Joe Musick reaches inside a desk drawer at the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station and pulls out a fading photograph from the 1950s.
In the black-and-white image, a 19-year-old Musick stands with other eager members of the Future Farmers of America at a Kansas City convention hall. “That's me,” says Musick, pointing to a dark-haired, razor-thin young man at the center of the photo.
For Musick, that trip to Kansas City in 1955 was the beginning of a life-long commitment to agriculture.
Now, at the age of 67, Musick is nearing retirement as resident director of the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station at Crowley, La., a job he has held for the past 18 years. During that time, Musick has presided over a world-class research station that has seen its stature and importance in rice research continue to grow.
“About 62 percent or 63 percent of all the rice varieties planted in the Southeast were developed here,” says Musick, an ex-farmer with a degree in agricultural economics.
“Rice producers have been very supportive of the research station here, and that has been a big key,” he continues, adding, “Without their checkoff funds, we probably would have had to cut back to a third of what we do.”
Louisiana growers fund rice research with a contribution of 5 cents per hundredweight (100 pounds) of rice grown. It's the largest checkoff contribution by any rice-growing state's farming community.
Musick, who officially will retire in August, has long immersed himself in budgets, planning and guiding rice breeders and other scientists at the Crowley facility. But he shuns taking any credit for the station's success.
“Management is accomplishing objectives through others,” he said. “We have world-class scientists here — people who are very ambitious and talented. I'd rather promote my scientists than myself. They're the ones who do the work.
“Managing them is easy. You don't have to be hard-nosed. I have always tried to impress upon our people to do the best job they can — even if it's digging a ditch.”
Musick says he's seen the station make leaps in breeding new rice varieties, improving conservation farming methods and fighting rice diseases.
Among the first for the Rice Research Station during Musick's tenure are advances in laser-leveling of fields and the creation of herbicide-resistant rice lines. Average yields also have edged higher in rice production over the past two decades.
“When average yields go up, it means rice farmers can stay in business even during tough economic times,” Musick said. “And we work for the rice producers here. That's how I've always approached the job.”
Musick oversees a staff of nearly 100 people at the research station. And he's seen a steady increase in private and publicly funded grants to support the station during his tenure.
When Musick first started work at the station in 1985, roughly 75 percent of its budget came from state appropriations. Today, those tables have turned, and about two-thirds of its budget comes from government and industry grants — thanks in large part to the LSU AgCenter's reputation for top-notch research.
The station also is supported by funds from the Louisiana Rice Research Board, which represents producers.
“The LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station is known as one of the best in the United States — if not the best. Joe has done a great job keeping us on top,” said R. Ernest Girouard Jr., a Kaplan, La., rice farmer and chairman of the Louisiana Rice Research Board.
Musick said he's particularly pleased with the success of experimental rice lines through the years, including such recent entries as Cocodrie and Cypress, two popular long-grain varieties created at the station.
As for what's next for Musick, after his retirement this summer, he plans to, well, keep working.
He is a partner in a firm called M&M Horticulture Services that cuts grass on highway medians in southwestern Louisiana. He also plans to spend time with seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
And what about the future of the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station?
“We're going to continue to be a player in world-class rice research,” Musick says confidently.
Musick was honored at the Rice Research Station's annual field day June 26.