On a damp Friday in July, members of the Cotton Incorporated State Support Committee trekked through plots at the AgResearch and Education Center at Milan as UTIA scientists explained the progress and direction of their research programs. These programs were at least partially funded by the committee and Tennessee cotton growers. As the scientists spoke, a common theme emerged—producer-directed funding allows researchers to answer the questions important to farmers.
Each year, commodities account for $4.27 billion in agricultural sales for the state of Tennessee. Defined as any product of agricultural activities, some of the state’s top commodities include beef, soybeans, corn, hay and haylage, wheat, tobacco, cotton, and tomatoes. In Tennessee, soybean, cotton, and tobacco are three products that are supported through commodity groups. Cotton Incorporated and the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board oversee cotton and soybean research and promotion activities, and tobacco research and promotion activities are maintained through industry support.
Commodity groups are supported by farmers and industry. Soybean producers contribute based on each bushel sold; cotton farmers contribute based on each bale sold; and tobacco research is backed through industry support. Money is used to support research, provide grower education, offer extension agent training, and fund student internship programs.
“As soybean farmers, we support UTIA research and extension programs that encourage advances in farming practices. From ways to get rid of plant pests and diseases to new soybean variety development, we benefit from this research by implementing the results on our farms to grow a healthier crop and increase our yields” says Gina Thompson, a West Tennessee farmer and communications director of the Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board.
The commodity groups announce an annual call for proposals through the UT AgResearch Dean’s office. The ideas included in the proposals vary as widely as the department of the researcher. Past funded projects include evaluation of greenhouse equipment to use of unmanned aerial systems to herbicide resistant weed management. “In order to accomplish our research objectives, UTIA scientists have the opportunity to work with commodity groups to support their research production. We could not discover and develop cutting-edge technologies to help Tennessee producers without these commodity and industry relationships,” says Barry Sims, associate director for AgResearch.
Support extends beyond funding research as students are also provided hands-on experience in one of two internship programs. The programs are funded by Altria Corporation and Phillip Morris International and are open to undergraduate agriculture students. Research interns work on specific projects with research staff at either the AgResearch and Education Center at Greeneville or the Highland Rim AgResearch and Education Center in Springfield. Extension interns are exposed to outreach programs at the county level and their work can range from scouting tobacco fields to working with 4-H youth. On average, between ten and fifteen students participate in the internship programs each summer. For many interns, this experience solidifies their decision to work in agriculture and many have gone on to pursue graduate degrees and/or work in the agribusiness industry.
Ryan Kurtz, director of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated, reminds us that, “Continued funding of research is necessitated by the ever changing array of pests, crops protection products, varieties, and equipment, as well as the diversity of grower practices. The research expertise provided by the university scientists brings value to growers and impacts production practices by directly addressing current regional and state specific management needs, spurring innovations, anticipating future needs, as well as training the next generation of cotton scientists who are necessary to continually improve profitable and responsible production practices.”