In the spring of 1994, Mike Wilson nervously sat down between two Ph.D.s in an Indianapolis convention center. “These two geniuses are sitting on each side of me, and I finished the exam 30 minutes before they did,” remembers Wilson of his CCA certification exam. “I remember sitting out in the hallway waiting for everyone else to get done, and thinking, ‘I must have screwed this up so bad!’”
And 18 years later, Wilson has been named the International Certified Crop Advisor of the Year, an accomplishment that validates his 32 years of crop advising experience and far-reaching contributions to the CCA program.
Wilson grew up on a family farm in Owensville, IN, a small town nestled in the Hoosier State’s southwest corner. Agriculture has always been a natural part of life for Wilson, who learned the basics of seed production at a young age.
After finishing high school, the Indiana native attended Purdue short courses on plant and soil science before returning to the family farm. For the next 13 years, he would continue to help manage the farm while working for the company his family raised seed for.
“I worked in all areas of seed production, from tillage, planting, herbicide and pesticide applications, conditioning, harvesting, grading, bagging, seed size. All of that,” says Wilson. “There’s not too much in the seed business I haven’t done.”
Specifically valuable was his experience in hybrid fields. “Dealing with inbred plants in hybrid fields was pretty extreme,” he says. “When something goes wrong, man, it goes wrong.” Working in that environment has helped Wilson learn how different plants react to different environments, a skill that would prove useful later as a crop advisor.
After leaving the family farm more than 20 years ago, Wilson found himself in ag retail as a crop salesman in Orange County, Indiana before ending up at Wabash Valley Service Co., Grayville, IL, where he’s been ever since.
Wilson is the specialty products coordinator for the agricultural cooperative, which serves more than 5,000 customers from 10 counties in Southern Illinois. “My primary job function is to look at how we can affect crop yield using what some would call unconventional means,” says Wilson. These include the use of foliar fertilizers, micronutrients, and variable rate planting techniques. He’s also working on developing a micronutrient plan designed specifically for Southern Illinois that would be the first of its kind.
One of the clients Wilson serves is Tom Marks, who operates a 2,200-acre corn and soybean farm with his father in Edwards County, Illinois. Marks says that their farm’s soil isn’t highly productive, and compensating with fertilizers can be a costly alternative. Wilson has helped him apply fertilizer more efficiently using grid mapping technology, which allows farmers to vary nutrient application to specific parts of their farm using GPS technology.
“By helping me, the grower, apply only the plant nutrients that are needed, I can continue to reduce the use of extra nutrients and save money that can be used on other areas of my farming operation,” says Marks.
Allen Rusk, Assistant General Manager at Wabash Valley Service Co., feels Wilson has found the right balance of applying newer technologies to existing farming methods, enhancing the more traditional practices instead of replacing them. “Mike is looking at things that are still sound agronomically, but are maybe a little bit more out of the mainstream,” he says.
Wilson credits his colleagues and company for supporting his research of more advanced agricultural practices. “They want to be on the cutting edge. They want us to be out there doing nonconventional things,” says Wilson.
As agriculture evolves and Wilson continues to experiment with new technologies in the field, he hasn’t forgotten about the role education will play in the industry’s future. “We start out with Agriculture in the Classroom through the Farm Bureau here in Illinois focusing on first through fifth graders,” says Wilson. “We bring important topics down to a level they can understand.”
Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) programs are implemented in every state, creating a network of individuals at the local level that seek to improve agricultural literacy among both teachers and students. Instead of introducing complicated farming concepts to the children, Wilson and other AITC coordinators apply agriculture to common, everyday things in the lives of students.
One aspect of their program involves sending coordinators into Chicago to educate children about where their food comes from. “We had the kids make a pizza, and explained how all of the different ingredients come from agriculture,” says Marks, who works with Wilson in the Illinois AITC program.
Wilson’s passion for education may have been a result from his own youth. The Illinois CCA never got a bachelor’s degree, instead opting to take short courses and continue working on his family farm. He’s now on the advisory council for the agriculture department at a local community college in Wabash County, where he encourages graduating students to continue their education at a four year college.
“We want these students to get their bachelor’s degree in ag business, plant and soil science, or whatever they want,” Wilson says. “But they need that degree, because not everyone is going to be as lucky as I’ve been.”
He certainly has set the bar high. Prior to being selected as the 2012 ICCA of the Year, Wilson was named the 2011 Illinois CCA of the Year. Receiving that award allowed him to reflect on the relationships he has built over the years, and how the CCA program has given back to him.
“There are 350 or 400 people in this room, and they’re all CCAs. They’re people I’ve known for 20 years and have an awful lot of respect for,” says Wilson of the Illinois CCA convention last December. “And they were recognizing me as a CCA of the Year. It was all very humbling.”
Wilson, who is a father of three and has been married to his wife Christine for 32 years, has been with the CCA program since its inception, and believes credibility has remained the program’s greatest strength after all these years. “Even though we’re working in an industry that is so profit driven, it’s important we maintain that integrity,” he says.
But while the values of the program have remained constant, the technological aspects of agriculture continue to evolve. “We have to continue looking at nonconventional ways to help improve crop yield,” Wilson says. “Because they are viable, and they will work.”