The 2011 Field Day at the University of Missouri’s Delta Research Center in Portageville, Mo., was like previous events with thousands across the region with friends and industry professionals dropping by to learn about the latest advances in regional agricultural research. It also saw two milestones: it was be the 50th field day held at the center, and will see the retirement of its long-serving supervisor, Thomas “Jake” Fisher.
Fisher has attended every one of the center’s 50 field days. In 1961, the freshly-graduated Fisher started work there as an entry-level tractor driver. During his tenure, he helped the Delta Center mature from one greenhouse to a research complex helping Missouri’s billion dollar soybean, wheat, cotton and rice industry be more productive. The center’s commitment to community service that has made it and its Field Day a must-stop for governors, senators, industry leaders, farmers and kids.
Dedicated to Southeast Agriculture
Part of the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resource’s network of 20 research centers around the state, the Delta Center’s mission is to enhance the productivity of agricultural products from the unique climate and soil of southeastern Missouri. This is probably the most important farm area of the state. One-third of Missouri agricultural sales – soybeans, rice, cotton, corn, milo, wheat and vegetables – come from this seven-county region.
“The Delta Center is unique because it is located mid-way between southern and northern American agriculture,” said Gene Stevens, extension professor at the Delta Center. “It is far enough north to be in the Corn Belt but warm enough to grow cotton and rice. Most of the soybean varieties developed here can be grown in both the north and south.”
“Farming is the heart of Missouri’s economy and the critical research done at the Delta Center will help keep our southwest farmers competitive in the world market and provide consumers with a safe, affordable and nutritious food supply,” said Kit Bond, former U.S. Senator and Missouri Governor.
A Half Century of Soybean Innovation
Soybean production in the US is a big business, producing an estimated $40 billion in farm receipts each year – $2 billion in Missouri, according to the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council. A full quarter of the state’s agriculture revenues come from soybean production.
“The Delta Center’s soybean breeding program for increasing yield and pest resistance is one of the best in the nation,” said Stevens. Bond agrees: “In Missouri, where soybeans are the number one cash crop, the Delta Center’s revolutionary research on soybean pests has saved millions of dollars of damage to crops. It has enhanced the livelihood of farmers, local economies here in the Bootheel, and the state and nation."
During the last five decades, soybean production increased from 20 bushels per acre to 70, much of this increased efficiency due to research at the Delta Center.
“The most important discovery at the Delta Center was made by Dr. Sam Anand who found a wild type soybean from Russia, number 437654, which is resistant to all types of soybean cyst nematode,” Stevens said. “Genes from this soybean have been used in breeding programs around the world to develop new soybean varieties with improved resistance to SCN.”
SCN is consistently the most damaging pest of soybean grown in Missouri and throughout the U.S., causing nearly one billion dollars in crop losses annually.
And this research is continuing. Allen Wrather, professor of plant science, has proven that rotating soybean with cotton and corn reduces nematode levels in fields and increases soybean crop yields in the southern United States.
Another recent research program, which works in conjunction with experts at CAFNR’s Columbia campus, is seeking to identify soybean germplasm lines with a tolerance to drought. At any one time, at least 10 percent of all farmland faces drought conditions. In 2011, all of Texas and Oklahoma and parts of Arizona suffered under “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest of drought ratings. Another project is investigating germplasm lines that can be made more flood tolerant.
Wheat, Cotton and Rice
Missouri isn’t known for wheat, cotton and rice, but those crops are common in the southeastern section of the state. All three are big parts of the state’s economy. Missouri is fifth in the nation in rice production and seventh in cotton production.
Not far away from Wrather’s project, another program found that planting winter wheat in the fall as cover between cotton rows helps reduce wind erosion and sand damage to cotton seedlings. Most cotton fields in the region have few trees to block winds, impacting crop performance. Former Delta researcher Jim Roth and David Dunn, an extension associate in soil testing, measured crop yields from fertilizer trials to determine optimal application rates.
Earl Vories, adjunct biological engineering professor, and Stevens are conducting irrigation and fertilizer tests with center pivot irrigation to show that rice can be grown without flooding. This will allow the production of this food staple where it can’t be grown now, feeding more people.
Six different cotton varieties were developed at the Delta Center in the 1960s, helping make Missouri an increasingly big producer of that crop. Carrots and canola were tested there, too. Sweet sorghum is currently being investigated at the Delta Center as a potential biofuel.
A little known fact is that the Delta Center played a big role in the development of the herbicide Treflan. Delta Researcher Raymond Hicks believed that the chemical, then used by the Navy as a dye, had the potential to control destructive grasses. His studies determined the most effective application techniques and rates. Treflan is one of the most used products of its kind in the world.
Such work continues. Before new pesticides are sold to farmers, weed scientists, entomologists and plant pathologists at the Delta Center conduct field tests with experimental chemicals to determine the most effective rates and timings for farmers to control pests in their crops.
