In January 2000, Arlington, Tenn., cotton farmer John Charles Wilson made one of the toughest decisions of his life. He stopped farming, rented out his 2,000-acre operation and moved on to other pursuits. In September, the decision culminated in Wilson being named the new president of Agricenter International, in Memphis.

It's not unusual that Wilson's new career is still closely tied to agriculture. He's a lifelong farmer and his family has been involved in agriculture for 107 years. He is widely recognized as a leading conservation farmer and was elected to serve four consecutive terms as president of the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Wilson spearheaded the four-county Beaver Creek Project, which enlisted the aid of several federal agencies to study the impacts of farming on water quality.

Wilson currently serves as officer in charge of a five-county work unit for the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. His first day on the job at Agricenter International is Oct. 1.

Wilson says that agriculture needs more exposure to “our urban partners,” a situation perfectly suited for Agricenter. The 1,000-acre facility lies in the middle of a fast-growing urban area of east Memphis. It's estimated that 90,000 cars pass by Agricenter every day.

“One thing Agricenter can do and is doing is to showcase agriculture and agribusiness,” Wilson said. “We'd like to do more education with our urban partners, our schoolchildren and bring them into Agricenter to let them get involved in agriculture. There's no reason why Agricenter can't be a year-round educational facility.”

As a farmer, Wilson was willing to discuss agriculture with just about anyone who would listen. He hopes those skills will serve him well at Agricenter. “I've worked with state and federal agencies on conservation issues and the Beaver Creek project. I go to Washington every year and meet with congressmen on various issues. I think working with people is my strong point.”

In addition, Wilson says he wants to “bring this staff here at Agricenter together as a team to further the goals of agriculture.”

Among the facility's long-term tenants is Ducks Unlimited, which operates its North American headquarters on Agricenter property. Two branches of USDA, the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, rent and maintain office space at Agricenter, as does the U.S. Weather Service.

Agribusiness companies that maintain facilities for various research and training operations at Agricenter include Case Corporation, Helena Chemical Co. and Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co.

Wilson stressed that Agricenter will continue to expand its testing facilities. There are 400 acres of cropland at Agricenter, of which 150 acres is research. Agricenter's income from tenants, crop production and contract research is used for its operating expenses.

Wilson has been married for 28 years to Susan Hall Wilson and has two children Natalie, 23, and S.Y., 20.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com