After 34 years serving area agriculture, Extension Agent Joe Janak is hanging up his hat


Feb. 7, 2012 at 7:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 6, 2012 at 8:07 p.m.

Returning to his father's farm in Hallettsville brings back memories of growing up in a different time for Joe Janak. The weathered wood door, feeding bowls and bales of hay in the barn stir vivid memories of his childhood.

Returning to his father's farm in Hallettsville brings back memories of growing up in a different time for Joe Janak. The weathered wood door, feeding bowls and bales of hay in the barn stir vivid memories of his childhood.

HALLETTSVILLE - Joe Janak maneuvered across his family's Hallettsville ranch, past grazing cattle, the '46 Chevrolet he rode to church as a child and a large tree that once housed a hole nearly big enough for his boyhood self to squeeze through.

"I've got some work to do," he said, surveying the well-worn property. "There's a lot of work to do."

And, soon, he'll have time to devote to it.

After 34 years with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, the Victoria County extension agent will retire in late February.

The Hallettsville native began his career shortly after college.

He graduated Texas A&M University in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in animal science, and joined what was then the Texas Cooperative Extension in 1978. After five years serving various Crossroads counties, Janak moved to Victoria on March 1, 1983.

As with any transition, it came with a learning curve.

"Victoria was a major urban area," Janak explained. "There was a lot of interest in horticulture, but I didn't have specific training in that. I had to sort of learn as I went along."

Making his mark

Throughout his more than three decades of service, Janak brought his share of change to the area.

He promoted youth projects for the Victoria Livestock Show, noting broiler, rabbit, goat and heifer projects joined the mix during his tenure, and encouraged selling animals by the head, rather than the pound, at auction.

"Before, buyers had to have their calculators out to figure out just what it cost," he said. "Lots of papers. This is so much easier."

For years, the region was home to the state's largest pecan show, Janak said. Two varieties that won at local shows, the Forkert and Prilop, later became popular statewide.

Other updates under Janak's watch include the start of the Victoria County Master Gardeners Association and, later, its Victoria Educational Gardens. County crop tours and expansions to the South Texas Farm and Ranch Show came about, too.

None would be possible without help from many others in the community, he said.

Victoria County's agricultural landscape also morphed with time, he said, noting grain sorghum was the No. 1 cash crop when he first took his station. After Janak began educating producers on diversification, however, soybeans and cotton also made an appearance.

Now, some years the county sees 25,000 acres of both.

"We found two alternative crops, but are always looking for more," he said, explaining the extension office considered safflower, castor, guar and even blueberries, among others. "None actually made it into the farming system like cotton and sorghum did, though."

Agricultural ups and downs

While the county program saw improvements over time, it wasn't always smooth sailing for area agriculture.

In 2009, when local hay inventories hit rock bottom, the county took part in a haylift program that imported 1,596 round bales from other regions.

Victoria County saw too much rain a couple of years ago, which devastated sorghum crops, Janak noted. Later, drought conditions led agriculturists to re-evaluate their practices when crops failed and grasses necessary for cattle raisers ceased to grow.

"Without water, agriculture can't survive," Janak said.

Even during rough patches, the outgoing extension agent was always there to lend a hand, said Vikki Fitzpatrick, Janak's secretary of more than 16 years.

She said his plate was always full, either with constant phone calls or office visitors or even trips out to evaluate crops.

"People would always come in because they knew he would help," said Fitzpatrick, who went to Janak on more than one occasion for help with her bougainvilleas. "I don't think I've ever run across a person who's had a harsh word to say about him."

For soft-spoken Janak, who's slow to accept praise, helping others is simply part of the job.

"I'm going to miss that more than anything - helping people with their problems," he said, examining a spotted grapefruit someone dropped off at his office for a second opinion. "That's what we're here for."

Moving on, moving out

The only thing constant is change, Janak said, and it's finally time to abandon the post he's held for so long. The decision wasn't an easy one, he said, but ongoing family issues made it necessary.

Janak's work boots will be difficult ones to fill, said Donnie Montemayor, district extension administrator. Not only does the longtime agriculturist bring compassion to the table, but a decent dose of know-how, too.

"You don't just learn this in a couple of years," he said. "You learn this through years and years of experience. He has done a tremendous job in his time here."

Montemayor said the extension service will fill the position, but will not begin the search until Janak's final paperwork is in.

While Janak is confident the right person will fill the job, he said he hopes that person understands the valuable role area residents play.

"The greatest assets to a county are the people in the county," he said, explaining it takes many moving parts to keep a program going. "It's an agent's responsibility to pull the core group together. You've got to work with the people."

Now 56, Janak plans to keep busy even in retirement, spending time with the family and tackling overdue projects at the farm, ranch and home.

"I'll do all the things I should've done the last 30 years," he said with a smirk. "Or, at least the last 15. There's a lot to do."



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