“When we could, we’d always ride to meetings together. Real quick, I learned that he had an ulterior motive because he’d want me to drive. He used that drive to change his slides. Slides on the fly,” says Phil Tacker, Arkansas Extension irrigation specialist.

That isn’t because Ashlock, the newly retired Arkansas Extension soybean specialist, wasn’t prepared for the meetings. It was because he was so keen on making presentations fit regions.

“Lots of people take the same song and dance wherever they go. Lanny wouldn’t do that and invariably that meant switching slides out in the car,” says Tacker.

A brief history

Lanny Ashlock came to soybeans in a roundabout manner.

“I was born in Oklahoma when my father left Arkansas during World War II. After the war, he got a job in the oil fields in New Mexico. He bought a farm in Arkansas when I was in high school and we moved back then. That’s all I heard growing up: how wonderful Arkansas was. Well, Dad was right. When we got back here, after living in a parched, barren part of New Mexico, I thought it was Eden. I never wanted to leave.”

About 1960, Ashlock got his first soybean on-the-farm training by working his father-in-law’s row-crop farm on the Yell County/Scott County line.

After getting a graduate degree from the University of Arkansas in 1967, Ashlock began working his way up the Arkansas Extension ladder rung by rung. A stint as assistant county agent around Harrison led to an associate county agent position in Batesville.

“I just kept moving up the ladder, like all the other Extension employees out there. I was just looking to advance, pick up a little more paycheck,” says Ashlock.

In 1976, Ashlock graduated from Oklahoma State University with a doctorate. He then took his degree and family to south Texas. In 1977, he began work in some early maturing soybean research around Corpus Christi. That work lasted for 6 years and would prove incredibly important to Arkansas soybean producers.

Mr. Nestor

Major hand wringing began when Arkansas Extension soybean specialist Ruell Nestor announced his retirement in the early 1980s. Who was going to replace him? People still speak of Nestor – who passed away last fall – in glowing terms.

”Nestor was truly a prince of a fellow. He was generous with his time and helped me on numerous occasions. I’m indebted to him,” says Ashlock.

“Nestor was a legend in his own right,” adds Cliff Snyder, who runs the Potash and Phosphate Institute.

“The truth is that when Lanny came onto the job, he was replacing someone many thought was irreplaceable. Nestor was valued and cherished and when he retired, everyone was worried. But Ashlock came in and was the right man for his time. How often can you honestly say that?” says Gus Lorenz, Arkansas Extension entomologist.

Does Ashlock feel he was the right man at the right time?

“I don’t know what everyone else thinks. But I was extremely blessed by the job and the people I’ve met because of it. If that’s what being the right man at the right time means, then I’ll agree.”

How long did it take for Ashlock to get comfortable in his position as soybean specialist?

“Well, I wasn’t really comfortable in my job for a few years. Once you find the groove, the ride gets more comfortable. But there was a lot of pressure to fill Nestor’s shoes. Those were some big shoes, I’m telling you.”

Ashlock, say farmers and colleagues who know him, leaves a huge, empty pair himself.

Early soybeans/other things

When Ashlock traveled up from Texas to take over for Nestor, he brought ideas on early maturing soybeans with him. He’s now reluctant to toot his own horn.

“There were a few other people involved in early soybean research in the state. To think I did this solo is just not accurate. And even now there’s a lot that still isn’t perfect about the early maturing beans. But it is a viable option for many farmers, and I’m glad they have that option.”

Ashlock’s denials aside, Snyder says he was “instrumental in bringing the concept of early maturing soybeans to the Mid-South.”

Colleagues also say Ashlock brought the soybean research verification concept to another level in the state. It had already begun when he arrived, but was in its infancy. The idea had been born in cotton research and expanded to other crops.

“Lanny came along and recognized one of the key things that was missing in the soybean verification program was data on water management. Also, variety selection wasn’t as integrated into the program as it should have been. Lanny was able to bring both those things into the program to the benefit of farmers,” says Snyder.

Tacker says his job was made much easier by Ashlock continuing to make the case for proper irrigation in soybeans. “He’s always talked about how important timing of irrigation is. Many others might zero in on maturity groups, soil types, weeds or something else and give irrigation a backseat. He didn’t do that. He kept irrigation at the forefront. And when he says something, it sticks. His words are incredibly influential. His words have heft that other peoples’ don’t.”

A new job

Ashlock retired from the Extension Service on Jan. 4, after close to 31 years of work. He’s since accepted a position with Cullum Seed (out of Fisher, Ark.) to work as an agronomist.

“I’ve worked with Cullum Seed over the years and respect them and wanted to learn more about the seed business. The word got out that the Extension Service was trying not to have so much of their appropriations tied up in salaries. That meant early retirement or incentives were being offered to long-time employees.”

Ashlock isn’t sure who talked about it first, but Cullum Seed got wind of Extension’s plans and offered him a job. His main responsibility now is to help the company obtain the best genetics possible.

“We want the best Mid-South varieties. I’ll be working with Cullum seed producers (on the Armor brand of seeds) and customers. The work is very similar to what I was doing before with one big twist: before, I was evaluating good genetics and now I’m obtaining good genetics. I like the job. The competition is really friendly for the most part. And all the seed companies are truly concerned with the farmers’ plight with low commodity prices.”

William Johnson says Cullum made a smart move in hiring Ashlock. “Lanny is the antifreeze in a group. Anytime anything happened that could cause controversy, Ashlock was the one who calmed things down. He has the ability to take bad situations and turn them into gold. He can sense things well and was able to use that skill to head off troubles.

“To the younger generation of Extension guys, he was like a favorite uncle. He is nice beyond words, but when he came into your office and closed the door, you knew something serious was up. At such times, he wouldn’t scream and holler. He’d just calmly say, ‘I want to suggest something, give you some advice.’ The young guys looked at how he worked and we modeled ourselves after him. Ashlock is tireless. I know for a fact he’d often get to the office at 6:30 a.m. and not get home until 10 p.m. He was dedicated, and he’ll work hard for Cullum too.”

Ashlock, says Johnson, always cautioned fellow Extension employees to find an answer to any question. “He told us not to side-step a question or issue but to just plow right in. ‘When you start side-stepping issues’, he said, ‘that comes back to haunt you.’”

Not a great driver

Gus Lorenz says he’ll miss Ashlock, but not necessarily his driving.

“He’s just not the best driver. One time, we were in Atlanta for a meeting and Lanny pulled out on a one-way road going the wrong way. He was driving the car in the middle lane and people were shooting by us honking and going wild. It was that scene straight out of the movie ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles.’

“But you know what? There isn’t anyone who cares more about the growers or county agents he serves. That’s what he is, a servant. He’s always worried about the people he works for. If we all patterned ourselves after him, it would be a better and happier world.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com