From the Mountains to the Mighty Mississippi
Later this week, the 70th Annual Mid-South Farm & Gin Show will take center stage in Memphis, Tennessee. The show is organized and cosponsored by the Southern Cotton Ginners Association (SCGA) and Delta Farm Press. SCGA represents cotton gins in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee while Delta Farm Press is the preeminent industry agricultural news resource for producers in the Mid-South region. Although the show may have its roots in the cotton industry, more than 16,000 attendees and 300 exhibitors from across the agricultural spectrum are anticipated to attend. Medius Ag is excited and proud to be a first-time exhibitor!
The upcoming visit to Tennessee means it is the perfect time to make the Volunteer State the next stop on our tour of land-grant universities (LGUs) in the U.S. So far we’ve visited 16 states and you can visit all of them in our News section.
Tennessee is home to two LGUs: the University of Tennessee (UT) and Tennessee State University (TSU). UT was originally founded in 1794 in Knoxville as Blount College, preceding Tennessee statehood by two years. Meanwhile, 1890 institution Tennessee State University (TSU) was founded in 1912 in Nashville after a brief stint as the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School. Both schools host robust agricultural programs. For the purposes of this post, the focus will be on UT, where most field crop variety development and testing activities take place.
The folks over at media company Farm Flavor published a Tennessee Top 10 commodities piece just this month, so we won’t repeat all that they have already posted there and invite you to check it out for yourself. Not surprisingly, some of the usual suspects can be found at or near the top of the revenue-generating list, including soybeans (#1; $923 billion in 2021), corn (#2; $617B), cotton (#5; $192B), and wheat (#10; $74B).
However, it is worth briefly noting the widespread concentration of agricultural production in west Tennessee versus that of the rest of the state, and particularly east Tennessee. The Tennessee Field Office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) succinctly puts it this way:
Tennessee’s agriculture is as diverse as it’s [sic] landscape, producing cattle, hay, goats, vegetables, and tobacco in the mountainous Eastern Region, to wheat, corn, poultry, equine, and nursery crops in the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee to cotton, corn, wheat, sorghum, and soybeans in the rich farmland of West Tennessee.
A graphical representation of Tennessee’s agricultural production is below and was obtained through USDA NASS’s CropScape tool. Although there are certainly outliers, for the most part, red is cotton, yellow is corn, and dark green is soybean production. The image paints an obvious picture of where Tennessee’s field crops are mostly concentrated. Without question, the state serves as a bridge from the mountains of Appalachia to the fields of the Mississippi River Basin.
As you might guess, it is no surprise to see a strong plant breeding and variety testing program within the UT Institute of Agriculture (UTIA). As in other states, in Tennessee publicly-funded agricultural research can be thought of as a three-legged stool consisting of the university, experiment stations, and extension offices. These three elements of UTIA are respectively known as the Herbert College of Agriculture, UT AgResearch, and UT Extension.
UT research faculty focuses the bulk of its variety development efforts on corn, soybeans, and wheat. Meanwhile, the variety trials program focuses on corn for both grain and silage, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and a number of cover crops. The bulk of the variety trials can be found at one of UT’s 10 AgResearch and Education Centers throughout the state. Additional trials are conducted by extension agents with grower cooperators. In 2021, UT faculty and staff tested 110 soybean varieties across four maturity groups, 71 grain corn varieties, 13 wheat varieties, a wide array of cover crops, and 44 cotton varieties (2020 data), which brings us back to the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show in Memphis.
Of course no survey of Tennessee agriculture is complete without at least a brief acknowledgement of its historic ties to the cotton industry. Once again, we rely on the experts to provide important context that exceeds the purpose of this post. This 11-minute video segment from C-Span provides an informative history of Memphis and the inextricable role that cotton played in its founding and development.