Teacher, Champion, Friend of Agriculture

 Rutgers Professor Jack Rabin (second from right) hits the road for retirement this month.

Rutgers Professor Jack Rabin (second from right) hits the road for retirement this month.

On Friday, December 9, about 100 friends and colleagues gathered on the Cook Campus at Rutgers University to roast and toast retiring agricultural agent Jack Rabin, Associate Director of Farm Programs for the NJ Agricultural Experiment Station – Cooperative Extension, and co-creator/author of this Sustainable Farming on the Urban Fringe website. I cannot think of a more appropriate send off than to share some highlights from that celebration on this site as we say ‘best wishes in retirement’, but not ‘goodbye’ as I’ve gotten a promise from Jack to continue contributing when he gets inspired from his new home on the West Coast.

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn. (maybe an old Chinese proverb, but not Ben Franklin!)

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. (not from the Bible!)

No matter to whom you attribute those old adages, if there was a recurring theme at our celebration of Jack Rabin’s career, it is that a teacher challenges, involves, and impacts his students for their entire lives.


Dr. Barbara Zilinskas, Rutgers Professor Emeritus, claimed the honor of having put up with Jack the longest, beginning when he was an undergraduate in her class nearly 40 years ago.

Past and present students, administrators, farmers, and colleagues told a packed room of friends about their interactions with Jack over the years, all leading to that same conclusion. Dr. Barbara Zilinskas recalled the ‘young punk’, a ‘bad ass’ in today’s jargon, who, 40 minutes into a lecture on bee navigation for which she admittedly “wasn’t fully prepared,” stood up and told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.

He responded, “Fine by me!” when she challenged, “You’re right Mr. Rabin. Next class, you teach it.” He did.

Several speakers said it was fun to be making Jack a little uncomfortable as he had so often made them feel, challenging their ideas, decisions, philosophy, outlook on life or about agriculture. Current SEBS senior Kate Louise Brown was told to see Jack about the possibility of an internship at the Snyder Research Farm in her first semester on campus. She recounted that

Jack proceeded to tell her everything she knew and thought about farming was all wrong, that a career in agriculture was not for her.

Then he offered her a job.

Brown spent a semester at Snyder, and then worked as an intern at the Marucci Blueberry/Cranberry Center. She assisted Jack with projects ranging from videos of small farm tools for the Sustaining Farming website, to summarizing data on amending soils with leaf mulch, and then helping to create publications that the state NRCS office has adopted as policy guidelines.

Despite Jack’s initial warning, she’s pursuing a career in soil science. She and Peter Nitzsche, Morris County Ag Agent, agreed they were both survivors. Jack was one of Peter’s graduate advisors, and despite that experience, he decided to follow in Jack’s footsteps as an Extension Agent. Jack and Pete collaborated to bring the early e-versions of the Plant and Pest Advisory newsletters via your fax machines.

Jim Quarella (right) explaining his Asian vegetable crops to a tour group in the early 1990s. Jack Rabin observes from the far left.

Jim Quarella (right) explaining his Asian vegetable crops to a tour group in the early 1990s. Jack Rabin observes from the far left.

For Jim Quarella, owner of Bellview Winery, it was a good thing that Jack had challenged administration’s directive to use PCs, going with MACs instead. When Jim bought an early MAC SE for the farm, no-one was writing software for agriculture. Jack was able to set up a FileMaker template that helped track farm expenses, opening whole new ways to analyze the business.

Jim also pointed out Jack’s modesty. When he moved into the winery business, Jack helped Jim and fellow winery operators in south Jersey not only understand the importance of terrior to the unique qualities of their wines, but also the value of gaining recognition of that terrior in marketing those wines. Jack denies having much to do with it, but Jim credited Jack with putting the right people in place to bring the Outer Coastal Plain American Viticultural Area into being.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau honored Jack with their 2016 Distinquished Service to Agriculture Award at their annual banquet in November.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau honored Jack with their 2016 Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award at their annual banquet in November.

While challenging others was might have been one lasting memory of Jack’s time at Rutgers, it was only because he challenged himself to stick up for the agricultural community he worked so passionately to help. Peter Furey, Executive Director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, gave several examples. When the DEP wouldn’t admit the size of NJ’s deer herds was causing significant damage to farm crops, Jack enlisted helicopters.  Equipped with infrared cameras for night flights, every deer stood out like a bright white beacon, providing irrefutable evidence that those herds were three times greater than DEP estimates. They were forced to adjust policies to reduce the population.

Jack was also behind the proposal to bring in a panel of national experts to review our Garden State produce industry.  While that exercise wasn’t as well received as hoped, over time several of the recommendations have been quietly adopted.

Furey nicely summed up Jack as a hero, a champion of agriculture.

