The changing landscape
Ted Huneycutt Jr. is an anomaly in southwest Arkansas. He still grows row crops in an area dominated by poultry, cattle and pine plantations.
I’m driving Huneycutt’s truck around Clark and Dallas counties on a Friday, checking out the places my dad and I hunted quail when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. Those family farms that had small fields of soybeans, corn and cotton surrounded by weed borders are now pine forests and pastures. The quails are gone.
Huneycutt has approximately 3,500 acres of row crops. He brought cotton back to Clark County for the first time in decades. Its 300 acres of cotton were visible to those traveling on Interstate 30 between the Caddo Valley and Arkadelphia exits. A Huneycutt family farm near Daark had grown cotton decades ago.
“I started farming with my father in 1987 and then got into commodity trading,” Huneycutt tells me as we leave Arkadelphia, cross the Ouachita River and head towards Sparkman in Dallas County. “I became a stockbroker and we ended up having 17 brokers in our business. I sold the company five years ago. I still sell a little crop insurance, but I do mostly farming.”
Huneycutt’s father, who died in 2019 at the age of 74, was one of 14 children. His grandfather was one of 10 children. The family came to Arkansas from North Carolina in 1882. The farm near Dalark where Huneycutt’s brother keeps cattle was bought in the 1940s.
We drive through Sparkman, which still has three sawmills in operation, and past places I remember from half a century ago, such as the site of a juke shop near Daark which was known as the Silver Dollar Club. On this journey through time we talk about Huneycutt’s cultivation (he also grows soybeans, wheat and corn in addition to cotton) and his diversification efforts.
The Barn at Richwoods is a 6,300 square foot wedding and special occasion venue operated by the Huneycutt family. It’s a couple of miles south of Arkadelphia. The family will soon be opening Ouachita Valley Meats in Arkadelphia to sell premium cuts of beef, pork and poultry. Locally grown products are also sold there as the farm-to-table approach is becoming increasingly popular.
Huneycutt hopes Ouachita Valley Meats will gain a regional following and pull travelers off the nearby freeway.
When soybean prices skyrocketed in the early 1970s, investors from Clay County, far northeast Arkansas, bought and cleared huge areas of hardwood in the swamp of the Ouachita River south of Arkadelphia. The open fields made me feel like I was in the Delta, not southwest Arkansas.
Nowadays, Hot Springs’ Larry Ferguson is one of the few large farmers in the area who runs a highly developed farm east of Arkadelphia. After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1975, he had a successful career with Schreiber Foods, the world’s largest employee-owned dairy company. He was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin when he retired as Schreiber’s CEO in 2007.
In 2015, the Ferguson Family Foundation announced a large donation to OSU for the Ferguson Family Dairy Center. Last year the foundation crowned this donation with a donation of 50 million US dollars, one of the largest in school history. The OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources became the Ferguson College of Agriculture.
Ferguson obviously has the resources to run a model farm. But most of what I see as Huneycutt and I tour the back streets is the decline in small row crop farms. These cotton and corn fields were replaced by wooden, cattle and chicken coops.
This is the story of the western half of a state where cotton once dominated the economy. Before the Second World War, cotton gins were even practiced in mountain districts as they were often the only source of income.
Forests now cover nearly 19 million acres in Arkansas. That is 56 percent of the state. In the 1950s and 1960s, Arkansas lost 20 percent of its forest area. That changed in the 1970s when landowners in the mountains gave up row crops and started tree farms. Forestland, Arkansas has grown 1.6 million acres since I graduated from high school in 1978.
Almost 90 percent of the state’s woodland is in southwest Arkansas, the Ouachita Mountains, and the Ozarks. The most densely forested county is Dallas County (92 percent); the least forested county is Mississippi County in northeast Arkansas (6 percent).
Arkansas’ economy is the most forest-dependent of all the southern states, with 5 percent of the state’s gross domestic product dependent on forestry. The addition of these 1.6 million acres of wood over the past 43 years coincided with the explosion of the poultry sector in the state economy.
“While the 1970s were tough for the industry as prices fluctuated due to increased international competition and high domestic production, the 1980s saw unabated growth in the state’s poultry industry,” writes Brent Riffel for the Central Arkansas Encyclopedia of Arkansas Library Systems. “Tyson Foods continued to buy rival companies while securing lucrative contracts to deliver chicken to restaurants like fast-food giant McDonald’s.
“The industry has changed dramatically over the past few years. As companies consolidate, it has been found that the bargaining power of independent producers over large companies has gradually waned. Attempts to increase their leverage through the formation of associations and cooperatives have done little to stem this tide. “
Breeders signed contracts with the poultry giants. In 1982, Tyson Foods made the Fortune 500 list for the first time.
“By the early 21st century, poultry production had become an integral part of the Arkansas economy, and Tyson Foods – with plants and products in more than 80 countries – became one of the largest food producers in the world,” Riffel writes.
By the late 1950s, poultry had become the state’s second largest source of agricultural income after cotton.
“At the top was Tyson, which was fully integrated in the 1960s,” Riffel writes. “Companies like Tyson controlled virtually every aspect of production, from hatcheries to broiler retailers. Tyson built its first processing facility in 1958. John Tyson’s son Don dropped out of the University of Arkansas in the early 1950s to get a firsthand look at the business.
“In 1963 the company went public. Later that year it made its first major acquisition and bought Garrett Poultry from Rogers.”
The beef cattle industry also grew during these years as the dairy sector steadily declined. The industrial historian CJ Brown writes about the western half of the state: “The beef farm can be combined well with the poultry farms developed there.”
At least 30,000 farms across the state produce beef cattle, and more than 95 percent of those farms are family-owned. Arkansas is considered a cow and calf state, which means that farmers raise calves for sale to buyers who, in turn, grow them until they are ready to go to a fattening facility for slaughter.
There are numerous breeds raised in the state. The Arkansas Hereford Association was founded in 1918 and reorganized in the 1970s. The Arkansas Polled Hereford Association and the Arkansas Angus Association followed shortly after World War II.
These organizations were followed by the Arkansas Charolais Association in 1963, the Arkansas Simmental Association in 1970, the Arkansas Brahman Breeders Association in 1976 and the Arkansas Texas Longhorn Breeders Association in 1992. The Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association has published a monthly magazine that has served the industry since 1965.
Huneycutt and I continue our journey on the highways of my youth. The small fields are history. There are more pine forests, cattle ranches and chicken coops on every corner.
Rex Nelson is the chief editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.