Agricultural Innovation in the Mid-South

photographs by Amie Vanderford

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.

John Charles Wilson with the Agricenter’s GPS-driven tractor.

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.

from the left: Agricenter International’s Brandon Culver, Research Associate; Bruce Kirksey, Director of Research; John Charles Wilson, President; and Isaac Carpenter, Research Associate. The group stand in front of the $200,000 four-row self-guided planting tractor.




The tractor also controls the high-tech seed planter, which plants seeds precisely at the correct depth and spacing.

Bayer CropScience is building a 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art greenhouse for cotton seed research totaling $17 million. “Once completed, the Memphis Greenhouse will allow us to increase the number of traits for cotton varieties for both U.S. and global markets,” Mike Gilbert, head of global breeding and trait development for Bayer CropScience, said at the time.

“As a result, we will improve our ability to provide new technologies that will propel farming’s future and give growers more choices.”

Collierville-based Helena Chemical is also now at work on a $2.2 million construction project at the Agricenter. The company is building a new research facility and improving the office facility the company has had there for nearly two decades. Helena CEO Mike McCarty said the expansion will allow the agriculture chemical company to create new products like fertilizer and insecticides.

But, beyond recognizing and expanding what we already have here, Pete Nelson sees a different, bolder future for agricultural innovation in the region. It’s a future he and others have been working to foster here for more than a decade. Nelson has founded and helmed many agriculture technology startups here and is now the president and CEO of Ag Innovation Development Group, a company that specializes in shepherding agriculture discoveries to the marketplace.  

Nelson sees new agriculture technology companies coming out of the ground here, fed by a strong capital network, and incubated and accelerated by seasoned industry veterans until the companies hit the market or are snapped up by larger companies. He envisions a whole garden of these startups in the beginning.

The groundwork for such an idea is now being laid in Memphis. In October, the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center and Memphis Bioworks Foundation established the NextFarm Innovation Accelerator. The organization will help new companies develop their ideas and pitch them to investors. Nine area companies were selected in October, including West Tennessee-based GrowAgra.

On his farm in Buchanan, Tennessee — in between Paris and the Kentucky border — GrowAgra owner Jim Scarbrough grows wheatgrass in converted, refrigerated truck trailers. That wheatgrass is juiced and ends up in the juice cocktails and smoothies at Whole Foods stores.

Scarbrough wants to take his business to another level, to be able to ship his juice to customers across the country. But, his juice has a short shelf life, and to extend it he wants to use a process called high-pressure pasteurization, currently only now available in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So, Scarbrough wants to bring the equipment for a new plant to Paris for his juice, of course, but also to do contract jobs for other food producers.

“There should be more programs out there like NextFarm, for people who like to think,” Scarbrough says. “There’s a whole new world out there, and it’s great to get help for people who want to get something moving.”

Ideas like this and others, Nelson hopes, will make Memphis an environment to grow these kinds of companies. And that, he believes, will attract the attention of big-time investors and other companies and make a whole new stratum of the Mid-South economy.

Economic centers like this exist in other cities. North Carolina’s Research Triangle ag-tech cluster has about 2,000 companies. Ag startups flock to San Diego for easy access to capital. Big hitters like Monsanto and the Danforth Plant Science Center anchor the St. Louis agriculture research economy. All of these places, Nelson says, have pieces of the puzzle. But Memphis and the Mid-South offer a complete package.

“There’s no place that’s really [planned] to be the center, to connect the technology to the logistics to the river port to diversified row crop agriculture,” Nelson says. “We’re the center of that.”

Bruce Kirksey, Director of Research at Agricenter International, is seated atop the cutting-edge seed planter. Having the right equipment is the only way to attract and retain business in these days of high-tech agriculture. Still, Agricenter president John Charles Wilson calls buying the expensive machine “the hardest decision I ever made.”


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