Also, the entomology research group lead by Kelly Tindall, research assistant professor of plant sciences, is looking to better understand the Dectes stem borer, which has infested a significant part of US cotton growing region. Plant scientists are investigating better ways that cotton farmers can identify specific locations of Root-knot nematode damage. With such information, farmers can apply nematicides only on affected area, saving money and introducing less chemicals into the environment.
Going Green an Everyday Project
The Delta Center not only helps farmers keep money in their pockets, but keeps potential pollutants out of the environment.
A 2009 project installed optical sensors and an onboard computer on a test tractor. The “on-the-go” sensors measured the color and size of plants, telling the computer to release only enough nutrients to guarantee proper growth. The equipment prevents excess fertilizer being applied to fields, keeping it from ending up in watersheds, lakes and streams.
Stevens, Dunn and Wrather just finishing a project at the Delta Center to evaluate nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilization in sweet sorghum and switchgrass – plants that are promising bioenergy fuels.
Jake Fisher, Delta Center’s Heart and Soul
A staple of the farm, for all but its earliest years, will be leaving in 2011. After 50 years of service to MU, Thomas “Jake” Fisher, Delta Center superintendent, is retiring. He won’t be going far, concentrating on his nearby 750-acre row crop farm.
Fisher was the fourth superintendent of the Delta Center and served in this position longer than any other. He came to work at the farm in 1961, just after high school graduation, as a Farm Worker I. Fisher was one of the facility’s first employees.
In 1990, that tractor driver would testify before a House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on cotton, rice and sugar, discussing finer points of the next Farm Bill.
By 1962 Fisher had gravitated to research, first in agronomy and soils, and then as a research specialist in soybean research. He was then promoted to assistant superintendent, and then superintendent, a position he held for 22 years.
When he arrived, the Delta Center was just two years old. Only one greenhouse existed on the property then. The 1,024 acre Delta Research Center consists of four separate farms all named after their donors: Dewitt Clinton Lee farm, Matilda Cavanaugh farm, Margaret Marsh farm and the Roger Rhodes farm. Today, the center features 23 offices, seven modern laboratories, eight greenhouses and growth chambers, foundation seed facilities, a regional soil testing laboratory, a plant health clinic, cotton gin, large auditorium, library, and exhibit hall.
Fisher oversaw development of the center’s Telecommunication Resource Center – a key community resource helping area farmers who live far from urban areas maintain contact with the digital world. It also is a headquarters providing professional development opportunities to area law enforcement, nurses and emergency planners.
Fisher also was instrumental in establishing the Delta Center’s annual Field Day, an event that draws thousands from 4-H kids to senators and governors. Seminars and demonstrations detail the latest thinking in serious subjects such as planting decisions, pest management, disease control, fertilizer management, the latest in genetic research and business strategies, and irrigation techniques. Noted experts provide the training and answer questions from farmers.
Charles Kruse, who retired after 18 years as president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and started his career in 1970 at the Delta Center as a newly minted agronomist, said that Fisher has been the heart and soul of the center’s success. “He’s been a great manager of the business side and a great promoter of the center and agriculture,” Kruse said. “He played a key role in the center being so accepted by area farmers. You’ve got to win farmers over for them to give you their trust. Jake would come over and shake someone’s hand and immediately communicate that he, and the center, were genuine and honest. Much of the center’s goodwill was built up one farmer at a time by Jake. The center won’t be the same without him.”
“Jake Fisher always provided consistent leadership by securing funds for equipment and facilities,” Stevens said. “This has allowed us scientists to do our jobs.”
“Jake just doesn’t know what ‘can’t’ means,” said Kruse. “It’s just not in him. I’ve seen him dig into seemingly insurmountable problems, like the ice storm that left thousands of people without power or the ability to even leave their homes, and apply the hard work and common sense management that makes solutions and gets things done.”
Answering Call for Help from the Community
Responding to natural disasters isn’t in Fisher’s job description, but he does it, anyway.
His grit and determination was tested in the winter of 2009 that saw one of the worst ice storms in Missouri history. At least 16,000 utility poles in the Bootheel snapped in two and blocked major streets. It took almost two days for crews to clear lines and wood debris to allow heavy equipment to move into the area.
Fisher organized Delta volunteers—everyone from farm and maintenance workers to office staff—to put in 16-hour days to help in the stabilization effort. They first set up the center's Exhibit Hall as an emergency warming shelter. Then, they helped get generators operational at nursing homes, schools, municipal water plants and emergency shelters. They even worked with a local oil vendor who each night made sure the generators were fueled and maintained, along with all of the trucks.
