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VOL. 126 | NO. 61 | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Agricenter Gives Region’s Ag Biz Place to Call Home

By Aisling Maki

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In the daily hustle and bustle of city life, it’s easy for Memphians to forget that the urban pocket they call home sits amid one of the nation’s richest agricultural regions.

Agricenter International recently held a poster contest in recognition of National Agriculture Day featuring artwork by local middle and elementary school children.

(Photo: courtesy of Agricenter International)

And the world’s largest urban farm, nonprofit Agricenter International at 7777 Walnut Grove Road, is continually working to create more awareness about farming through educational programs and to advance agricultural technologies through research and trials.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 children from local schools participate annually in a variety of education programs, including farm tours that allow them to see, touch and smell commonly grown local crops such as soybeans, corn and cotton.

Children from local public and private schools recently showcased their agricultural-inspired artwork during the annual Agriculture Day Poster Contest, and this year’s theme was “Agriculture: Planet Green Side Up.”

“It’s nice because Jonathan’s grandparents and great-grandparents were involved in farming,” said Don Wade, whose son, a sixth grader at First Assembly Christian School, was a contest winner. “He’s been connected to all the things Agricenter is connected to, so for him to get a chance to do some artwork that’s connected to those roots and be honored for it is pretty neat.”

Shelby County is considered by many to be the epicenter of southern row-crop agriculture, but the typical farm of today is not your grandfather’s farm.

“Over the past several years, we’ve been making more of a commitment to Ag research because everything is getting so precise and specific that even the farmers are needing to be more technology-savvy because of how the equipment is now,” said Dr. Bruce Kirksey, Agricenter director of research. “That huge equipment utilizes different technologies in order to get a better crop yield, which is more money for the farmer and keeps everything going.”

The modern farm uses less labor and larger, very costly equipment designed to maximize a farmer’s time. For example, a six-row cotton picker, used for just a few months out of the year, runs about $600,000.

Agricenter’s research team is currently waiting for a four-row research planter to be delivered from Austria. The $150,000 machine uses a real-time kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation technique to survey land and make corrections in real time, a concept called precision agriculture.

Agricenter president John Charles Wilson said the state-of-the-art planter can be controlled remotely.

“Bruce will have the ability to sit in his office and type in what he wants the planter to do as far as a test plot,” Wilson said. “It will be fed into the planter through a computer system, and the planter will start dropping the seed when it’s supposed to; will cause the tractor to lift off the ground when it’s supposed to and set it back down when it’s supposed to; will start and stop it and plant a certain number of seeds at a certain depth. All this stuff will be computerized, and it’s going to put Agricenter at the forefront of technology with a lot of the research areas in the Mid-South.”

Agricenter is also involved in agricultural biotechnology research, working with local AgBio companies such as BioDimensions, a Memphis-based agribusiness development and consulting firm.

“If you look at the way the Agricenter has collaborated across the region with other researchers and farmers and research farms, we have a strong base in Memphis,” said Peter Nelson, BioDimensions director of business development and acting director of Memphis AgBioworks. “Agriculture is at the most exciting place it’s been in 100 years, with new technologies, new crops, and a whole world of new markets coming out for bio-based products.”

Nelson said Agricenter, as part of an economic development strategy for the region, has led research on growing alternative, renewable crops such as canola, sunflower and switch grass that could be used to produce unique food products, plant-based chemicals and biofuels.

“Agricenter has traditionally been a leader in the region for companies that grow the conventional crops – cotton, corn, soybeans, rice – it’s been sort of a one-stop-shop for those companies,” Nelson said. “The last few years, especially with their research farm manager’s (Kirksey) capabilities and some of the leadership on their board, have directed them into looking at other types of alternative crops and activities that lead to new types of green processes and bio-based products. That’s a lot of what we’ve been involved in, and we work with them on trials of new crops we’re trying to introduce to the region.”

A common misconception is that Agricenter is owned and operated by Shelby County, when in actuality Agricenter receives no government funding.

Much of the self-sustaining nonprofit organization’s revenue is generated through research conducted for various agricultural companies, including Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Helena Chemical and Monsanto.

Agricenter, which has roughly 250 acres set aside for research and 500 acres for crop production, is currently conducting research trials for 35 companies. And while many clients are regional, some travel from as far away as Brazil, Germany and Korea.

“They come to us and they usually have an experiment that they need conducted,” Kirksey said. “Usually it’s something pretty common to this area, to the Delta or the Upper Delta. It ranges form herbicide work to insecticides, herbicides and a lot of variety testing. The reason people like this place is because they can fly people into Memphis and be at the Agricenter in 20 minutes, and then take them Downtown for entertainment.”

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