Sustainability Trendsetter: Tennessee Farmer Works Many Angles

May 14, 2018

By Barb Baylor Anderson • From Spring 2018 American Soybean Magazine

David Womack is a long-time believer that promoting markets overseas in Asia and other areas contributes to the sustainability of U.S. soybean production. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC)

David Womack has spent his career as a cutting-edge soybean farmer and industry leader. While the Shelbyville, Tenn. producer has retired from row crop production, he still runs a few cows and remains an advocate for promoting soybean industry sustainability on many fronts.

“I started no-tilling soybeans in 1973 when it was a relatively new concept. My dad told me he didn’t think it would work,” Womack said. “At first, it didn’t work. But we learned a lot of lessons along the way and were able to profitably no-till soybeans after some trial and error.”

Farming longevity runs in the veins. The Womacks have farmed in the area since 1936, first with a grade A dairy, beef cattle, hog production and row crops. The Womacks left the dairy and hog business about 1980, and stuck with soybeans, corn and wheat and the cow-calf operation. They still have some cattle. Fourth-generation David Jr. now raises the corn and soybeans.

“When we first tried no-till, like most new things, we farmers shared ideas and attended no-till field days. We looked to the University of Tennessee for advice,” Womack said. “We did not have the chemical arsenal then to manage no-till. Conservation included stopping soil erosion by cutting up cedar bushes and putting them in the gullies to stop the water.”

He added he never liked to cultivate.

“Farmers are conservationists,” he said. “We depend on the soil for our profitability. The only time my son disks the soil now is to smooth it out and plant cover crops as another sustainable practice. All of the crops are still no-till.”

Womack said his son has only enhanced the farm’s sustainability using modern equipment and computers. David Jr. placed second in the no-till, non-irrigated corn class yield competition in 2017, only-one-and-a-half bushels below the category winner’s yield.

“That is proof no-till still works profitably. With better chemicals, it is successful,” Womack said.

Womack tells others that sustainability is also profitability. “If you can make a profit, then you should grow it,” he said. “My advice to farmers is to try a new sustainable practice on a few acres only because input costs are so high. You can’t make many mistakes and stay in business.”

For more than 30 years, Womack has been involved in soybean research and promotion. He was a director for the Tennessee Soybean Association and Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board, as well as for the United Soybean Board, American Soybean Development Foundation and the National Biodiesel Board.

“Seeing research we helped fund over the years have practical use on our farm is a pleasure,” he said. “But sustainability extends beyond just profitable production practices. I was on the board when we first developed biodiesel to use up surplus soybean oil. That is also sustainability. And now export markets are just as critical. Soybean associations and checkoff programs have helped develop export markets, and we must continue to grow those opportunities.”