Then, even though their own homes were without power, the center’s volunteers then delivered lunches to the line workers. With so many emergency personnel arriving in the area, a problem developed on how to house and feed the workers. Fisher said the Delta Center team got a generator online at a popular restaurant so emergency workers could eat hot meals instead of the Meals Ready to Eat that were being distributed by the National Guard.
In 2006, Fisher organized similar relief efforts after a Spring EF3 tornado tore a path through the Bootheel and into Tennessee. The storm damaged approximately 700 homes and virtually wiped out the town of Braggadocio. Fisher supervised staff, retirees and community people to clear paths of downed trees for to allow rescue people into the area and distribute relief information. He oversaw the placement of tarps over damaged roofs to prevent additional damage.
Fisher is known as a CAFNR’s biggest booster in the Bootheel region, Kruse said. He recruits area students and offers to give them a tour of campus, introducing them to faculty and staff.
“Jake's motto has always been the same as that of CAFNR,” commented Wrather. “He always puts the needs of Missouri citizens before his own.”
“Jake always promotes harmony, teamwork and cooperation throughout the organization,” said J. Grover Shannon, MU professor specializing in genetics and plant breeding. “He shows appreciation to all of the staff who work at the Delta center. Always goes the extra mile to help people and help them be their best.”
“Jake has always understood that in a global economy, continued progress in science and engineering is vital to feed, clothe, and fuel a growing world on less land, using fewer resources,” Sen. Bond said. “Through his leadership, the Delta Center has made a real difference providing farmers the tools they need to maintain our nation’s leadership in agriculture.”
Why did he stay at one job for a half-century? “I loved the job and I loved the people,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t even feel like 50 years. I could do another five decades and be just as excited about being here as the day I started in 1961.”
Thomas “Jake” Fisher’s service to agriculture and the community has been recognized with numerous awards including:
- University of Missouri’s Farm Management Award, 1980
- Progressive Farmer Magazine’s Man of the Year in Service to Missouri Agriculture, 1995
- University of Missouri Alumni Association’s Honorary Membership, 1996
- University of Missouri’s Outstanding Staff Award, 2000
- Missouri Ag Industries Council’s Ag Leader of the Year, 2001
- The “Jake” soybean variety is released, 2006
- Missouri Farm Bureau’s Outstanding Service to Agriculture, 2007
- Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives’ AC Burrows Service Award (Community Service), 2009
- Sikeston Chamber of Commerce’s Agribusiness Service Award of the Year, 2011
- Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives’ Frank Stork Democracy Award, 2011
- Missouri Cotton Producers’ Lifetime Membership Award
Statement Praising Jake Fisher Is Read Into the U.S. Congressional Record
U.S. Representative Jo Ann Emerson (MO-08) read a statement into the U.S. Congressional Record detailing the accomplishments of retiring Delta Center Superintendent Jake Fisher.Mr. Speaker,
I rise today in honor of Jake Fisher of Portageville, Missouri for his years of service to the University of Missouri Delta Center. The people of my congressional district, the state of Missouri, and Missouri’s Flagship University are forever grateful for Jake’s contributions and commitment to making the Delta Center what it is today, a world-renowned research facility we can all be extremely proud of.
The Delta Center has grown to be the jewel of the University of Missouri land grant system under Jake’s leadership. This is a testament to Jake and the dedicated staff and faculty he works with on a daily basis. Every time I visit the Delta Center, I am encouraged by the work I see and what it means for the future of agriculture and our state.
Jake’s leadership has been critical in providing the faculty and staff with the vision and necessary resources to discover new solutions, address needs for our state and help the welfare of our citizens through scientific advancement in agriculture. His forward thinking has been instrumental in the Delta Center making great advancements which will lead the future and keep our agricultural producers on the frontline in meeting the challenge of feeding a growing world population.
Not only is the Delta Center a world renowned research facility, it also remains an integral part of the community in Southeast Missouri. Jake has worked to forge a strong partnership between local communities, area producers, the entire Southeast Missouri region and the Delta Center. These partnerships make the Delta Center a special place for the people of Southeast Missouri and have contributed to its successes over the years.
Everybody back in Missouri knows Jake outside of his role at the Delta Center as a selfless member of the community. Whenever there has been a disaster or other challenge facing the community, Jake always lends a helping hand to neighbors in need. When a historic ice storm struck our area in 2009, cutting off power and heating to our residents during the coldest part of the year, Jake was one of the first to step up and help the community by opening up part of the Delta Center as a warming center where many of the utility crews were fed as they worked to restore power.
As Jake steps back from his leadership role at the Delta Center, I am certain the center will be in good hands. However, it will be a difficult transition for many, including me, as he has personified leadership for the Delta Center over the years. It is hard to think of the Delta Center without Jake Fisher.
More than anything, I appreciate having Jake’s friendship; and I look forward to keeping it for years to come.
Congratulations, Jake, on a job well done and best wishes for you and Shelly as you enter a new and exciting part of your lives.