Northwest Iowa agronomist retires after career helping farmers

Posted at 5:17 PM, Sep 04, 2022

LE MARS, Iowa (AP) — Visit any farm in this corner of the state, and chances are the farmer living there is utilizing some bit of information, some tip gleaned from Joel DeJong.

For decades, DeJong has been a go-to source of information on field crops and related topics for farmers, answering questions about strange insects, crop diseases or how to squeeze an extra bushel of corn or beans out of every acre.

“There are a few that drive you crazy, but for the most part clients have been very kind, appreciative. People are grateful for what we offer, and we’re not selling anything,” said DeJong, who retired last week after a nearly 41-year career with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the last 30 of them as a field agronomist serving nine Northwest Iowa counties. The Extension will host a thank-you event at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Le Mars Convention Center.

DeJong has answered countless questions from producers seeking the latest crop farming innovations and from media members who frequently seek his insight for news stories. With access to data compiled by researchers in Iowa, as well as other states and countries, and hours spent at test sites and research plots, he always has an answer and is happy to share it.

“If you just do research and don’t get the information out, what value is it?” he told the Sioux City Journal. “That’s the nice thing about this job is the learning is continuous.”

Agriculture can be an unpredictable business. Growing up on a family farm between Maurice and Orange City in Sioux County, DeJong learned settling into a career in agriculture can be just as unpredictable.

Attending Iowa State after graduating from Maurice-Orange City High School, DeJong began as a pre-veterinary medicine major, but says chemistry classes convinced him his future was elsewhere in agriculture. He would earn an ag business degree with a finance major, but an internship with an ag lender wasn’t that thrilling. He took a job out of college selling swine seed stock, a fancy way of saying he sold boars. He didn’t really like that either.

A friend with the ISU Extension encouraged DeJong to apply for one of the service’s many openings, and he landed a job as the county Extension director in Greenfield, Iowa, in 1982. Three years later, he came to the Woodbury County Extension office as an agriculturalist and covered horticulture, too, launching the county’s master gardener program in 1986 before becoming the county’s Extension director.

After a reorganization in 1992, DeJong was named the agronomist for Northwest Iowa, working first in Sioux City before moving to the Extension’s Plymouth County office in Le Mars, where he and wife Lorraine, a retired middle school teacher, still live.

The Extension’s retooling helped DeJong find his niche of passing the latest research-based information on to farmers.

“Sometimes when change comes, people are afraid what’s going to happen. But if I hadn’t changed roles, I don’t know if I would have lasted with the Extension all these years,” he said.

He’s helped numerous farmers since then navigate the ever-changing agriculture industry, whether it’s informing them of more effective manure applications or using on-farm trials to find the ideal soybean plant density in their fields. Call him during the growing season, and you’re likely to reach him in his pickup truck heading to check crop progress, inspect storm damage or look at diseased crops.

Hectic at times, yes, but it’s better than sitting in the office.

“I’d rather be out in the field,” he said.

That likely won’t change in retirement. He’ll still worry if the area is getting enough rain and wonder how the crops are faring.

“My wife probably thinks I’ll drive better because I won’t be looking at fields up and down the road,” he said, laughing.

DeJong has no immediate post-retirement plans, but knows he’ll remain involved in agriculture somehow. It would be a shame not to pass on what he’s learned to producers continually searching for better yields.

“To me, it doesn’t make sense for all I’ve learned to die with me,” he said. “There’s still chances to have my finger in it, and I just haven’t figured it out yet. My identity has been a crop specialist for a long time. The question is, what will my identity be after this?”

It’s one of the few ag-related questions to which he doesn’t immediately know the answer.

But just as the corn and beans do every spring, he knows a new opportunity will sprout up.

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