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West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center is hub of activity in the Hub City

Meet Tate Cronin, Marketing and Communications Specialist

By Sabrina Bates

Staff Writer

Tate Cronin, Marketing and Communications Specialist

A first introduction to West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center’s Marketing and Communications Specialist and one would think Tate Cronin grew up at the Center in the Hub City. Cronin has only been in the role at the Center for a little less than a year, but he speaks the language and the excitement in his voice is hard to contain when he talks about on-going projects and the people he spends time with week to week.

Located off of Airways Boulevard in Jackson, sits more than 600 acres, mostly dedicated to agriculture research. The West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center is one of 10 research centers across the state as part of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. It also boasts the highest number of faculty researchers, 10, among the AgResearch Centers in Tennessee. 

All of this information is second-nature to Cronin, who explains the Hub City location is more than just fields designated for research in agriculture. With temperatures steadily dropping throughout the day and cloudy skies looming overhead, those didn’t deter Cronin’s enthusiasm as he made quick work of introductions inside the Center’s office location before heading out to the grounds that will soon show green fields and showy blooms.

Cronin’s tour of the offices included stops inside the variety of labs used for research. There are research teams who specialize in various fields related to agriculture at the Center. From studying plant growth (agronomy) to insects (entomology) to plant pathology and diseases, the teams play critical roles in gaining knowledge for farmers across the state. All of their work is hands-on.

Inside of the Center are central offices for the research teams, laboratories and even meeting spaces for organizational use. The grounds offer colorful displays of varieties of in-season plants. Visitors are greeted by flower beds full of succulents, flowers and shrubs that will soon offer showy blooms. Cronin explained the Center has a horticulture division, UT Gardens, Jackson, that tests plant varieties for West Tennessee hardiness. It is a common ground for area Master Gardeners and thanks to the work of the horticulture division, the Center’s grounds have served as the backdrop for wedding photos, senior photos and an escape from the city’s hustle and bustle. Each year, UT Gardens, Jackson offers a plant sale for visitors to snag varieties of plants that are grown at the Center. The plant sale, typically held the first Friday and Saturday in May, is one of the Center’s largest fundraiser, Cronin explained.

Visitors to the grounds will notice a variety of greenhouses and “rainout shelters,” designed to test crops’ drought tolerance. Cronin said researcher Avat Shekoofa, crop physiology researcher, will test the plants’ ability to withstand water starvation. That information is used for farmers to schedule their crop irrigations and to determine which plants are best at surviving drought. 

Cronin said the row-crop research fields are broken down by irrigation and non-irrigation fields. There is a portion of the AgResearch Center’s grounds dedicated to the growth of turf grass. That research, conducted by Kim Brown, allows her to assist homeowners with their lawns and maintenance.

While no-till is one of the preferred planting methods, one type of crop has to be flipped upside down for harvest and its hardiness is being tested at the Center. 

“We grew peanuts here and they actually did really well. To harvest it, you have to flip it upside down though,” Cronin explained.

Another area of the grounds is designated for cover crops, such as wheat. Cronin explained wheat has become a popular crop, particularly a couple of years ago as a result of the war in Ukraine. Ukraine is considered a major exporter of wheat.

Other research projects involve AI technology. Researchers are also examining a phenom known as “soybean abortion,” when a soybean drops its flowers, which develop into pods, from the plant. Cronin said teams are trying to determine why the plant is releasing its flowers by using a device that scans sections of the crop. Drones are becoming a popular tool for researchers in the field as they help determine crop growth, Cronin explained.

As expected, the Center houses a variety of ag equipment needed for planting, harvesting and maintenance. One in particular, a plot harvester, is a special device that helps with research projects, Cronin shared. 

In addition to row-crop management, Cronin said the Center’s acreage also includes a hardwood forest for nature conservation that is managed by David Mercker. Mercker is the UT Extension forestry specialist for all 95 counties in Tennessee.

The above-mentioned specialists are only a couple of the dozens of people working to find real life solutions for farmers and families in Tennessee. Add to that number, dozens of graduate students and interns who work alongside the Center’s researchers, the West Tennessee location is a hub of outreach and activity.

* This is 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

The greenhouses at the University of Tennessee Institute West Tennessee AgResearch and Education in Jackson are quickly filling up with varieties of row crops designated for research and development in preparation of the upcoming planting season. (SABRINA BATES/The Jackson Post)
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