Mention the name Agricenter International in Memphis, Tenn., and you get a number of images: U-Pick-Em strawberries, fishing rodeo, corn maize, ducks, gun shows, horse shows, RV Park, Delta Fair, solar panels, early voting site….
John Butler would like to add “The place where you can come and learn how your food is grown” to those images – a goal that’s not far from the original intentions for the facility located on Germantown Parkway in east Memphis.
Actually, when the late Edward W. “Ned” Cook and other civic leaders began talking about the Agricenter in the late 1970s, agriculture was at the top of their list. For Cook, who made a fortune trading commodities around the world, the facility would help showcase the region’s agricultural potential.
Nearly 40 years later, the Agricenter hosts nearly 180 trials annually in its fields on a portion of its complex in the Wolf River floodplain. But it is still better known in Memphis for the many different types of shows and events in its headquarters complex and equestrian facilities.
“About 1.3 million people come on this campus every year,” says Butler, president of Agricenter International. “That’s incredible to think about because it means we’re the third largest tourist attraction in Shelby County.”
Most of the visitors come for a specific reason – a hunting show, the corn maize or any number of the events listed at the beginning of the article.
“That’s not my area of expertise,” said Butler, who owned and operated Jones Creek Farms near Dyersburg, Tenn., for 20 years before becoming president of Agricenter in 2016. “But I can tell you that without those revenues we can’t do many of these things on the mission side.”
Butler, speaking at the Farm Innovation Field Day held at the Agricenter in August, said the Agricenter had just updated its mission statement a few weeks before. The new statement reads: “To advance the knowledge and understanding of agriculture.”
“Now we can apply that in a hundred different ways,” he said. “But it is so cool to have the resources – the earned revenue – to deploy it through a non-profit promoting agriculture.”
Butler thanked AgLaunch, the Memphis-based Ag Innovation group which organized the field day, and Memphis Bioworks for their support of the Agricenter’s efforts to extend its agricultural education activities.
“We’re all scattered out among this community, but it’s our lives,” he said. “We’re all extremely passionate about what we do, and the common thread is ag.”
In recent months, he said, he and other Agricenter personnel have been including food in their discussions about agriculture. “There’s really no separating ag and food because we all eat, and what we’ve noticed in the last three years is this local food movement has reinvigorated the overall consumer base to ask more questions about what we’re doing at the Agricenter?
“They’re saying they’re beginning to understand how it impacts me now, ‘but I want to re-engage. I want to understand how all that looks in the field not only to myself, but to my family.’ So we have consumers from all over the region coming to us and asking for answers.”
He said he envisions the Agricenter as a “placeholder, a place where organizations can come. We don’t have to own it ourselves; we would love to help if we can. But the main thing we want to do is move the needle and make that progress happen.”