VOL. 131 | NO. 46 | Friday, March 4, 2016
Agricenter President Looks Back on 15-Year Tenure
By Don Wade
Try putting yourself in John Charles Wilson’s dusty work boots for a moment. You’ve served as president of Agricenter International for more than 15 years. In less than six months, you will retire.
So, on a recent weekend crowded with visitors coming on the property for a boat show and a circus, would you really leave your office and go direct traffic?
“I grew up on a farm,” Wilson said. “You do whatever it takes to make something work.”
John Charles Wilson says the Agricenter’s mission to advance agriculture and a commitment by several companies to develop new technologies in Memphis have helped the facility become such a success.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
But what about those crazy phone calls that come into the Agricenter because people don’t know where else to turn? Wouldn’t you be tired of answering the same old questions asking for advice on ridding one’s yard of snakes or keeping mice out of the house?
“Sulphur around the edge of the house will turn a snake back quick,” Wilson said. “For mice, find out where they’re coming in, put steel wool around the hole.”
Then there was the lady who wanted to know how to get moss off a rock. It would be easier for Wilson’s office staff to turn away such inquiries. He won’t have it.
And for the moss on the rock, mix some Clorox with water.
Wilson’s family farmed for 118 years. He was in partnership with his father, Robert G. Wilson, on Wilson and Wilson Farms of Arlington. Today, he still lives on the farm where he and his wife, Susan Hall, reared two children.
He now rents out the land but time was he worked 3,000 acres of row crops and had cattle and hogs. So before he came to Agricenter, he had lived the life and knew what it was to lose sleep because one crop went bad and threatened it all.
“At one point in my farming career, I was $700,000 in debt,” he said. “My home and everything else was up for collateral. And I worked my way out of it.”
His biggest point of pride as president of Agricenter: “We’ve been self-sufficient. We take care of our heating and air and buildings and roads and sewer lines and everything else with the money from shows and everything we produce on this property. A lot of people think we’ve been on the dole with taxpayers, but we’re not.”
He says Shelby County paid for most of the roof on the Agricenter building, but even then the Agricenter kicked in one-third of the cost. Otherwise, Agricenter has paid its own way.
“I’m proud we’ve been able to do it out of our hip pocket,” Wilson said.
Soon, a new president will be named and Wilson will help with the transition and then shift into a consulting role.
Agricenter is already a place for research and innovation, but as technology continues to advance there is only one direction to go: ever-forward.
“We’re trying to be a resource for agriculture, which was what we were designed to be,” said Wilson. “These companies like Bayer CropScience could have gone anywhere else in the world and they elected to stay here and produce a $20 million addition to their company. Same thing with Helena Chemical Company.
“Case New Holland, they have their regional training center here. They bring over 3,000 room nights to these East Memphis hotels because of all the people that came in for training at that facility. They’ve got all kinds of new equipment. They used to bring people in to learn how to change oil filters and put on a fuel pump. Now, most of the equipment is moduli zed so they’re learning how to hook up a computer to a tractor. A tractor now, it’s like getting into the cockpit of an aircraft.”
All of which means there is a whole new world of opportunity out there for young people. Wilson says he wants them to meet the people that have careers in today’s agriculture industry and learn how they became a Ph.D. in research for Agricenter International, a high-tech greenhouse operator making six figures or a salesperson for a chemical company.
With time growing short – he retires on July 1 – Wilson, 66, wants to both advance the research and make significant inroads on a $16 million, multi-phase expansion project that would include an overhaul of Showplace Arena and will necessitate some funding from the county and state.
“But it’s a one-time ask,” Wilson noted.
Over the years, he says he has often heard people describe Agricenter International as one of the area’s best-kept secrets. It was meant as a compliment, but it always bothered him that there was truth to the idea that every day people were driving by on Walnut Grove Road without a clue what was going on there.
No doubt, Wilson has done much to change that status through research, education and active engagement with top global agriculture companies.
Not to mention directing a little traffic and helping folks turn back snakes or get moss off a rock.