While Memphis celebrated its 200th birthday last month, Agricenter International celebrated its 40th year in the community, highlighting the massive economic impact it has on the city.
Most Memphians might point to Graceland or the National Civil Rights Museum first when thinking about the spots most likely to bring visitors to the city, but on the edge of Shelby Farms Park, the Agricenter is adding nearly $500 million to Memphis’ economy every year, according to an impact study it commissioned in 2016.
“It may be a hidden gem to citizens in our community that don’t understand what type of an impact it has on our community,” Memphis Tourism President Kevin Kane said.
“Within hospitality, it’s not a hidden gem. It’s a gem. It has been a driver for tourism for us ever since it’s been built.”
That’s because the Agricenter “wears many hats,” Kane said.
In 1979, the Agricenter was started by a group of business leaders in the agriculture industry. They wanted to promote research and education, celebrate technology and make the industry more accessible to the general public.
Forty years later, the Agricenter has grown exponentially, but those tenets are still part of the mission.
The most forward-facing parts of the 1,000-acre campus are likely the Expo Center, where nearly every weekend there is a new event, and the Farmer’s Market, which is open six days a week.
But between weekend events, more than 10,000 Shelby County students visit the Agricenter each year to learn about agriculture, Agricenter President John Butler said.
The campus also welcomes thousands of people each year from the equine industry for horse trials and other events to their stables that hold up to 750 horses for events that can last more than a week at a time.
Deeper into the property, large corporations, government agencies and nonprofits have headquarters and research facilities.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is there, so is Ducks Unlimited. Fiat tests new technology for tractors on the property, and multinational agricultural company Helena has a research facility there too.
Butler said his goal is eventually to have 50 to 60 agriculture companies using Memphis as a place to test new technology and find ways to help plants survive conditions they never could have in the past.
One example of the research happening on-site is related to hops — best known for its use in brewing beer. While it was long believed hops could not grow well along the Mississippi Delta, companies are already testing variations of the crop that can thrive here.
“Ten years ago or even five years ago, we didn’t grow hops in the Delta,” Butler said. “The reason why we can now is because of how we have adapted modern-day plant breeding. Through traditional plant breeding, we’ve used machine learning to breed a smarter and more adaptive plant to the region.”
That means that when beer made from locally grown crops is finally available for Memphis consumers, it will likely be traced back to research trials at the Agricenter.
Butler, a fifth-generation farmer of cotton, corn, wheat and soy, took over as head of the Agricenter in 2016. Since then, he said he has been doing exactly what the founders envisioned: supporting education, research and technology in agriculture.
As the Agricenter celebrates more birthdays with him at the helm, he wants to see dozens more companies open research facilities and headquarters in Memphis, he wants to more than double the number of students visiting each year and he wants to see the economic impact of their 1,000 acres rise even more.
“What I think success is, is continuing economic growth, creating opportunity around community engagement, expanding our education team and increasing so that 10,000 student number could be 50,000,” Butler said.
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And as Agricenter reaches more of Shelby County, its next step is combating food insecurity and increasing access to healthy food for every family.
“I don’t want there to be a community within our reach to have any type of food insecurity,” he said. “We should fix those types of problems, and we should fix them tomorrow. How we fix them? I don’t know if I have the answer yet. But that should be our focus.”
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