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Building Agricenter International to last for the next 40 years

Multi-million-dollar improvements are planned for the Agricenter in Memphis.

Forrest Laws

May 23, 2024

11 Slides

The Memphis Agricenter International’s Expo Building turns 41 this year, and the organization celebrates its 45th year. That may seem hard to believe for those who have watched the former penal farm site grow from a gleam in a few visionaries’ eyes to what it is today.

Rather than dwell on that milestone, however, Agricenter leaders are moving full speed ahead with major renovations to make sure the facility and the surrounding complex enjoy at least another 40 years.

“When I came here in 2016, the board of directors wanted me to focus on a strategic plan,” says John Butler, president of Agricenter International and a farmer from Dyersburg, Tenn. “We completed that in 2018, and we’ve been executing our strategic initiatives based on that 20-year plan ever since.”

When the 5,017-acre Shelby County Penal Farm began phasing out its agricultural operations in the 1970s, many thought the land would go the way of much of the surrounding area and be turned over to real estate developers.

Public domain

Instead, some forward-looking leaders decided the land should be kept in the public domain with it being split between Shelby Farms Park Conservancy on the north side of Walnut Grove in east Memphis and the Agricenter International complex on the south side of Walnut Grove.

They probably never dreamed of what would eventually occupy the latter – from the Expo Building with its striking dome and 86,000 square feet of exhibit space to one of the first solar farms with traversing panels in Tennessee to the Showplace Arena, which attracts thousands of people to equestrian, rodeo and other events almost every weekend.

That’s not to mention the ag-related companies who have operations across the complex, including BASF with its state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities; Case New Holland, which trains many of its technicians at its location; and Helena Chemical, which has a research and administrative facility. (Ducks Unlimited also has its national headquarters on the Agricenter campus.)

In March, the Agricenter announced a series of infrastructure investments, including $7.1 million in enhancements to the Expo Building. That’s in addition to a $15.9 million grant from the USDA-NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program in January to Agricenter International, University of Tennessee Extension Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and other funding.

Preservation and upgrade

The $7.1 million funding is partly aimed at preservation and partly to upgrade and reorient existing facilities.

“In the Expo Building, in particular, we had a lot of problems with water infiltration with the old façade,” said Maurice Denbow, chief operating officer for the Agricenter. “There also wasn’t an opportunity to greet guests and direct traffic from a central hub.

“We pulled out some of the old fixtures, and we’ve added a front-facing reception opportunity to greet guests, point them in the right direction and give them information about event and venue spaces. We have a couple of event coordinators who will function out of this office, and we also have a security protocol here monitoring cameras spaced across the campus.”

The mezzanine front entrance to the building has been completely redone. “This new concrete area has three layers of new weatherproofing underneath,” said Denbow. “This actually is the roof of the exposition area down below, and we had a lot of water coming in. We added the weatherproofing and also improved the drainage to move water away from the building. We also expanded the number of restrooms.”

One of the more striking changes is in the Expo Building theater, which initially was a stock auction area. The makeover includes new seating. “We can seat 358 in fixed seating,” said Denbow. “It will be about 400 when we add some tables and barstool-height chairs in the upper level.”

Innovation expansion

Agricenter International also received approval for the expansion of its Innovation District or research park. “This expansion, totaling 127 acres upon completion, marks one of the largest greenspace development projects in the city of Memphis,” Butler said. “It reinforces our dedication to fostering innovation, collaboration and sustainable practices within the agricultural sector."

Other improvements included enhancements to the Farmers Market Complex, which dates back to the 1930s. “This is the only structure that was on campus when we received the original grant of use from Shelby County,” he said. “The lower barn was built and added on to in the 1980s and is a venue for events like bar mitzvahs, weddings and Ag Day celebrations.”

For six months of the year the Agricenter runs the Farmers Market in the original building six days a week. “We’ll bring 70 locally owned small businesses here, and we may have as many as 5,000 people here on a busy Saturday,” said Butler. “With the other events going on we may have 35,000 to 40,000 folks here on one weekend.

“Our annual tourism for 2023 was 1.5 million guests. That makes us one of the largest agritourism destinations around the U.S.”

Wayfinding solutions

The Agricenter has also been developing state-of-the-art signage and wayfinding solutions throughout the facility. “We are very happy with all the improvements we are making with our branding and communication efforts,” he noted.

“We have about 100,000 cars pass by our entrance on Germantown Parkway daily,” he said. “We can advertise our sunflower fields, our U-pick-um strawberry patch, our corn maize and other events. It all helps make the Agricenter sustainable so that we’re not taking taxpayer dollars for operations.”

Further south along Germantown Parkway, motorists pass by the numerous research plots and field demonstrations maintained by the Agricenter staff and company researchers. In the fall, weather permitting, the Agricenter floods a portion of the fields. There’s a viewing stand so visitors can watch ducks fly into the water in the winter months.

One of the more exciting developments for the Agricenter is the construction of a new road that eventually will connect the western portion of the Innovation District along Smythe Farm Road with Walnut Grove.

“We have 45 companies involved with the Agricenter,” he said. “We think we can have 90 or 120 companies once we complete this expansion area and have 3,000 people working here instead of 800. The consultants we’ve worked with on the development of our research park identified the need for another route into the research area, and we will have this when we connect this road to Walnut Grove.”

Solar energy

The new road is near the solar farm, which was one of the first to use traversing panels that follow the path of the sun to harvest the maximum amount of solar energy. “We have a converter system that collects the energy, converts it and it either hits the grid or we can use it ourselves.”

Butler shows a visitor another area where the Agricenter is using solar panels for a study involving blackberries and hops, one of the grains used in making beer. They’re among a number of specialty crop and organic farming projects at the complex.

“Hops are traditionally grown father north in areas that have longer daylight hours than we do in the Midsouth,” he said, “We’re adding incandescent LED lights to try to impact that experience in a positive way.”

In the fall, the Agricenter will host a conference on soil health, building on West Tennessee’s history with no-till farming and cover crops. A similar conference with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service some years ago allowed participants to attend classroom presentations in the Expo Building and drive or walk to field demonstrations of the practices a short distance away.

“I do have a roadmap to follow,” he said. “People say I didn’t know y’all were doing this or that, but we have plan, and we’re executing, building the research part and making sure we have the improvements necessary to sustain the organization for the next 30 or 40 years. All these things create value for the industry and the community we serve.”

About the Author(s)

Forrest Laws

Forrest Laws spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.

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