Agriculture Grants to Aid Mid-South Farming, Veterans

By Amos Maki

Jimmy Hargett, a 69-year-old farmer in Crockett County, regularly parasails over his cotton, corn, soybean and wheat crops to make critical, time-sensitive observations.

Hargett envisions a time in the not-too-distant future when he can ditch the powered parachute for unmanned aerial vehicles, like those used by the military, to patrol his 5,000-acre farm, providing him with a steady stream of real-time data on everything from irrigation to pesticide distribution.

That type of information would help farmers reduce input costs for the crops that produce the food and fuels for today’s global economy.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“It all starts with the farmer,” Hargett said. “If I can do it cheaper, it’s going to be cheaper for the consumer.”

Hargett’s vision for using advanced technology on his farm, and others across the Mississippi Delta region, took a step forward Wednesday, July 31, with the announcement of grants that aim to boost the burgeoning precision agriculture field while helping military veterans and entrepreneurs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and its public and private partners two Rural Business Enterprise Grants totaling $65,000.

“The things I care about most are rural America, the military and entrepreneurs, so I think I’m in the right place,” said USDA Rural Business Programs Administrator Lillian Salerno during the grant announcement at Memphis Bioworks.

A $45,000 grant is going to Memphis Bioworks and the Crockett Policy Institute to expand an effort to help veterans find work in rural America.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Castellaw founded the Crockett Policy Institute after returning to his family farm in Alamo, Tenn., in 2008 following his 36-year military career.

Castellaw said many members of the nation’s armed forces – up to 40 percent – come from rural areas, where unemployment remains above the national average and good-paying jobs can be scarce.

Castellaw said the program would leverage the Mid-South’s agricultural abundance with returning veterans to create a thriving hub of precision agriculture, which relies on using advanced technology to help farmers become more efficient, maximize production and conserve resources.

Castellaw said members of the current military who use information technology on the battlefield can turn those skills to the farm, where precision agriculture relies on similar technologies and systems.

“You’ve got data and you have to have the capability to take that data and use it in (farm) machines so it’s an opportunity to give veterans jobs coming out and to help increase the economic viability of the community,” Castellaw said.

In addition to Memphis Bioworks and the Crockett Policy Institute, other partners in the “soldiers to civilians” program include the University of Tennessee-Martin, which offers a precision agriculture program, Tennessee Tractor LLC, ISR Group Inc. and the Delta Regional Authority.

Those connections and others will help spread the effort, which started last year as a pilot program, to 110 counties across Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

The second, $15,000 grant will include another Memphis Bioworks partner, the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center.

The two organizations announced in June that they had formed a partnership to launch an agriculture innovation accelerator to help start and grow new agricultural businesses.

The program will support entrepreneurs commercializing a range of agriculture-related technologies, such as precision agriculture and software, grain handling and storage, food processing and more.

Memphis Bioworks, and its AgBioworks Regional Initiative, have focused for years on making the Mid-South a leader in agricultural biotechnology research, discovery, business development, crop advancement and economic development. Agricenter International has been a pioneer in researching and developing precision agriculture technologies and methods.

Memphis Bioworks president and executive director Steven Bares said programs underway at Agricenter and the two programs receiving grants will leverage the regions fertile fields with its logistical infrastructure, producing a powerhouse industry that utilizes it rural and urban strengths.

“That rural-to-urban connection is absolutely essential to picking up factories and building jobs,” Bares said.