With his newly-earned Ph.D. in agronomy and weed science from Auburn University in hand, Joe Street thought he was headed for a job in Kentucky. But that got sidetracked.
Instead, he spent his 35-1/2 year working career in his home state of Mississippi, participating in the massive expansion of rice acreage in the Delta in the 1980s, and spending the later years in administration for the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
“After completing my Ph.D., I had interviewed for a weed science position in Kentucky, and my wife, Susan, and I were about to make a second trip to look at houses there,” he told colleagues and friends at a May 1 retirement reception in his honor at MSU.
“About six months prior to my graduation from Auburn, Dr. Jerry Shepherd, superintendent of the Delta Branch Experiment Station at Stoneville, sent weed scientist Harold Hurst to talk to me about interviewing for a position there.”
He smiles as he recalls: “I’d grown up on a dairy/cotton farm near Walnut, in the hills of northeast Mississippi. I had a list of reasons why I didn’t want to go to the Delta: It was too flat, it was too hot, etc. But as a courtesy, I agreed to meet with Dr. Shepherd — who insisted that Susan come along to the interview, even bring our baby daughter.
“I had all those reasons why I didn’t want to go to the Delta,” he says. “But everything just clicked. I took the job, and I loved it there. For anyone wanting to do agricultural research, there is no better place in the U.S. than the Stoneville station. The support for research there is just tremendous.”
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He started out doing cotton weed control research. Which lasted all of three months.
“Ed Richard, their rice weed control specialist, left to go back to his home state of Louisiana,” Street says. “The scuttlebutt was that I was going to be assigned to the job, so just before I was assigned, I volunteered. To that point, I had never seen a rice crop.
“James Smith, a rice consultant who was formerly the Extension rice specialist, gave me some advice: ‘You sound like you know what you’re talking about — never, ever tell anyone you’d never seen a rice crop.’ I started doing grower meetings that spring, and managed to bluff my way through them.
Massive expansion of rice acres
“About that time, government acreage limits on rice were being removed, and a lot of growers were getting into the crop who didn’t know any more than I did. So we learned rice together. Acreage really mushroomed, going from about 70,000 acres when I first started working with it to more than 340,000 in the mid-1980s.”
He continued rice research at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station until 1996, when a rice specialist position came open with the MSU Extension Service and he made the change, working in that position until 2003.
“I never had any intention of going into administration,” Street says. “Then one day, Dr. Vance Watson, vice president and MAFES director, phoned and said, ‘I’m going to start sending your paycheck to the Verona station (North Mississippi Research and Extension Center). Are you going to go get it?’
“I got the message. I moved to Verona, and was there from 2003-2005, first as interim head, then head of the center. While I was there, the rice specialist position I had previously held was filled, so I didn’t have that job to go back to. In 2005, I was appointed back to Stoneville as head of the Delta Research and Extension Center, and was there until 2008, when I moved to Mississippi State as associate director of the Extension Service.” He served as interim Extension director for six months in 2010.
In 2010, Street notes, there was a massive retirement of Extension personnel. “We lost 73 people to retirement — and I had planned to be one of them. But with a new administration coming in, I agreed to stay on to assist with the transition. Now, I feel it’s time for me to do something else. I’ve enjoyed my work in administration, although I admit I’ve missed going out into grower fields and helping solve problems and finding ways to make production systems better.
“MSU is a great place to work, and I’ve enjoyed my years here and in my other positions in the Extension/research system. I’ve had a tremendous, wonderful career, but it’s time for a change. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I’m a baby boomer who just loves to work. I’ve jokingly said I only work half days — and it doesn’t matter which 12 hours.”
A champion for agriculture
At his retirement reception, Gary Jackson, director of MSU Extension, said it was fitting that Street’s career path led him back to Mississippi, since he’d earned his B.S. degree in plant pathology and M.S. in plant physiology at MSU. “Joe has been a champion for all aspects of agriculture,” he said. “He has distinguished himself on behalf of this university, his state, and the nation. He became nationally known for his contributions to the rice industry in Mississippi and the U.S.”
