If you had a farm with 600,000 visitors annually and nearly 90,000 automobiles driving by in just one day, you'd probably look for a piece of land a little farther out in the country, but not John Charles Wilson with Agricenter International in Memphis, Tenn.
He sees in the 700-acre facility in the middle of a thriving Memphis suburb an opportunity to showcase a side of U.S. agriculture the public doesn't often see. Chemical companies seeking quality research ground are attracted to Agricenter's full-service research operation and convenient location.
“We try to get the word out about the research at Agricenter,” said Wilson, who was named president of the facility in 2001. “We're in the middle of Memphis, just 20 minutes from Memphis International Airport and across the street from the Koger Center, home to many agribusiness organizations. We couldn't have a better location.”
The land and the buildings are owned by Shelby County, but Agricenter is privately operated by a 30-member board of directors, which includes several farmers, a director at the Orpheum Theater and an insurance company president. “They are solidly behind Agricenter and want to see its continued success,” Wilson said.
Another oversight body is the Agricenter Commission, appointed by the Memphis mayor's office. Hamilton Smythe with Yellow Cab Co. has been chairman of the commission for 18 years.
Under Wilson are several diverse entities at Agricenter, including agricultural research and development plots, a production farm, sales and marketing, an event facility, agricultural tenants, the Farmer's Market, a recreational vehicle park, and a catfish lake, a pay fish operation.
To assist agricultural research and development, Wilson recently hired Jamie Jenkins as Agricenter's research director. Jenkins served as Fayette County, Tenn., Extension leader for 30 years, and has been president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents.
“I'd like Agricenter to continue to be self-supporting in research and support the agricultural industry at the farm. We're already doing much of this, but we need to expand on it,” Jenkins said.
“We have many ways we work with our clients. If a company wants to do the research itself, we rent it the acres to do that,” Jenkins said. “Some companies want us to prepare the land and apply a specific chemical programs, then they take over when the crops reach certain stages.”
“Also working with our clients is farm manager John Tom Williams, who farmed for a living before he came to Agricenter,” said Wilson, who himself farmed extensive acreage for 30 years. “It really helps when you have another person at that level who knows how to farm. Between Jenkins and Williams, there's a lot of experience and knowledge about ag research, equipment and spraying.
“If a company has a trial and wants to bring people in from several different states, there's no better location. We have a tremendous opportunity with our facility and location. There are 5,000 hotel rooms nearby. It is easy for companies to highlight what they want to show.”
As for education, the Agricenter's board of directors, in conjunction with the University of Tennessee, hired a teacher, Tim Roberts, to work with public, private, and home school students in a classroom setting at Agricenter.
Students learn about conservation, wildlife habitat, the ecosystem, production agriculture and new agricultural research, said according to Wilson. “We take them to the field to see it themselves. When children visit the bamboo field, they see how food is grown for Le-Le and Ya-Ya, the two pandas at the Memphis Zoo, and they learn how bamboo is used around the world. There's every reason for students to come to Agricenter for this interactive learning experience. We even provide busing on a cost-share basis with school systems.”
Another agricultural activity that brings the public to Agricenter is a corn maze, a 7-acre field of corn of twists and turns with agricultural clues from start to finish.
Wildlife also attracts people to Agricenter. “We flood 50 acres in the winter for wildlife habitat. We want to build a viewing stand off Germantown Parkway,” Wilson said.
“Catch 'em Lake at Agricenter is a pay fish operation, open seven days a week. This catfish lake attracts individuals and families for recreational fishing. Agricenter will host organized fishing rodeos for children.
Catch 'em Lake is a break-even venture, noted Wilson, “but it gets the public to Agricenter.”
That so many people see Agricenter every day might make the most meticulous farmer a little nervous, but Wilson and Jenkins like the challenge. “Aesthetics are important to our board, the public and to us. We even plant sunflowers along the roadways to beautify our grounds and attract people,” Wilson said.
At Agricenter, visibility has its advantages.