VOL. 131 | NO. 158 | Tuesday, August 9, 2016
New Agricenter President Talks About Ag Literacy, Organic Food Research
By Bill Dries
When John Butler looks beyond Agricenter International’s 1,000 acres as they exist today, he sees a research and development campus.
The president of Agricenter since July 1 also seeks more start-ups in its partnership with the AgLaunch Accelerator program that includes the Memphis Bioworks Foundation.
“It’s an opportunity to have a startup organization there – an R-and-D campus maybe, probably, as we look into the future,” Butler said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program Behind The Headlines. “We think we have a chance the way we are positioned in the Delta here in the Mid-South region… We think we have a chance to kind of be that nucleus of where it starts at.”
He would also like to see side-by-side acreage of traditionally grown crops with organically grown crops.
“We have a great interest in trying to move into more organic research,” Butler said. “Not that I’m here to say organic is the answer. I think organic is a component of what we do in agriculture. … It would be really neat to have side-by-side comparisons of how organics actually compare to traditional crops.”
When Butler took the Agricenter job, he handed off the leadership of a fifth generation family farm in Dyer County – Jones Creek Farms – to his son.
The farm is “a few thousand acres” by Butler’s description.
“And a lot of people say if you farm thousands of acres you are a corporate farmer,” he said. ”Our family business is not that large if you look at it. … We’re truly a family business and we’ve been around the community a long, long time.”
For Butler, that intersects with a thriving and diverse Memphis culinary scene that belies the city’s image as a barbecue town.
“This is a great food town. We are known for our blues and barbecue, but it’s got such a great story beyond that,” he said. “All of this interest is just coming up in the last couple of years and people are very interested in where their food and fiber comes from.”
More “ag literacy” is what Butler believes the next transition is for Agricenter.
“Most folks are five to four generations removed from farming the land themselves,” he said. “The point is we have to have a relationship and a conversation with people based on their health and products we are producing.”
Some of the food is also used as fuel, particularly corn into corn ethanol, which some critics contend has raised the price of corn as food because of the commoditization of corn.
“People were trying to find how they could divide or create a difference in the ag community,” Butler said of his view of the controversy. “It’s an issue of national security. Would you rather have your fuel grown and pumped out of the ground as a petroleum product and shipped over here, or rather have it raised by your own neighbor?”
Those in biofuels have seen interest and demand for their product rise and fall with the prices of gasoline.
“When you look at the margins in the ethanol industry – they are making it,” Butler said of the impact of oil at $42 a barrel. “It’s tough on them, but they are making it.”
Farmers are on the cutting edge of research and technology, he added, when talking about traditions alongside the latest research. He points to the 29th annual Milan “No Till Day” last month – a field day demonstration in rural West Tennessee that is now a tradition itself.
“Back in my father’s day and grandfather’s day we were killing the land (by tilling it),” Butler said. “We had over 20 tons an acre of erosion annually …. It takes almost a generation to build that soil back. We’ll plant weeds in the late fall and early spring like rye and clover … All of those things are done through the plants themselves.”