Food, Fiber, Fuel, and the Future

The Mid-South's precision agriculture.

photograph by Haywiremedia | Dreamstime

The monthly meeting of the Memphis Agricultural Club opens with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the weather report. One could argue that’s not listed in the order of importance. Founded in 1926, the Memphis Agricultural Club is a networking and educational group that gathers to discuss market, technological, and legislative trends. Crop conditions were discussed at the April 2013 meeting, but to understand conditions now and in the near future, you had to know that there was still a lot of snowpack in the mountains more than a thousand miles a way, which would eventually affect levels of the Mississippi River, and price of cotton was up but domestic policy in China might be changing, so that would impact the price of exports from the Mid-South, which would then in turn…. It seems like you need a good background in macroeconomics to grasp agriculture today.

And then the meeting’s speaker, Dr. Bruce Kirksey, director of research for Agricenter International, spoke about weeds and weed biology and the investigations and experiments currently under way at his facility.

Kirksey talked about genes and biotypes and evolution and high-science concepts, and the time of day farmers will want to apply a certain herbicide to a certain crop, and Roundup Ready seeds, and how the clock is ticking on how many generations of weeds it will take before a plant is resistant to a certain herbicide. Plus, don’t forget, a weed is just an undesirable plant; last year’s soybean plant, rotated out, is a weed in this year’s cotton crop. So, it seems like you also need a good background in biochemistry to grasp it all.

The phrase of the April Memphis Agricultural Club meeting was “food, fiber, and fuel” — i.e., the three primary end uses for agriculture. So, to really know what crops to raise, a farmer needs to have a good knowledge of what is going to be needed tomorrow, not just today. Plus, if you want to get the most for your crops, choose which new piece of equipment can give your farm a competitive edge over another, secure a loan for the equipment, it seems like you need good interpersonal skills and be able to make lasting relationships with other folks in the industry.

It became easy to see how intricately complex agriculture is today, and how many skill sets a successful farmer or related businessperson needs to have.

Somewhat unusual among American cities, Memphis maintains both a close connection to and a distant relationship with agriculture. Historically, the city is synonymous with agriculture, its fortunes rising and falling with successful growing seasons and the ability of farmers to get their product to market via the Mississippi River to the logistical hub of Memphis. Today, numerous Memphians have a family farm or have agricultural legacies going back a few scant generations, but, for many, farming is an increasingly foreign culture. The closest some of us get to the field is selecting produce from the grocery store or even a farmers market. The only farms we lay eyes on are those lining the interstates on the way to the next big city.

Part of the reason there is that distance is that once we left the farm, we haven’t gone back. It’s difficult for a person to get into the farming business if they don’t already have linkages that give him or her a start, says Tim Price, executive vice president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, headquartered in Memphis. “The people who farm [today] by a large margin grew up in or married into a farm family.” The startup capital costs are huge, and a massive barrier to entering the industry from scratch.

But agriculture remains big — huge — business, and its success is still integral to the economic health of Memphis. The city remains the capital of the Delta, and the engine of the Mid-South agricultural industry continues to be revved in Memphis. Local legacy farmers have been thriving the past few years, with excellent returns from their crops and hot commodities markets. It also doesn’t hurt that the Mid-South enjoys the Memphis Aquifer, a considerable natural resource that grows in importance every year.

Entrepreneurs enter the market through technology, be it irrigation, pesticides and herbicides, and equipment. Price points to Mid-South farmers being early technology adopters as a reason they stay ahead of the curve in terms of marginal profitability. A farmer can be on his combine on his land in Arkansas and, with GIS/GPS, know where precisely he is in his field, the pH of the soil right where he is, what the yield was last year, and know what the disease-resistance is in his crop there. “Technology has given us precision agriculture,” Price says. “We now produce on an acre of land what it used to take us five to 10 acres. We do it with far less input and labor.”

Agriculture affects food production, of course, which in turn affects our groceries and restaurants and the price of food. Memphians may have moved away from the farm, but the farm hasn’t moved away from them.

“The industry is international, international, international,” Price says. “The future is bio-based, it’s value-added.”

And, because the region has the agricultural infrastructure, research facilities, and entrepreneurial spirit, the future of agriculture is the Mid-South.


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