Four icons of agriculture were inducted into the Louisiana Agriculture Hall of Distinction during a ceremony Aug. 6 at the L’Auberge Hotel in Baton Rouge.
The four individuals are James Barnett, a forestry researcher from Pineville; John Denison, a rice, crawfish and cattle farmer from Iowa; Jay Hardwick, a row crop farmer from Newellton; and Calvin Viator, an agricultural crop consultant from Thibodaux.
Barnett was raised in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas and spent nearly five decades with the U.S. Forest Service. He spent summers in Idaho planting trees to finance his college education, and after graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and spent more than 20 years in the Coast Guard Reserve.
One of his first duties with the Forest Service focused on increasing the survivability of seedlings used to replenish areas that had been cut.
“Alexandria has a reforestation program in research,” Barnett said. “My assigned task when I came to work: figure out how to produce seed, overcome dormancy and how to grow millions of seedlings from the seed we had available.”
Forestry is Louisiana’s largest agricultural commodity. Barnett understood the importance of maintaining a healthy forest industry because of the many benefits.
“They contribute a great deal to the economy of the state and the whole South,” he said. “So, forests are a big part of our environment, and to me, there’s just something aesthetic about it. You drive down the road, you’re going through a forest, you feel good about it.”
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Denison, a third-generation farmer, has played key roles in the Louisiana Rice Research Board and Louisiana Farm Bureau and served more than 30 years on the Calcasieu Parish School Board. His career in farming fulfilled a life-long dream.
“From the time I was old enough to get on a tractor, I fell in love with the farming operation,” Denison said. He enjoyed “everything that was on the farm, from working cattle and driving tractors in the field or helping prepare fields for rice growing.”
Because of the ups and downs associated with commodity prices, Denison developed a detailed recordkeeping system that prepared him for the good times and the bad.
“Farming has always been a challenge,” he said. “It’s always been ups and downs. Many times, the prices did not equal what our production costs were. I had to be very studious in recordkeeping and knowing where the dollars needed to be put to serve me best.”
Hardwick began his career teaching art at the university level. A fortuitous set of circumstances found him on the family farm of his wife Mary in Tensas Parish. It was here the allure of farming engulfed him.
“In an academic setting where I came from, control is everything,” Hardwick said. “You have an air-conditioned environment. Mother Nature is completely unpredictable. But that’s part of the seductive quality of farming that I completely enjoy to this day.”
Hardwick is not from the South, and he didn’t start out with farming in his roots. With his induction, he considers it being accepted into the Louisiana farming community.
“I wasn’t born in Louisiana,” he said. “I feel like this is my citizenship. This recognition has made me feel very much a part of Louisiana in a way that I haven’t been full before. I am part of the Louisiana family.”
Viator has had two successful careers. His first one involved teaching agricultural classes at Nicholls State University for 30 years. During this time, he launched his second career that he continues to perform today: an agricultural consulting business in the heart of Louisiana’s sugarcane belt.
“I was fortunate that circumstances allowed me to do both,” Viator said. “While at Nicholls, I only signed a nine-month contract, so I was free during the critical months for doing consulting.”
Viator’s consulting work requires knowledge in various disciplines, including entomology, plant pathology and soil fertility. It also takes a degree of human psychology working with diverse clientele.
“The biggest challenge in ag consulting is — I tell young people, you’ve got to find out what connects with your clients,” he said. It’s not always the same. We’re proud of the fact that many of our clientele are on the third generation.”
Since its creation seven years ago, 22 people have been enshrined into the Louisiana Agriculture Hall of Distinction. The hall is a collaborative effort between the LSU AgCenter, the Louisiana Radio Network, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. It recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to agriculture and agriculture-related industries in Louisiana.