Science on the Farm

Using leading-edge technology and research techniques, this Southeastern Farmer of the Year works constantly to improve his farm and contribute to the advancement of agriculture.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Rory Doyle

What do you call a room with computers and microscopes? You know, a place where entomologists can crunch the data they’re collecting to better understand how to manage pests on farms? Most people would call it a laboratory.

But when that word comes up, David Wildy demurs. He’s got just such a room, tucked away on the back edge of his farm office, but, he says, “it’s just cabinets and places to keep microscopes and insect collections.” It’s a gathering point, really, he adds, for the scientists he invites to monitor his farm. David is humble enough about their presence to almost convince you it’s typical.

It’s not, of course, nor is David your typical farmer. At the 2016 Sunbelt Ag Expo, David was named the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. Ray Benson, an Extension agent for the University of Arkansas, nominated David in large part because of the farmer’s extensive collaboration with his university, as well as with Arkansas State University. “Much of the work on his farm is similar to what would be found on a traditional university research station,” Ray says. “We have more studies on his farm than on any other.”

David is not the first in his family to be honored for success in farming. Indeed, since his grandfather, Ed Wildy, arrived in the Arkansas Delta in 1914, every generation has earned accolades.

Learning to Learn

The farm was actually launched by Ed’s father—David’s great-grandfather—who lived in the Illinois Corn Belt and decided to invest in newly drained land in the northeastern corner of Arkansas. He brought in a tenant, who struggled, and soon considered selling off the land.

“And my grandfather said [to my great-grandfather], ‘Well, if you’ll give me the opportunity to go down and farm it, I’ll make a go of it,’” David explains. So, at 23 years old, Ed moved south on his wedding day. A hired hand had to clear a path through the trees so the young couple’s mules could get to the farm. “I’m sure that my grandmother wondered what in the heck did she get herself into,” David muses.

But soon enough it was clear: Fourteen years later, in 1928, Ed Wildy was named a “Master Farmer” by The Progressive Farmer magazine. Less than 30 years later, Earl—Ed’s son and David’s father—received the same award.

David credits his father with teaching him the value of research. Earl graduated from college in 1938, a less common choice for a farmer than it is today. More than the knowledge he gained at the University of Arkansas, Earl appreciated learning how to learn. “My dad always taught me that the way you’re going to learn is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you,” David says.

“So that’s kind of been my philosophy.”

Forward, Not Backward

David, now 64 years old, has farmed full-time since 1975, when he graduated from the University of Arkansas. He is a truly diversified farmer, willing to experiment. In the past he’s grown Christmas trees and chrysanthemums, rarities in the Delta, but today focuses on row crops, which include cotton, soybeans, corn and wheat, and, as of last year, peanuts and potatoes. The farm, now encompassing some 12,000 acres, also has a small cattle herd.

The choice to turn a large-scale farm into a research center can slow down farming at times, with control plots planted and everything carefully measured. David suspects in some instances the varietals they test have resulted in slightly lower yields. “But it’s not significant, and we just feel like being on the cutting edge of new technology is very beneficial to us,” he says. “The day we quit trying to bring in new technologies is the day that we’re going to be going backwards.”

The research touches on many topics—from soil mapping to cover crops to irrigation frequency—but David is most proud of his farm’s role in the development of the COTMAN crop-management system, computer software that monitors cotton growth and helps farmers make the best possible management decisions. “The very start of that—taking it to the field—happened on this farm,” David says.

The software, first released in 1995, is now used across the world. “It provides a tool to determine when we can economically terminate end-of-season inputs, such as insecticides and irrigation, and helps with timing of defoliation,” explains Kristi, David’s daughter-in-law, who served as a plant mapper and data collector for the program.

A Family Endeavor

The farm’s name—Wildy Family Farms—indicates why David cares so much about farming carefully and sustainably. “I was taught early on that we’re only here for a short time,” he says. “We want to leave the farm and the environment to the next generation in better shape than we received it. So, if there’s anything we can do to fix that, or help that or improve that, that’s what we want to do.”

David has four children—sons, Justin and Tab, and daughters, Hayley and Bethany. Both sons, along with their brother-in-law Paul Harris, help manage the farm. Each family member has his or her own specialty, which means there is a lot of knowledge to track and share.

Throughout all the change, David remains aware that what is cutting edge now will be commonplace soon. “My mind just can’t imagine what we’re going to be seeing in the future,” he says.

He’s glad, though, that because he’s welcomed innovation, he’s set up the next generation to roll with that change. “It’s going to be so much fun for these young guys to be able to embrace that and to bring that new technology to the farm.”