John Pike pauses outside the main building at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. Tucked into Pope County, in the southeastern tip of the state, the center is the largest ag research facility of its kind in the eastern U.S.
John Pike pauses outside the main building at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. Tucked into Pope County, in the southeastern tip of the state, the center is the largest ag research facility of its kind in the eastern U.S.
SIMPSON, Ill. — No-till farming is as commonplace across the country today as tractors with enclosed cabs. Many may be surprised, however, that it all started in an out-of-the-way corner of southern Illinois.

The Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in Pope County is considered the birthplace of no-till farming in the U.S., as research led by University of Illinois agronomist George McKibben paved the way for the increasingly common practice.

“Dixon Springs was where no-till farming originated. This is where it all began,” said John Pike, who heads up the crop sciences research department at the facility. “They built the first prototype no-till planters that were used anywhere. Everything that we do here today, with the exception of some studies that require tillage, is no-till.”

5,000 Acres

The ag center is the largest of the university’s five research stations, comprising nearly 5,000 acres, much of that leased from the National Forest Service. It is the largest experimental station of its kind east of the Mississippi River, according to the university.

The center also is home to one of the largest beef cattle research stations in the eastern U.S., with nearly 1,000 head of cattle.

The Shawnee National Forest is more prominent in Pope than any other county, with about 46 percent of the county’s acreage owned by the federal government. That has presented some challenges for research at the center, especially after the government banned the use of pesticides on Forest Service land.

“We can put some fertilizers on, but we can’t use any herbicides, insecticides or fungicide products that we need to do in our testing,” Pike said. “That has hampered things through the years. Those first no-till plots that were in play for 28 years had to be abandoned because of Forest Service regulations. For years, they farmed a lot of the Forest Service ground here.”

In response, the crop sciences department conducts much of its research on university-owned land. In addition, some research is done on private land rented from neighboring farmers.

Much of the cattle herd is located on federal land. The ban on pesticide use created a problem several years ago when an armyworm infestation wiped out several pastures, forcing staff to replant grass.

The center also has a bustling horticulture research component, as well as the Illinois Forest Research Center, which serves as an educational and outreach vehicle. The center hosts an annual field day in August and is a summer home for a number of U of I students who work as interns on research projects.

1934 Start

In operation since 1934, the center boasts a main building constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers from stone quarried from the region.

Its topography and geographical proximity to the university’s other research stations have provided valuable information for farmers. The northernmost of the state’s stations is in DeKalb, nearly 400 miles from Dixon Springs.

“We’ve got everything from the best soils in the country to some of the more challenged environments. That gives our crop science researchers a lot broader table to do their work than they might otherwise,” Pike said.

“The way the weather pattern comes through the southern part of the state, we get a lot of things that are blown up from the Gulf states that can be tested here that aren’t as prevalent when you get into central and northern Illinois.

“While everything that we see here isn’t necessarily a problem in the central and northern part of the state every year, those things can be a problem there. Illinois is a long state north and south. That gives a lot of diversity.”

The center faced an uncertain future a few years ago as budget issues threatened funding. But things have turned around.

“A lot of that has to do with support from the ag industry and farmers around the state,” Pike said. “There has been a lot of support for the work done here, not just with crop sciences, but with animal science and some of the natural resource programs.”