I was covering a marketing seminar in Greenwood, Miss., in March 1984 when Willard Sparks began talking about soybean prices. In his distinctive style, Sparks predicted sharply higher soybean supplies and said he wouldn't be surprised if November futures fell into the $4-per-bushel range by fall.
The audience, mostly Mississippi Delta farmers who had been selling soybeans for $7 to $9 a bushel a few months earlier, was stunned. There was a buzz in the back of the room before Sparks finished speaking.
As with many of his predictions, Sparks was right. November futures dropped to $4.75 a bushel before expiring. Many soybean farmers who had purchased land on the assumption futures would remain at profitable levels went out of business along with some of the federal land banks.
Although some blamed him for a self-fulfilling prophecy, Sparks, who died of throat cancer at his home in Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 30, was simply trying to warn farmers of the potential plunge in prices.
There's no doubt that Sparks, the founder of Sparks Commodities and the Sparks Companies, made a great deal of money. He was part owner of REFCO, one of the largest commodity trading firms on the Chicago Board of Trade.
He started Memphis-based Sparks Companies in 1977 after helping the late Ned Cook, another Memphian, put together major wheat and soybean sales to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. Sparks Commodities became one of the best-known market analysis and trading firms before he sold the company to British-based Informa Economics in 2003.
But he was also active in community circles, donating to area universities, including the University of Memphis and Mississippi State University. He did more than write checks, serving as chairman of the U of M's board of visitors until 2003 and chairing fundraisers for organization's like Mississippi State's Graduate School of Agribusiness.
Sparks was never in as much demand as some of his contemporaries, possibly because of his speaking style, which might best be described as “stream of consciousness.” (I gave a tape of one of Sparks' long, rambling speeches to one of the Farm Press secretaries once. She threatened to quit if I ever gave her another.)
But there was never any doubt he knew what he was talking about or that he was giving his honest opinion.
With Sparks' passing and the announcement of the retirement of fellow Memphian Billy Dunavant, we may be reaching the end of an era when the heads of major marketing firms would stand up and put their reputations on the line.
Not all farmers trusted their motives. More than one farmer standing in the back of a packed room has told me that he “just came to hear what Billy or Willard were going to do to the market.”
But it would be interesting to see how much money farmers could have made if they had followed the suggestions in their speeches over the last 25 years.