By Maya Wahl, CAHNRS Academic Programs
CAHNRS takes pride in its alumni and strives to keep our graduates a part of the Coug family that they built while they were on campus. There are teachers, winemakers, farmers and ranchers, product developers, social workers, geneticists, and the list goes on. Some CAHNRS graduates go on to work for large corporations, non-profit organizations, and institutions across the country while others work within the WSU community. Some become professors and administrators within our college and others go out into the field as Extension agents to work with the people who need it most. Michael Hackett worked for WSU Extension for 27 years and this is his story.
Mike Hackett grew up in rural New England, on the border of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but never lived on a farm. He helped with his uncle’s dairy from time to time and says, “I liked the aromas of fresh hay and the dairy cows.” From an early age, Mike displayed a love for animals. It was not until his teen years that Mike began working in agriculture and gained experience on egg farms, orchards, and vegetable farms. He loved the work and from that point on Mike found himself working in agriculture in various ways.
In 1967, Mike was drafted into the military during the height of the Vietnam War. At that time nearly 200 men were killed weekly. He joined the Navy, and after training, was assigned to the Amphibious “Brown Water Navy”, supporting combat operations along the Saigon River near the Mekong Delta. For 14 months, Mike was in and out of Vietnam between 1968 and 1970.
“I got a new perspective on all living things after I participated in and witnessed a lot of destruction of life. From human loss and suffering to animal loss and suffering, and plant life loss such as herbicide spraying of Agent Orange.”
“When I came out of the military I wanted to work with living things,” and work with living things he did.
Upon his return to the United States and civilian life, Mike worked as a herdsman on a dairy farm. He worked alongside a large animal veterinarian which ultimately led to him attending the University of Massachusetts to study animal science with a pre-veterinary focus. After obtaining his undergraduate degree, the next step was vet school. However, at the time there were only 18 veterinary schools in the nation and admission was incredibly competitive. Most students had to be a resident of the state that the school was in and unfortunately for Mike, there were no veterinary schools in Massachusetts.
So, he looked for other ways to continue his education and began to apply to graduate schools across the nation. While he was admitted to a number of schools, he chose to come to Washington State University and pursue a master’s degree in animal science.
“The reason I chose WSU was because of a professor named Dr. Joe Hillers… [he] actually called me up personally from Pullman to New England and asked me if I’d like to go to work for him as a graduate student and that just blew me away.”
While he had been admitted to several very prestigious graduate schools, the personal connection that Mike was able to make with Dr. Hillers was what sold him on WSU. He says that Dr. Hillers and the other WSU Animal Science faculty welcomed Mike and made him feel accepted. They created a family.
In 1976, Mike graduated from WSU with his master’s in animal science and in 1980 he became an Extension agent for WSU. He dedicated 27 years of his life to helping new farmers and ranchers succeed by providing meaningful, purposeful education through Extension programs. When he began his work, he noticed there was a big need for small scale livestock production education. That’s when he started the Livestock Master Program.
He modeled it after the Master Gardeners Program offered by WSU Extension and used livestock production management and marketing curriculum to arm small farmers and ranchers with the tools they needed to be successful. It kicked off in 1983 and is still helping farmers to this day, however it is now referred to as the Livestock Advisor Program.
During his time as an Extension agent, Mike noticed that farmers and ranchers were being underserved. It was the “back to the land movement” that drove more and more people to leave their urban lifestyles and embrace sustainable rural living. This created a large need for agricultural education and support. Mike sought to fill that need.
Much of Extension at the time was geared towards commercial agriculture and neglected to focus on the thousands of small scale farmers and homesteaders in Northwest Washington. He went to work, reaching out to these small farmers and formulating a plan to better serve them. His efforts included things like organic gardening workshops and other services. He was passionate about serving this population of farmers and today WSU Extension has a great presence in those communities and continues to provide valuable resources to producers of all sizes, commercial and small scale.
“The coolest thing that I thought was good about it was that I’d teach volunteers the basics of raising livestock on a small scale and then they would go out and teach other people to return their volunteer service.”
Mike says that the highlight of his career was working in the 4-H youth programs in Snohomish, County. Today, Snohomish County has one of the most active 4-H programs in the state and Mike was able to work directly with the community youth to encourage hands-on learning and promote proper livestock management practices among young 4-H members. At the time there were close to 450 4-H leaders and nearly 1,500 youth members participating in animal science projects which included horses, beef, sheep, poultry, swine, and a variety of other small animal projects. Mike enjoyed helping people learn and was a key player behind the scenes, making things happen for the youths in his community.
After retiring from his Extension position in 2007, Mike went home to work on in his own farm. However, that didn’t last long. He says he “got restless” and wanted to find something more to do. So, he became an Organic Certification Field Inspector for the Washington Department of Agriculture. Mike continued to expand his own knowledge of agriculture and sought to serve the farmers and ranchers of Washington State.
“It was really rewarding because I got to see a lot of certified organic farms and ranches, dairies, poultry producers, beef producers, row crops, and market gardeners… Both commercial and small scale.”
Mike has always wanted to work with people, help educate them and arm them with the tools they need to be successful. Five and a half years ago, Mike found another way to help people using his expansive agricultural background. He started working with an organization called Growing Veterans. Their mission is to “empower military veterans to grow food, community, and each other.” The founder of Growing Veterans, Chris Brown, found Mike through the Washington Tilth Producers, he was serving on the board at the time, and asked if he would be interested in becoming involved.
“When I saw what was happening, I really latched on to that. I realized that that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life practically after I came back from Vietnam.” Working in agriculture had been Mike’s own therapy. Now, they refer to it as “dirt therapy” and it is extremely effective. Combat veterans working in the soil and with animals has proven to be very therapeutic because, as Mike would say, “You’re growing things, not destroying things.
Mike Hackett has remained involved with WSU and CAHNRS since graduating with his master’s degree in 1976. He worked for the college for 27 years and has continued his life of service to this day. He is a passionate Coug and a life member of the WSU Alumni Association. He says, “I love the term Coug family… The Coug family is my second family.” He has witnessed this idea through his own experiences as well as those of other people he encountered during his career in Extension; WSU cares about its student success as much as prestige or sports titles.
“I’ll be eternally grateful to WSU for getting me out on the right road and heading into life prepared.”
Mike wants future animal scientists and agriculturalists who are preparing to enter the industry to find their passion for growing things, whether that be plants, animals or communities, and to dive into that. Don’t expect your first job to be your dream job but get your foot in the door and find your niche. Be willing to take risks and push back on what you believe is right. Have the courage to change the things you can change. And don’t dwell on negativity, let it roll off you like water on a duck’s back and stay positive.
Mike Hackett has lived a life of service to others in many ways and will receive the Outstanding Alumnus award from the Department of Animal Sciences on April 5 at the Animal Science Recognition Banquet. He and his wife Peggy have four children and six grandchildren. He has dedicated his life to growing plants, animals and making the lives of those around him better. He sets a standard for future Coug alumni to go forth and to pursue what they are truly passionate about. Animal Sciences, WSU, and CAHNRS are proud to have him as a part of the Coug family.