Growing up on a farm near Uniontown, Wash., Mark Heitstuman determined his career goal early on. Active in his FFA group at Colton High School, he envisioned working in agricultural education.
After high school graduation, Heitstuman attended Washington State University (WSU) and earned his degree in ag education in 1987. Understanding that continuing his studies could offer better opportunities in that field, he earned his master’s in agricultural vocational technical education in 1989 at WSU. To enter the working world, Heitstuman returned home and taught agricultural science and was the FFA advisor at Colton High School for almost five years, from 1989 to 1994.
“My experiences on our farm and in high school FFA gave me the incentive to have a career in ag education,” said Heitstuman. “It was fulfilling for me to come back to my own high school and help the students develop leadership skills they could use throughout their lifetimes, regardless of what they chose to do for a living.”
In 1994, the University of Idaho offered Heitstuman a position in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He worked in student recruitment, scholarships, and alumni affairs for over six years. In November of 2000, Heitstuman accepted the WSU Extension County Director position in Asotin County. Since 2012, he has also served as director of the Garfield County WSU Extension office in Pomeroy.
Heitstuman has many responsibilities, as he has also been serving as the Interim State Director for the Washington State 4-H program since June 2022 where he has worked at expanding participation of 4-H teens in both state and national level programs after COVID-19.
In his 23 years of service with WSU Extension, Heitstuman has focused much of his work on youth livestock education, organizing youth camps, and STEM programs. He has worked extensively with area 4-H groups and other volunteer organizations.
“4-H participation can make a real difference in the lives of young people,” he explained. “It starts with building strong leaders that provide mentorship and help develop skills for students. Some folks think 4-H is just showing animals or other projects at county fairs. It involves much more than that.”
4-H in Washington is delivered by WSU Extension. It is a part of a nationwide network of land-grant universities that serve over 6 million youths.
“I guess I’m somewhat old-school. I am sort of a generalist. I have knowledge and experience in many facets of agriculture. This actually has been advantageous since there is such a multiplicity of ag production systems and commodities in Asotin and Garfield counties,” Heitstuman said.
Having been involved with wheat farming and raising sheep, swine, and cattle as a youth, Heitstuman works closely with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) and with cattle organizations all over the region. One of the toughest challenges he and other WSU Extension agents face is not having as many Extension educators as they used to.
“WSU Extension is currently in the process of prioritizing and supporting the agricultural industry with less individuals. There is always strong competition for limited dollars,” he said. “The state also sometimes has a tough time competing with the salaries available in the private sector. We just try to accomplish as much as possible using what we have to work with.”
The WSU Extension offices in the area all do regional work across the Blue Mountain region. They have programs and outreach in Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Whitman, and Walla Walla counties in Washington, along with collaborating on programs in Nez Perce and Latah counties in Idaho and Umatilla County in Oregon.
At the state 4-H level this past year, Heitstuman supported more members competing in livestock judging, meats judging, and shooting sports to increase advancement to state and national competitions. He is proud of the students and the volunteers who have worked very hard for their accomplishments. The Asotin and Garfield County Extension offices also help promote the annual WSU Variety Selection and Testing Trials that are held in both counties.
Both Asotin and Garfield counties are test sites for individuals needing Washington State Department of Agriculture Private Applicator Licenses. They also offer an annual five-credit pesticide recertification program both online and in-person each December with over 175 participants.
Asked about the challenges to small grains farmers in the Pacific Northwest, Heitstuman listed four main items:
• The rising input costs farmers face, especially for fuel and farm chemicals.
• The need to grow and innovate. That might mean expanding the farm, adding higher value crops to the rotation, or even using different farming methods.
• Wise use and management of agricultural tools and technology. This can be a challenge for an older farming generation to embrace.
• Dealing with the stress of farming and having producers maintain good mental health can be a difficult challenge for many individuals connected to agriculture.
Heitstuman has led the local WSU Master Gardener programs since he started with WSU Extension. He coordinates Master Gardener horticultural training across five counties in southeastern Washington and Northern Idaho. WSU Master Gardener volunteers receive over 50 hours of training to get certified. Graduates of the program can then work in the local county plant diagnostic clinics, lead school gardening programs, and provide community outreach to people interested in horticulture. Both Asotin and Garfield counties have a solid base of volunteers involved in this program.
Heitstuman’s wife, Michele, is a teacher at Colton High School. In their rare spare time, they raise 4-H and FFA show lambs and have a few head of Charolais cattle on their family acreage. Their son, Michael, has followed the family tradition. He is the ag science teacher and FFA advisor at Colfax High School, where he has developed a very successful FFA program.
The Asotin County WSU Extension office is online at extension.wsu.edu/asotin. Their phone number is (509) 243-2009. The Garfield County WSU Extension office is at extension.wsu.edu/garfield/. Their phone number is (509) 843-3701.