It’s a truism but stories on agriculture tend to focus on what is happening in the field. Fields are prepped, seeds are planted, fertilizer applied, insects scouted, crops harvested. That’s all fine, except when the infrastructure linking all those necessary components is neglected.
At the center of that web of infrastructure is often your friendly, neighborhood farmer co-op. And, it turns out, many of those co-ops are currently proactively reassessing business plans in an attempt to solidify financial footing and bolster drawing power.
Associated Farmers Cooperative in prospering Conway sits just a block off the main highway between the central-Arkansas city and Little Rock, which is some 20 minutes away. There is nothing rural about the co-op’s location. Heavy traffic moves on the surrounding streets as a handful of co-op board members, visiting in a back office, shed light on the evolution of the business.
The store was built in the 1970s after moving from downtown (then known as Faulkner County Cooperative) where it had been since the 1950s.
“It’s just another sign of transformation, I guess,” says Chris Schaffers, row crop farmer and cattleman. “The store moved to a more rural area. Now, this will be downtown before long.”
Cattleman Robert Clark remembers the downtown store. “It was near the Conway Theater. There were two other stores catering to farmers close. There was a sales barn right down the road, as well.”
A big mix
The men describe Faulkner County’s agriculture scene as very mixed.
“There were a bunch of cattle through the 1980s,” says dairyman Matt Simon, co-op president. “I remember west Conway had cattle all over it. Now, there’s nothing there but houses. Greenbrier, just north of here, is the same way. It took longer for it to take root there, but cow pastures are now yards for houses.”
As far as row crops, “farmers here grow rice, beans, corn, wheat and milo,” says Bill Dodgen, a retired Extension agent who has been in the area for 30 years. “There are also vegetable farmers and a couple of peach and apple orchards – primarily peaches. They also grow table grapes and blackberries.”
Conway is a rapidly expanding suburb of the capital city. A sign of the times: until recently, a major, bustling livestock sales barn operated just up the street. “It was unbelievable. They were so busy, you could be over there buying cows at 2 a.m.,” says Clark.
A Sam’s Club is now being built on the site.
The suburb dynamic has been in play since the mid-1970s, says Simon, “but it really kicked off in the early 1990s. We saw an urban boom and farmland was developed.”
“Things change,” Clark agrees. “At one time, Conway had half a dozen gins. Faulkner County had 23 gins! By 1965, I can’t remember there being a functioning gin. I think when folks came home from WWII they’d decided they wouldn’t be raising 20 acres of cotton.”
Area row crop acreage is now mostly in the Arkansas River Valley and bottoms. When Mother Nature shakes her fist, the bottoms aren’t always a good place to be.
In 2015, “the weather didn’t do us any favors,” says Simon. “The water got so high and was up so long that it was a disaster for lots of folks. It shut the bottoms down. The southwest part of the county, took a big hit, as well.”
High water hit Schaffers’ operation in the spring and “we lost all our wheat. We had to move cattle to higher ground. We also lost our corn and milo. The corn was waist-high and the milo was just coming up. Everyone was trying to cut the hay that was ready to harvest before water topped it.
“We farm a lot in Perry County on the Fourche River. We laid out 900 acres – it was never planted -- that was going into rice. We usually have about 500 acres of rice and ended up with 80. The only reason we had that was because we flew about 150 acres of rice (seed) into floodwaters. Eighty acres of that took. I was pulling rice levees in the last week of June.
“We made a decent bean crop after we’d planted the corn and milo ground that was flooded out. Other than that, though, it was a tough year, slim pickings. There were farmers around here that didn’t get any crop out.”
Very little of Simon’s land goes underwater. “But we had to replant all our corn simply due to excessive rainfall. That should tell you how much rain we got.”
Since Simon is operating a family dairy, row-crop acres are tied to corn. “In a decent year, we can feed our cattle and also have some surplus to sell. This year, though, we barely had enough to feed the cows.”
The dairy milks about 200 cows. For feed, it takes about an acre of corn per milking cow.
When Dodgen arrived in 1986, there were 53 dairies in the county. There are now two. Simon confirms the dairies remaining in Arkansas don’t produce enough milk to fill the state’s demand.
“I don’t know if we survived because of determination or ignorance,” says Simon when queried about the shuttering of so many dairies. “We have a family operation of three brothers and our father. There’s enough ground where we can grow the feed the cows need. We made a commitment to try and ride the bad times out and, so far, it’s worked.”
The co-op is in the process of cleaning up its membership list. “A lot of our members came on in the 1970s and then got out of farming,” says Hodges, who came to his current job at the start of the year. “We still have a healthy number of members.”
The importance of co-ops shouldn’t be understated, says Dodgen. “This store is a big plus for farmers. Farmers need things to operate. Where else will get what they need? Many already have to come from far away.
“It’s different here. In the Delta there are farm stores here, there and yonder. There just aren’t many around here to get your chemicals, seed and all the rest. The cattleman relies on the co-op for his supplies, as well.”
Since the area isn’t as agriculturally-based as east Arkansas, “there are obviously fewer farmers,” says Simon. “Well, to keep the co-op viable we have to pull together to maintain a place where we can buy items in bulk.”
Is there a long-term plan to draw in more members and customers?
“Yeah, that’s a major goal for us and Scooter is well aware of it,” says Simon. “Change can be tough but it isn’t a bad thing. We’re happy here and that’s going to continue.”
As with other co-ops, Simon says Associated Farmers Cooperative has learned how much SF Services is missed. “Print that. They’ve been out of here since around 2000 and 15 years later we’re being pushed to take major steps to survive. When they left, the buying power left too. We were leaning on them very hard. We need better buying power – that leads back to sticking together.”
Schaffers agrees. “We have to keep ahold of the American dream. At this point it can’t be solo. We have to be united.”
“During tough times like these, it’s a must,” says Hodges. “Everything is going to be alright but you don’t need to be shuffling around. You have to tie yourself to someone and stick with them.”
A shrinking number
There are a shrinking number of co-ops in Arkansas, says Hodges. “Most are looking to become more diversified. The same is true here: bulk fertilizer, feed, sporting goods, everything for backyard and hobby farming. Folks come in here and they get friendly, personal attention.”
And central Arkansas has a burgeoning group of backyard farmers and hobbyists. The co-op welcomes them wholeheartedly. “Lots of urban people are coming in,” says Hodges. “The walk-in traffic is very good and we only want that to grow. People have really gotten interested in their food. We sell gardening supplies, horse feed, goat feed, rabbit feed, the whole ball of wax. Sometimes it seems everyone is putting a little chicken coop in the backyard.”
Several farmers markets have taken off in the city. “The Extension office here began a horticulture symposium a few years ago,” says Dodgen. “They’ve really done well and point to how folks are getting involved in agriculture.
“There are also part-time cattlemen here. It’s hard to reach them. There are so many of them, actually, that (Extension) pasture field days are going to be held on Saturdays. They aren’t able to get off from their day job to attend and get the information during the week. If we can point them in the right direction and give them a base of knowledge, that’s a huge step.”