Oct. 17, 1989, when the famous Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area. It registered 6.9 on the Richter scale.

“This looked like the ‘Poseidon Adventure.’ We were a distribution center factory, with three freezers the size of football fields,” he says. “With the food and ammonia leaks, we had to send it all to the landfill.”

Smith had a goal of becoming a plant manager by age 40 and achieved that goal by age 35.

In 1990, the Smiths moved to Illinois to work in a margarine factory for Unilever. In 18 months, he was plant manager. In 1993, the Smiths moved to Twin Falls, Idaho, where Bruce was ma manufacturing manager for a Universal Frozen Foods plant.

“At the time,” Smith says, “it was the world’s second-largest french fry plant.”

It employed 700 to 800 people at harvest time.

After the acquisition by ConAgra Foods, Smith got out. In 1994, he took a job with the Montana Extension Service in the western part of the state. In 1995, a job came up at Dawson County, nearer both sides of the family.

“This was divine intervention. Everything was leading me in this direction. All I had to do was to listen,” Smith says.

Back home again

In 1998, Smith was happy — teaching Western Integrated Ranch Education, meeting with clients, going through financial records. Among other things, he helped clients determine personality types, through the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, to help them learn their learning styles.

Among other things, Smith knew he was an extrovert, which explained why he gravitated toward a life away from the farm. He found that of in the overall U.S. population, about 72 percent are extroverts. But ag producers, when tested, show about 55 percent are more introverts. Among males in the farm population, about 78 percent are more in the “thinking” categories, while 62 percent of the women are in the “feeling” categories.

Smith says those who stay in the communities often are more comfortable being alone than in social settings. That’s one reason a cooperative is a good plan for them; they can hire people who are promoters to market their goods.

Smith acknowledges his efforts for building such cooperatives may not be universally appreciated, even among his colleagues. No matter, he says.

Says Smith: “I’ve come to believe it’s not about me; it’s about everybody else.”