The following is my addition to the roast:

My wife will tell you she’s not sure which I have less of, emotions or sense of humor, so bear with me…

Thirty-four years and a couple of months ago, give or take, two young guys were sitting in a big room in south Jersey eyeing each other, a little afraid to speak, not knowing what to say if they did. They took turns speaking with a group of farmers and ag agents, then moved about a half hour east and repeated the whole process. A few months later, 33 years, 8 months and 11 days ago, but who’s counting, I moved into a cubicle with a bunch of files labeled O-T-T Brown, and exactly one week later, Jack moved into Norm Smith’s old office.1

Now Jack was moving home, literally. Former Vegetable Variety Specialist Joe Steinke affectionately nicknamed him ‘Jack Sprat the Rosenhayn Rat’ after the little village half way between RAREC and the Cumberland Extension Office where he grew up. I never asked what Joe called me but having grown up with ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon in the White House, and knowing what else rhymes with Rick, I had a pretty good idea of the possibilities.

Jack had also worked on a local vegetable farm in high school and college, and probably knew Norm Smith. My experience with vegetable farming was the big gardens and few acres of sweet corn that New York dairy farmers grew for a little summer cash income between milk checks; the apple growers who grew muskmelons to cater to the NY City summer crowds vacationing in Saratoga; and the big processing vegetable farms of the Finger Lakes. Arugula, zucchini and fennel were not part of the veg crops curriculum at Cornell, so it was great to be able to bounce ideas or ask Jack, “What the heck is Italian eggplant?” I’m sure most of our early collaborations were more beneficial to me than to Jack.

Now if you know Jack, you know that he’s a little opinionated, and occasionally his projects might have run amuck and caused a little irritation. His suggestions for the Vineland Co-op had one director threatening to run him down with his pick-up if he ever caught Jack on the premises. And then there was that little letter about Jack’s labor education programming from the Secretary of Agriculture – US Secretary of Ag John Block, that is… not from the guy named Ott up in Trenton – that gave Extension Director John Gerwig a little ageda. I dodged the bullet on that one, but Jack has a way of getting even. Whether intentional or not, he and Win Cowgill convinced me to roast a couple of our colleagues in presenting Director Gerwig a little gift for his retirement. One didn’t get my, er our, humor then, either, and didn’t take too kindly to that little speech about whacking golf balls. Thanks, Jack!

Whether it’s farm or financial management, sustaining New Jersey farms, Extension communications, img_1644-rabin-the-photographerphotography, tomatoes, wine, (or conservative politics!), if Jack is guilty of anything, it’s that he approaches everything he does with passion and conviction, a depth and breadth of knowledge second to none, and a commitment to the core values of our Land Grant mission. Anyone of those could be taken the wrong way, depending who he was talking to.

Even one of our most jovial colleagues once threatened to bury Jack deep in the South Jersey Pines where no-one would ever find him, but I can’t tell that story as well as Mark Robson, or Jack, does.

So here we are a third of a century later, and I’m still not sure what I should say to that guy sitting across the room. It’s been fun. It’s been a learning experience all along the way. It’s been great to have a colleague to share ideas and promote projects to help our farmers sustain their businesses in this most challenging state. Thank you, Jack. I wish you and Liz, along with David and Aaron, a long and happy retirement where ever the road leads you next – even if that first stop is back to the left coast.

Addendum:  On the way to New Brunswick this morning, my normal talk radio station wasn’t holding my attention so I switched to the Philly NPR station where they were interviewing Michael Lewis, author of Money Ball, which became a Brad Pitt movie. That led to Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project, which discusses the life and works of two Israeli-American psychologists – Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for their collaborative work on explaining human decision making.2

The comment that caught my attention, because it was so appropriate for today, was Lewis saying someone once described Tversky’s brilliance by stating, “The longer it takes for you to realize how much smarter Amos is than you, the stupider you are!”3 I’ve seen Jack talk circles around folks who fail to realize he’s ten steps beyond them.

The Undoing Project discusses Tversky and Kahneman’s independent work on trying to describe why people focus on “If only…” scenarios, normally the wrong ones, and especially when something goes awry. But if one goes back far enough, one could logically propose all sorts of “if only” explanations, such as if only… my wife hadn’t told me, “It’s time for you to get a real job. Maybe you should send your resume to Rutgers,” I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stand here today to say what a pleasure it has been to have had Jack as a colleague all these years!

Jack’s response to our comments was classic Jack. With a story about solving a spinach grower’s crop problem, and marital relations, he illustrated how to value the investment of tax monies in an Ag Agent. A couple of saved crops per year would easily be worth more than his salary!

Never afraid of sticking his neck out to challenge, to question, to point out right from wrong, Jack Rabin has devoted his career to make sure New Jersey agriculture got a great ROI on him.

We certainly did!

1 Our retired Dept. Chair Jack Kupcho, who conducted those interviews, and Charlie Dupras, retired Atlantic County Senior Agent, recount that both counties wanted Jack. Charlie told me Rabin chose Cumberland because of the bigger acreage of vegetables while Kupcho says he had to convince Atlantic that Rabin was going to be looking to move onward and upward, which he eventually did.

2 Tversky died in 1992 and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, though Kahneman considered it a joint prize according to Wikipedia.org/wiki/Amos_Tversky.

3 Or conversely… “The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were.”

Tversky Intelligence Test  – As recounted by Malcolm Gladwell in 2013’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Tversky’s peers thought so highly of him that they devised a tongue-in-cheek one-part test for measuring intelligence. As related to Gladwell by psychologist Adam Alter, the Tversky Intelligence Test was “The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were.” — Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, 2013, page 103.

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