As a four-county Texas Master Gardener Chapter, BMGA is lucky to benefit from not one, but four Texas A&M AgriLife Agricultural Extension Agent advisers, one from each BMGA county. That means BMGA can tap into the knowledge, training, experience, passion of all four professionals. One of those agents is Stephen Janak, the Texas A&M AgriLife Agricultural Extension Agent for Colorado County.
Stephen Janak (pronounced “Yahn-ahk” but he will answer to anything close), grew-up in Victoria County, Texas on the family’s 22 acres where he gardened with his family. He participated in 4-H and was steeped in the importance of agriculture and horticultural at a young age, assisting his Extension Agent father in establishing, harvesting, and evaluating research test plots and result demonstrations, gardening, raising hay and many other agricultural projects.
Today, Mr. Janak works with the local 4-H youth program and emphasizes the importance using fact-based knowledge in agricultural and horticultural practices. He has trained youth in plant identification and is also skilled in agricultural pest identification, while still studying to hone his skills. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 2013 with a degree is Renewable Natural Resources. He studied under Dr. Barron Rector at Texas A&M and joined ArgiLife in 2014. Mr. Janak says his current read is Bill Adams’ The Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook and he encourages everyone to read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which is Mr. Janak’s “favorite book of all time”.
Mr. Janak is a BMGA Fruit Tree Sale customer. Today he has eight peach trees planted at his 1.5-acre place. He also grows pear, pineapple guava, plum, Victoria Red grapes, Owari satsum, figs, avocado, peach-plum nectarine and pecan. The pecan tree was grafted from a native tree on his grandparent’s home place. He also has a vegetable garden at home which taught him first hand the difference between gardening in the black land of Victoria County verses the sandy soil in Colorado County. Perhaps we will elaborate on that in a later post.
An attempt to summarize the experiences that inspire him today would not give the same rich flavor to the story as told by Mr. Janak so below are his own words:
“From as early as I can remember, my family always had a big garden. I have two older brothers, 5 and 6 years older than me. Our parents made us work in the garden (really, our parents made us help with everything, chores, yard work, farming, etc.). We grew between 100 and 250 tomatoes every year. They were mostly the large, slicing type. But we also grew some cherries (tomatoes; regular sweet cherries do not grow here), and some of the different things like yellow pear tomatoes as well as heirlooms. We also grew: squash, zucchini, acorn squash, cucumbers (pickling and slicing), purple hull peas, black-eyed peas, green beans, snap peas, peppers (mostly jalapeno and bells), eggplant, potato, sweet corn, okra, radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, swiss chard, mustards, cantaloupe, carrots, kohlrabi, spinach, watermelon, blackberries, wine grapes, peaches, plums, persimmons, satsumas, and pecans. There may be some other things I can’t remember.
Eventually my brothers got into Jr. High and high school and they started doing other 4-H projects like livestock, and so they no longer sold at the market or helped pick veggies. There were some Saturday’s where my parents were too busy to stay at the market with me. So they’d drop me off at 7 a.m. with my veggies and a table, then come pick me up at 4:30. We were good friends with one of the vendors, and I suppose they “watched over me.” But I would stand there in the blazing sun, trying to look happy. I can’t count how many times my dad would tell me “you need to smile!”, “people are more likely to buy from you if you are smiling and welcoming.” Darn if he wasn’t right. I didn’t enjoy selling veggies or talking to customers. I was a very shy as a kid. I was not a good salesman. Thinking back, those first few years on my own, it was probably the 4-H sign and the sight of a young kid that sold my veggies; not my customer service or quality produce.
When my brothers got a little older and I was maybe 11 or 12, we bought a green patio-type umbrella. It was a big deal for us. It was maybe 10 feet wide when fully expanded. It was expensive for us back then, so I can remember to this day, my dad stressing to me how important it would be to take care of this umbrella. I spent many hours standing on the metal umbrella stand, trying to hold it down with my 90 pounds in the south Texas winds. But we finally had shade. But Dad was all about the customer service, so the umbrella was positioned near the front of the booth to offer shade to customers. Every time we would pack up to go home after selling, we wrapped the umbrella in the original plastic wrap that it came in and put it back in the box that it came in. Dad still has that umbrella today, and it’s in good shape still.
When we got the umbrella, we started to expand. I would have three tables to sell from. It didn’t shade all three tables, but it was better than nothing. We got better at selling, too. We learned to package things differently and to make the tables more appealing with stacks, layers, and little ready-to-go mixes of veggies. The best part of the day, though, was getting home, sitting in the air conditioning, and counting my money. Eventually I was old enough to drive, and so I would take Dad’s old 78 ford to the market. It was rusty and beat-up but having the bed full of veggies in addition to my tables was a good draw. By the time I was 17, I had earned enough money from Farmers Market sales and a few 4-H livestock projects that I purchased my first truck for just less than 10k with my own CASH.
But I hated gardening until that time. I despised the taste of tomatoes until I was about 15. I’m not sure what changed, but soon I was eating enough ‘maters in the garden while picking that I started to give myself upset stomach. I can distinctly remember the Juliet cherry tomato. Skin was a little thick, but I hadn’t tasted a better tomato at the time. Unfortunately, during those years, I also wasn’t a big fan of my dad. Not sure why. Just being a brat I suppose, because he was so good to us. We got the belt sometimes (many times in the garden) but he did everything for us and nothing for himself. So, I never really had a desire to learn gardening or anything from him. Boy, if I could go back in time . . . Any expertise or skill I have now is not because I actually intentionally learned anything from him while gardening, so I rely on my memory to remember what he would do in the garden. Today, I can call up those memories and can figure out what we were doing and why. But at the time, I had no clue and I didn’t care. About the only garden pest I knew or cared about was the big tomato hornworm.
But I can distinctly remember helping to thin peaches; again, I had no idea what I was doing, but I do now. I helped spray pecans with Zinc sulfate and fungicide. I hoe’d many a row of ‘maters or sweet corn or watermelons. I laid many bales of mixed alfalfa hay that we grew in the garden, one 3-inch plug at a time. It made terrific mulch and really cut down on disease and weeds. But putting it out was a dusty job. I remember being excited to finally be old enough to drive the tractor. We used (and dad still does today) a Farmall Cub tractor in the garden with the cultivators and sweeps. It was perfect for the garden. I wish I had one of my own today.
I suppose all of this has inspired me to try and help kids today see what I was too bratty to realize back then. That hard work pays off. That most veggies are best eaten in the garden. That the natural world is so incredible. And that gardening is a lost art today, but those who can do it can save money, eat better, be happier, and feel more secure should something terrible happen in the world’s food supply. It inspires me to help people find the joy and love in horticulture and all of agriculture.
“Now-days” I love gardening. I wish I could stay home and garden and farm and survive on a homestead like my grandparents did. And now that I went to school and learned how all this stuff works and the how and why of everything, it all makes me so excited; and so I want to share that passion and excitement and joy with everyone else.