Street has been the recipient of many honors and awards for his work, “all well deserved,” Jackson said. In 2007, he was honored with the national Rice Industry Award for his work in development of herbicide labels and his academic contributions to the rice industry. He is the author of 55 articles in professional and scientific journals, and a chapter in the book, “Rice: Origin, History, Technology, and Production.”
Greg Bohach, MSU vice president for agriculture, forestry, and veterinary medicine, said Street “has been a mentor to me in the six years I’ve been at Mississippi State. When I came here, I’d never seen a rice plant. Under Joe’s guidance, I’ve had many informative on-farm experiences that have been a great help to me in transitioning to, and understanding, Mississippi agriculture.”
Bill Herndon, associate vice president for agriculture, forestry, and veterinary medicine, said, “I’ve valued and respected Joe’s experience and advice on many projects over the years. He’s the consummate professional.”
George Hopper, dean, and director of MSU’s Ag and Forestry Experiment Station and the Forestry and Wildlife Research Center, said, “Joe’s lifetime of service has had a great impact on all that we do. The depth of his knowledge and experience has been an asset to Mississippi and U.S. agriculture.”
Reuben Moore, research professor and associate director of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said, “Joe has been a great friend and confidante. He is great at recognizing talent, and has hired many excellent scientists over the years who have served the state’s agriculture well. His tact and skills in dealing with all kinds of situations have won him friends far and wide. The university, the experiment stations, the Extension service, and the state of Mississippi are all better for his service here.”
Washington County producer Gibb Steele, who has known Street for more than 20 years, says he relied on Street’s knowledge of rice production. “He was always readily accessible, and willing to do whatever we needed him to do.”
'Leadership and keen insight'
Travis Satterfield, Bolivar County producer and chairman of the Delta Council Farm Policy Committee, says, “There is no one in modern times who has provided more leadership and keen insight into production agriculture in the Delta than Joe Street. His is a household name in terms of research and Extension.”
Over a cup of coffee the day following his retirement celebration, Street said, “I’m going to do nothing for a couple of weeks — I’m going to a hunting club in the Delta for a few days, and then I’ll start deciding what to do. Susan has said, in so many words, ‘I don’t care what you do when you retire, as long as you don’t do it at home.’”
But he does expect to spend more time with his six grandchildren, who call him Papa, and in the various community service and volunteer activities in which he’s involved.
And to honor his contributions to Mississippi agriculture, his family has established an endowment at MSU for the Joe E. Street Outstanding Agriculture and Natural Resources Award, which will be presented annually.
Reflecting on the turns of his life and career, Street says, “Growing up on a farm, with the demands of a dairy, I knew I didn’t want to farm. But I liked the idea of being associated with agriculture and food production, the only really essential industry. And that led me to my studies at Mississippi State and Auburn.
“I’ve never known what was next in terms of my work. I was drafted into the Army, and that was one of the best things to happen to me. I ended up being an aide to the commanding general at Ft. McClellan, Ala., and working with him, learning structure and organization, was a great experience that served me well throughout my life.”
He was in active military service from 1972-1975, then served in the Alabama National Guard and 17 years in the Mississippi National Guard, retiring as lieutenant colonel.
“Mississippi State Extension has the absolute best agronomic crops team in the country, and our MSU natural resources team is also tops in the nation,” Street says. “I’m fortunate to have worked with such talented, knowledgeable people. That’s what Extension is about: people making a difference in the lives of others. And that is what has made it so rewarding.”
He notes there is “a strong demand today for people to fill jobs in agriculture, with really excellent salaries. We’ve found it increasingly difficult to find and recruit people to fill faculty positions — there just aren’t enough to meet the demand. Students looking for a satisfying and financially rewarding career should take a look at the opportunities in agriculture.”
Summing up his career, Street says, “I feel my steps throughout my life have been ordered by God. And everything has turned out far better than I could ever have expected.”