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UT Extension Program Leader is making a difference in the lives of West Tennessee farm families

March is National Ag Month: Meet Tracey Sullivan, Western Region Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Leader

Tracey Sullivan

American farmers make up about two percent of the population. One U.S. farm feeds 166 people in this country and abroad. In 1960, an American farmer fed about 25 people. Just 10 years ago, that number was 155. Given population increases globally each year with the same amount of land for farmers to plant, feeding the world poses its own sets of increasing challenges. One local entity works daily to help farmers face those challenges head-on.
“Real. Life. Solutions. That’s our mission and what we’re trying to do. We work to improve the lives of everyone,” Tracey Sullivan, Western Region Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Leader, shared.
Sullivan leads a team of extension agents who serve as liaisons between farmers in Tennessee and the slate of researchers at the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center. The Center encompasses nearly 650 acres, situated off of Airways Boulevard in Jackson. It is a part of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The West Tennessee location was established in 1907. Not only is it the oldest Center among the 10 UT AgResearch Centers located in Tennessee, it boasts the highest number of researchers in the state.

Visitors to the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson are greeted by native plants and recycled art pieces. (SABRINA BATES/The Jackson Post)

The bulk of the West Tennessee AgResearch Center’s acreage in the Hub City is dedicated to agriculture research. From plant growth to pesticides to invasive species to innovative tools for farming, there are 10 research faculty who devote their days to fulfilling the Center’s mission.
Sullivan is no stranger to agriculture. She and her husband are cattle and row-crop farmers.
One of her previous roles before joining the Center was as the UT Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for Haywood County. UT Extension is another division of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, with locations in all 95 counties across Tennessee.
Extension offices provide information to area farmers and ranchers. In addition, they provide education to households in their counties. Many would be familiar with the role 4-H plays in local schools and communities. The 4-H programs are a leg of UT Extension.
Sullivan said the bulk of her work through the Center involves providing information from researchers to Extension offices.
That information centers around agriculture production, new technology developments, UTIA research findings and global industry news.
She talked about some challenges the American farmers are facing this year as they prep for the growing season. Sullivan said they are keeping a watch on global competitors like Brazil, a country that also exports meat and grain. That is one factor behind commodity prices for farmers. Another factor in pricing is inflation.
Through the years, commodity prices don’t keep up with inflation, so farmers are tasked with getting better at growing their grain in more economic ways for them, according to West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center Director Scott Stewart. Keeping up with the demand to feed an ever-growing world population, while losing agricultural land each year is what drives the researchers to help farmers overcome challenges and still make a profit.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farmers and ranchers earn only 15 cents (on average) out of every retail dollar spent on food at home and away from home. The remainder of that dollar for the American farmer goes to wages, equipment and materials for production; processing; marketing; transportation and distribution. Production materials are the AgResearch and Education Center’s specialty.
For example, Sullivan explained a popular, effective herbicide in use for nearly seven years, is now facing a nationwide ban. In February, an Arizona District Court nullified the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration for Dicamba, which is an herbicide applied to the top of cotton and soybean crops.
The Farm Bureau Federation has asked the EPA to allow the herbicide’s application through the 2024 growing season, with an announcement expected soon. In the meantime, Sullivan explained researchers are working to find effective alternatives at the Center.
She explained that without effective weed control, a no-till alternative can sometimes result in lower grain yields as more weeds compete with row-crop space.
She estimated 90-95 percent of row crops in Tennessee are planted in no-till fields. There are new varieties of corn and cotton, hybrids in private development, under research, but it may take up to 10 years to reach the market.
Sullivan said there is good news as input prices have stabilized this year compared to the last few years. In addition, she said yields have been really good as crops have done really well in West Tennessee. Farmers are continuously adapting to new technologies, which have played an important role in helping them to make more profit.
The program leader reported farmers across the region are in the burn-down application stages as they prep their fields for the planting of row crops. People across West Tennessee will start seeing soybeans and corn going into the fields next month. The Center’s research team is assessing a variety of soybean that could be planted as early as late March.
Sullivan also announced the recent launch of a podcast series, Tennessee Farm to Family, explaining where our food comes from and how it gets there.
While Sullivan and her team keep watchful eyes on agricultural issues and challenges facing farmers, other research teams at the Center are diving deep into the drought-tolerance of certain crop varieties, technology in the field, pests and everything in between. At the same time, all are collaborating to fulfill the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s mission to create “Real. Life. Solutions” for families across the state, one lab and one seed at a time.

  • March is designated as National Ag Month. This is the first part of a series that will highlight the different components of the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson, which will include interviews with the slate of Center researchers and leadership team and what goes on behind the scenes of UTIA’s oldest ag research facility. The grounds are open to the public daily throughout the year. There is no cost to visit or tour the Center.
    Sabrina Bates, sabrina@richardsonmediagroup.net
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