The nation’s top Excellence in Extension teacher, Rob Kallenbach, hated high school.
Kallenbach was happier selling alfalfa hay in the hills of southwestern Missouri near Bolivar than he was in the classroom. FFA and agriculture classes were his salvation. He loved hay and machinery.
“As soon as high school was over, that was enough for me,” he says. He wanted to farm.
His dad had other plans. The longtime clerk of Polk County wanted his oldest son to go to college. Try it for just one year, he told him. “If you don’t like, you don’t have to go back.”
“I didn’t do well or like it much,” Kallenbach remembers. But his dad talked him into trying it one more year. Still, every weekend he drove home to deliver hay to farmers.
Halfway to his bachelor’s degree, he found science and statistics intriguing, as they related to hay. The boy who hated school went on to earn his master’s degree in agronomy at the University of Missouri and his doctorate at Texas Tech University.
Kallenbach received the Excellence in Extension Award at the November 2014 meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Orlando, Fla. The award, from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension System, goes to an extension professional showing visionary leadership and programming impact.
He liked taking science to farmers in his first extension role, working with forage producers in California deserts in the 1990s. He found that if he could reach and teach one farmer, that farmer would in turn teach another. A neighbor’s valued opinion remains key to changing practices and operations in rural communities. This is especially true in Amish and Mennonite communities, where he introduces 21st-century, research-based practices to farmers accustomed to 19th-century techniques.
His work brought him back to MU’s Waters Hall in 1998. He knew the building well from his master’s program and from entries in a daily diary kept by his grandfather, an MU graduate and former Polk County Extension agent. His grandfather wrote in his diary of Waters, a new building on campus when he was a student in the 1930s.
Kallenbach’s father, Bill Bob Kallenbach, also enjoyed a longtime relationship with extension. MU Extension’s Polk County office was located in the courthouse where the senior Kallenbach’s office was when he was county clerk. Bill Bob continues to support 4-H programs through his efforts with the county fair board; his wife’s father, Jerry Carpenter, was an agricultural engineer with MU Extension.
Kallenbach and his wife, Rachel, met in college. She often plays classical piano music for him as he leaves for work. She home-schools their three children, 17, 16 and 12.
In his spare time, he enjoys woodworking, rebuilding farm equipment and working on his own vehicles. He also studies U.S. presidents, including his favorite, Richard Nixon, whose combination of brilliance and flawed personality intrigues him.
Today, Kallenbach’s work takes around the world—most recently, a monthlong trip to China. He’s traveled in 38 states and six countries since leaving Polk County.
Like other busy professionals with families, he finds time a coveted commodity. He hopes his teaching saves producers time and money. And he hopes they use those savings to enjoy more leisure time with their families. “If our science and extension education makes people happier, that’s as good as it gets,” he says.
Kallenbach’s educational programs help forage-livestock producers improve pasture management. His efforts led to more than $100 million in new investments in pasture-based dairy operations in Missouri, which generate $40 million in annual milk sales and support 1,110 new jobs.
Kallenbach’s winter-feeding systems program for beef cattle helped nearly 22,000 producers reduce annual costs up to 30 percent.