Agricultural Innovation in the Mid-South
photographs by Amie Vanderford
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Agricultural innovation may seem like an oxymoron to some. Seed and soil — the very Earth itself — are the most ancient things known to man. But since agriculture began, farmers and scientists have constantly looked for ways to improve the way they raise, harvest, and process crops, the umbilical cord of existence.
Many may think that technology (especially computer technology) left farmers behind decades ago to toil in some bygone, sepia-toned antiquity. But it hasn’t. Agriculture is big business — worth about $50 billion in Tennessee each year — and technology has been an ever-present force in the industry to wring more profit from its tight margins.
Evidence of this fact can be found on just about every for-profit farm today. Look for a little dome, button, or disk on the cab of a planting tractor. It’s the antenna for a Global Positioning System. Like a car, the GPS guides the tractor using information from satellites to pinpoint its location. But unlike a car, GPS on a farm tractor is used to more precisely plant seeds or apply fertilizer to a field to lower input costs and increase crop yields, which increase profits.
Thousands in Memphis see evidence of farm innovation each day, whether they recognize it or not. Driving along Walnut Grove Road, most are familiar with the gentle hills, trails, and ponds of Shelby Farms Park on the north side. But it’s the flat land on the south side of the road that puts the “farms” in the park’s name.
Armies of soybeans, cotton, corn, and more are rowed there in straight columns in the growing season. These are test plots for about 30 agriculture companies, universities, and government organizations conducting experimental crop trials at Agricenter International. The organizations want to see how new or different varieties of seeds grow under different conditions, or they want to test the performance of a fertilizer or pesticide. Though they’re right there in the open, the crops at the Agricenter remain a mystery to most.
“[Commuters] pass by the Agricenter everyday and don’t have a clue about it,” says John Charles Wilson, president of Agricenter since 2000. “They don’t know the amount of research we have going on.”
The Agricenter has a Ph.D. and support staff to run the crop trials, and it’s serious business for them — serious enough for the organization to purchase an Austrian-made four-row planting tractor for $200,000. The tractor is self-guided and GPS driven. So, even though a person sits in the cab, the tractor drives itself.
It also precisely plants each seed to the right depth and space from other seeds to ensure uniform growth for more uniform growth results for clients. Having the right equipment is the only way to attract and retain business in these days of high-tech agriculture, Wilson says, but he called buying the high-dollar machine “the hardest decision I ever made.”
While agriculture innovation in Memphis and the Mid-South isn’t exactly famous (yet), it isn’t unknown. Two major agriculture companies grabbed headlines here in April 2013 when they announced they’d expand their facilities at Agricenter in separate deals totaling about $20 million.