In my first year or two in my first job as a journalist, someone, probably my boss, offered me two pieces of advice. One: “Someone else would do your job for half of what you’re being paid.” Two: “When you leave the building, the lights won’t flicker.”
I was reminded of those two suggestions/threats recently when my good friend Jim Swart retired from his position as a Texas AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management agent, working out of Commerce. Jim’s held that position for 32 years. I’ve been privileged to have him as a valuable contact and a close friend for almost half that time.
I’m not certain what the plans are for Jim’s replacement, Extension budgets being what they are, but I’m certain that whoever and whenever they hire someone to take over, they will find a dirty pair of boots that will be hard to fill.
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Jim worked the Northeast corner of Texas, an area rich in some good soils (some not so good); a tradition of producing a varied crop mix including wheat, corn, grain sorghum, cotton (not as much as it once did), sunflowers, soybeans, and forage for livestock; and it boasts some of the best farmers I’ve encountered in my more than 30 years as a farm writer.
Northeast Texas is also home to the Cereal Crops Research Incorporated (CCRI), a unique collection of farmers, ag business representatives, community leaders and some university folk, including Jim who has worked hand in hand with the group for years in a mutually beneficial arrangement that featured research and demonstration plots.
CCRI provides funding for projects important to the crops, soils and unique production conditions in the area. Research and Extension receives cooperation from farmers and industry to test varieties, practices and products to find answers to numerous production problems including resistant weeds, plant disease control, insect management (Hessian fly, among others) and planting dates for grain crops. The latest efforts included evaluating control strategies for the devastating sugarcane aphid in grain sorghum.
Much of the CCRI-sponsored test result data is discussed each year at the annual Ag Technology Conference, which Jim oversees.
He’s also, along with now retired TAMU-Commerce agronomy professor Don Reid, overseen a practicum course for TAMU-Commerce ag students who make a crop and in the process learn the basics of preparing land, seeding, scouting, fertilizing, harvesting and marketing commodities. CCRI supplies seed money. If students make a profit above the CCRI stake, it’s theirs. Jim and Don believe the training prepares students, many of whom are not from traditional ag backgrounds, to enter an ag-related workforce.
Extension’s footprints are evident across the region in on-farm demonstrations, attendance at production meetings and field days and support for CCRI and other programs. I have done dozens of farmer interviews in the area over the past 15 years and often find successful producers with valid reasons for their success. Take wheat, for instance. For the past three years wheat farmers in this corner of Texas have made record wheat yields while much of the rest of the Southwest struggled with severe drought. Many also brought in excellent corn and grain sorghum harvests.
I’ve asked for the secret. They say they’ve been fortunate with timely rains. They also credit better varieties, better plant protection products and more affordable fungicides as advantages they didn’t have just a few years back.
They also credit Extension for working closely with them to bring new ideas, product and variety recommendations and alerts on potential threats. And they point to Jim Swart as a respected adviser and source of credible information.
He’ll still be around, as an advisor to CCRI, and I plan to continue to abuse his good will in locating good farmer interviews and to update me on Northeast Texas crop conditions. But he will be missed as the go-to Extension source.
Maybe the lights didn’t flicker, but I suspect they dimmed a bit.