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No-till tribute

UTIA to celebrate major milestone for nationally recognized Milan field day
By Sarah Geyer 5/24/2018


This year, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture will host its 30th Milan No-Till Field Day, one of the largest and most prestigious farm shows in the South, on July 26 on the grounds of the AgResearch and Education Center in Milan. The event was created by “the father of Tennessee no-till” Tom McCutchen, the center’s first superintendent, expanded in the 1980s by John Bradley, and organized since 1998 by the current superintendent Blake Brown. – Photo provided by UTIA
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On Thursday, July 26, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture will host its 30th Milan No-Till Field Day. Considered one of the South’s premier farm shows, the event will be held at the AgResearch and Education Center in Milan.

The “father of Tennessee no-till” Tom McCutchen, the first superintendent of Milan’s research center, created the field day in 1981, after nearly three decades of research dedicated to the farming practice.

“At one time, Tennessee led the nation in tons of soil lost per acre through erosion. We were losing 14.1 tons per acre per year,” says Blake Brown, the center’s current director. “Tom was convinced that there had to be a way to plant a crop and fight weeds without disturbing the land.”

In the early 1960s, Tom put together a research team and began experimenting with no-till methods. Early on, the team struggled with lackluster results. However, Tom remained steadfast, and the group dedicated the next two decades to extensive research and on-the-farm trials. When the data began showing improvement in soil and crop yields, Tom wanted to share his research finding with farmers and, in 1981, he hosted the first field day dedicated to no-till.

“Tom had no idea what kind of turnout he’d get, and I think he expected the event to be a one-time thing,” recalls Blake, who was a teenager working at the center that summer. “We were shocked when 1,700 people showed up, which was unheard of for a field day at that time. People were interested and wanted to see [how the research team had found] success with no-till.”

The overwhelming response left no doubt that the field day needed to continue, and the following year a tradeshow was added. Unfortunately, that event was the last no-till field day Tom would plan. He passed away unexpectedly in 1983 at the age of 53. Blake’s father, Jim, the superintendent of the UT West Tennessee Experiment Station at Jackson, served as the interim director at Milan and planned the third field day. That fall, John Bradley was named the center’s new superintendent and under his guidance, Milan’s No-Till Field Day gained national prominence.

“I always credit Tom with starting it and John with promoting it,” says Blake. “John took the one-day event and built it into a week-long celebration. He traveled all over the country promoting the field day and no-till, and he did both a lot of good.”

Over the next decade, the event grew to include cotton fashion shows, skeet shoots, golf tournaments, antique tractor exhibits, and high-profile country music concerts. John also created the VIP “Who’s Who of Tennessee Agriculture” breakfast for the state’s mayors, congressmen, senators, and governors. In 1996, then Vice President Al Gore attended the event.

“The Milan Experiment Station’s field day each year grew into so much more than just an opportunity to showcase research results and the latest farming technologies,” Bradley told Delta Farm Press in 2017. “The experiment station was an agricultural magnet that attracted thousands of farmers and non-farmers alike.”

The event’s popularity peaked in 1995, with more than 11,000 attendees from 78 Tennessee counties, 37 states, and 13 foreign countries.

After John Bradley left UT in 1997 to pursue an opportunity with Monsanto, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture recruited a familiar face — Blake Brown — to serve as the new superintendent. When Blake began, no-till in Tennessee was becoming a conventional farming practice. Largely due to the efforts of UT researchers and Milan’s field day, the state ranked among the top in the nation in 2002, with 55 percent of Tennessee farmers planting their crops using no-till, compared with the nationwide average of 37 percent. Today, nearly 76 percent of Tennessee crop acres are planted no-till.

“Once any technology matures and becomes accepted as standard, it is common for the rate of innovation to level off,” says Blake. “And with that slow down, it was becoming more and more difficult to put together a program each year that was fresh and new. That’s the main reason why we changed the frequency of the Milan Field Day after 2002 to a biennial event.”

The extra year between events has also allowed Blake and his staff to focus on their research projects, which ultimately create more information to share with farmers at the field day. In fact, when the event returned in 2004, organizers offered a record number of topics for farmers, with 15 tours that featured 55 sessions presented by nearly 90 university researchers and industry leaders. In addition to the traditional tours of test plots of no-till corn, soybeans, and cotton, the revamped field day presentations also included agritourism, livestock forages, wildlife habitats, and a demonstration on farm safety. “Although we’ve diversified the field day program, our goal remains the same as the first No-Till Field Day – says Blake – to provide farmers with in-depth information that will help them maximize productivity and exercise stewardship, says Blake. “The agriculture industry is constantly changing, especially with the demands of a growing world population. That’s why agricultural research and educational field days are so valuable.”

Sixteen tours are planned for this year’s event with topics that include strategies for no-till production, resistance management, beef cattle production, nutrient management, cover crops, precision agriculture, fragipans, and forestry. Attendees can also view demonstrations on crop variety and an outdoor forestry sawmill and even help the community by assembling meals for local food banks at the “Farmers vs. Hunger” tour.

Each tour includes three or four 20-minute research-based presentations related to the same topic. Typically 60 to 80 minutes in length, the tours run continuously beginning at 7 a.m. through 2 p.m. Visitors can also enjoy a large tradeshow or a walk through the West Tennessee Agricultural Museum, which features an extensive collection of agricultural artifacts.

“The No-Till field day is a great example of the Land Grant University working as it was designed — recognizing needs, researching alternatives, and providing solutions to improve lives,” says Dr. Tim Cross, chancellor of the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “The impact of the field day is hard to precisely measure, but it’s clear that no-till technologies have resulted in significant reductions in soil loss while improving crop productivity, and the Milan No-Till field day is without a doubt the premier venue for learning about all these technologies and how to adopt them profitably and successfully.”

For more information, including a complete list of this year’s tours and directions to the field day site, visit the website: You can also check out the Milan No-Till page on Facebook for the latest updates or call 731-686-7362.

The AgResearch and Education Center at Milan is one of 10 research facilities operated by the UT Institute of Agriculture. In addition to its agricultural research programs, UTIA — which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — also provides instruction research and public service through the UT College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, and UT Extension offices in every county in the state.

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