Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 4, 2004

County agent Joe Neubauer to bid goodbye

By Jane Otto

With the click of a locking door, Joe Neubauer will close a 24-year career of serving McLeod County farmers.

The University of Minnesota Extension educator will retire Oct. 31 after almost 27 years with the organization.

“Doesn’t it make sense that my last day is Halloween?” Neubauer said with a grin. “I’ll come dressed as an old county agent — ‘Green Acres’ Hank Kimball.”

Neubauer, however, won’t be leaving the work force entirely. Come November, he will be an agricultural loan officer at First Federal in Hutchinson.

“I’m gonna stick with the farmers,” Neubauer said of his new position. “I’ve still got a few more challenges for myself and this gives me the opportunity to do that. I’ve wanted to work in different areas of agriculture. I’ve sent farmers to loan officers and always wondered what it would be like to be on the other end.”

Neubauer sees his extension experience being valuable in assisting farmers who are contemplating loans as to whether borrowing money for that piece of machinery, or that barn addition, would give them the best return.

A county agent remembers

It’s with fondness that Neubauer recalls the many people who walked through his office doors — people bearing questions from the simple to the complex — the rural farm Masses he attended, the 4-H’ers he guided, and the farmers he befriended.

And, of course, there was the McLeod County F air.

“Some of my best memories are working with 4-H’ers at the fair, seeing them grow up, become successful, and then, have kids in 4-H,” he recalled. “This last fair, I knew it was my last and it was really tough. I had a few tears in my eyes.”

Being an extension agent in the 1980s, also meant seeing families through the farm crisis.

“It was stressful on everybody. . . . Land prices were going through the roof and then, fell,” Neubauer said. “If I was able to change anything, that would be it. It was a very difficult time — to see people suffer and not be able to do as much as you like for them.”

Working closely with farmers and their families also built friendships.

“I felt most of the people I worked with were friends. Sometimes I was short with them, but I still treated them like a friend,” Neubauer said.

Those friendships often led to educating at meal times.

“People would joke and say, ‘Joe will always show up for a meal,’” Neubauer said. “But, there was more education that was done at that dinner table. That is what rural life is all about.”

Neubauer should know that, as his roots are solidly embedded in a Bird Island family farm where he and his two brothers grew up.

The Neubauer century family farm was at one time home to Neubauer’s family, his uncle and his family, and Neubauer’s grandparents. “That wasn’t unusual then,” he said.

That farm mentality stuck with the Neubauer boys, as all three ventured into some aspect of agriculture — one as a veterinarian, one as an educator, and the other as a farmer.

Despite his affection for what he does, Neubauer admitted that at times the job demanded too much of his time.

“If there is one thing I wanted to change, it was to spend more time with my family,” he said. “There were very few hours, though, that I wasn’t thinking about my kids or my wife.”

A teaching job

His path to extension began at the University of Minnesota, where he received a bachelor’s in agricultural education.

“My initial purpose was to become a vet,” Neubauer said. “After a couple years, I thought, ‘This is hard. Maybe this isn’t for me.’”

Conflicted by too many interests, he took a battery of aptitude tests. Two careers “jumped out,” Neubauer recalled. “The first was to become a minister; the second to be a teacher.”

The Bird Island farm boy came to grips with the realization that he loved agriculture, so he combined that with teaching.

After obtaining his degree in 1976, he did short teaching stints in Waconia and Buffalo. “They were very short term,” he said. “I was better teaching people in an informal setting.”

Two years later, he landed an extension position in Stearns County, a job he almost declined taking.

“I was worried about working with dairy,” Neubauer said. “I didn’t have a strong background in dairy, but it was the best thing I ever did.”

After a couple years in Stearns, he applied for another position within the state, but failed to get it.

“The guy that got the position said, ‘You’d be great for McLeod County,’” Neubauer recalled. “I applied, interviewed, and the rest is history.”

The year was 1981.

Those first 15 years as a McLeod County extension agent were centered around a Glencoe office. When extension found a new home at the McLeod County Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, “Glencoe people were sad,” Neubauer said. “You could have good arguments for and against the move.”

Changing times

During his time with extension, Neubauer received a master’s degree in agriculture, became a full professor, and began work on his doctorate.

He’s seen farming undergo many changes, such as the difference in herbicide use, the rise of larger farms, plant genetics, and safety equipment on farm machinery.

“Farm programs have changed,” he said. “Whether they’re good or bad, I don’t know, but they’ve become more complicated.”

The university’s extension service, like farming, has seen many changes, too.

Though some may disagree, Neubauer said the philosophy behind the county agent hasn’t vanished — much like the 1970s TV character Hank Kimball a county agent in “Green Acres.”

“Some of the old-timers like myself, we felt we were county agents,” he said. “We can’t go back to that, but there are many things that we can do that are similar.”

It wasn’t uncommon to be discussing dairy barn ventilation with a farmer, when the question would arise, “Hey, now that I got you out here, what do you know about apple trees, and then, hey, by the way, something’s wrong with my dog,” Neubauer recalled with a smile. “I did a lot of that.”

Extension has always been about the people — “their concerns, their education,” Neubauer said. “Recently, the biggest change has been funding.”

Over two years, Minnesota’s extension service absorbed a $7 million cut in state funds.

In that time, extension service went from offices in all 87 counties and 300 educators to 18 regional centers and 170 educators.

“Things have been cut,” he said, “but we’re still trying to be that educational part for people.”

In a few weeks time, someone other than Neubauer will continue to be that educational piece.

However, come his final day, Neubauer’s plans include being the last one to leave the extension office.

“I’ll lock the doors and drop the keys off,” he said. “It’ll be good and I’ll feel like I did my job, and with dropping the keys off, that’ll be it.”

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