They talk about perseverance, decency and knowledge. They speak of hard work, long hours and diplomacy. But it all comes back to the slides. Start talking to former colleagues of Lanny Ashlock and they all mention the slides.
“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,” said 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,” said Tacker.
A brief history
Lanny Ashlock came to soybeans in a roundabout manner.
“I was born in Oklahoma when my father left Arkansas as a boy prior to WWII. 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 1962, Ashlock got his first soybean on-the-farm training by working Oscar Goodson's (soon to be his father-in-law) 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 lead to an associate county agent position in Batesville and then a tour as county agent in Waldron.
“I just kept moving up the ladder, like all the other Extension employees out there. I was just looking to advance, take on more responsibility and pick up a little more paycheck,” said Ashlock.
In 1973, Ashlock left Extension to work on a doctorate degree in the agronomy department of Oklahoma State University. He graduated in 1977, and then took his degree and family to south Texas, where he worked for the Texas A&M University at Coastal Bend.
Shortly after, he began work in some early-maturing soybean research and Extension efforts around Corpus Christi. That work — performed with agronomists Hamner Paschal and Lucas Reyes — lasted about four years and would prove incredibly important to Arkansas soybean producers.
Major hand-wringing began when Arkansas Extension soybean specialist Ruel Nester announced his retirement in the early 1980s. Who was going to replace him? People still speak of Nester — who passed away last fall — in glowing terms.
“Ruel was truly a prince of a fellow. He was generous with his time and extremely talented. He helped me on numerous occasions. I'm indebted to him,” said Ashlock.
“Nester was a legend in his own right,” added 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. Nester was valued and cherished. 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?” asked 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. I finally realized that all you can do is the best you can and hope it'll be good enough. But there was a lot of pressure trying to fill Nester'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.
When Ashlock traveled up from Texas to take over for Nester, he brought ideas on early-maturing soybeans with him. He's now reluctant to toot his own horn.
“There are a few other people involved in early soybean research in Arkansas and adjoining states. 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 said 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 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,” said Snyder.
Tacker said 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.”
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.”
Cullum Seed got wind of Extension's plans, discussions ensued and the company offered him a job. His main responsibility now is to help the company obtain the best genetics possible and provide sound soybean agronomic services to the company's customers.
“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 always evaluating good genetics and now I'm helping to obtain 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 insists 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 is 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, said Johnson, cautioned fellow 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 said 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.”
Extension hit hard by retirements
LANNY ASHLOCK isn't the only longtime Extension employee to hang up his spurs. Recently, more than 70 20-year veteran Arkansas Extension and University of Arkansas Experiment Station employees opted to take early retirement. Among them are weed scientist Ford Baldwin (a frequent contributor to Delta Farm Press), Stuttgart rice center director John Robinson, cattle specialist George Davis, and soil scientist Stan Chapman. All take years of experience and knowledge with them.
Early retirement was offered to the employees last year, according to Extension sources, because of deficit spending fears. Those fears proved to be well-founded as, without the retirements, the nearly $70 million annual Extension budget would have been surpassed.
“We didn't get a raise last year and probably won't this year either,” says one Extension employee. “Things are tough here just like they are everywhere else. But these retirements — losing all this knowledge — really hurts. No one can say it doesn't and keep a straight face. It's like having a library full of important books burn up.”