Jeff Embry: optimistic in hard times

The sun is out in full force but the black soil outside Atkins, Ark., remains sticky after yesterday’s 2.5-inch rain.

To the south, between the imposing bulk of Crow Mountain and Jeff Embry’s 40 acres of pod-heavy, yet-to-be-harvested Croplan Group 5 soybeans, the swollen Arkansas River flows.

Across the road, a field of sunflowers — only weeks ago “so pretty you wouldn’t believe it” says Embry — are a blackening mat after being “steam-rolled” to the ground by hurricane winds.

To the north, just a mile or two distant, a Pilgrim’s Pride mill sits empty after closing in mid-August. If it were still open, Embry’s grain — like farmers’ grain from all over the area — would have gone to the mill.

Though the mill’s closing has him in a bit of a bind, Embry has more immediate mid-October concerns. “These beans should already be cut,” says the fit, naturally optimistic 50-year-old while picking a pod and popping a seed in his mouth.

“The rains delayed me and we had some trouble getting combine parts. I lack this field and another 15 acres being done. This field may cut 60 bushels. That would be pretty amazing after the weather these last couple months.

“We’ve just had too much rain. It never seems to come in half-inch doses — it seems we get 2 or 3 inches. Same story for much of the state, I hear.”

Along with his father, Gay, Embry works about 400 acres of row crops. “That small acreage is atypical for most of the state nowadays. We have another 120 acres in hay along with two poultry houses up the road in Blackwell.”

The demise of the Pilgrim’s Pride mill forces some difficult decisions during the off-season. “That small facility — maybe 25 or 30 employees — had a huge impact on this area: from farmers to chicken producers to local businessmen. It really has hit hard. Small farmers, big farmers were all connected with it in some way.

“Sometimes they’d be full and we’d have to haul grain to Danville or London (a round trip of 50 miles). But most of the time we could just truck them across the field and be done.

“Some of the mill employees told me they prefer local, Arkansas corn. It’s cleaner, more reliable in terms of quality and that’s what they want. When you get corn out of some big lot that’s been brought it from the Midwest, there’s no telling what it’ll look like. That corn may be from last year. Arkansas corn is typically straight out of the field and fresh.”

Where will he take grain now? A Tyson facility at Pottsville, Ark., is also an option. But to do business with Tyson, “you really need grain bins. They contract based on immediate needs, an X amount of bushels in a certain week.”

Like his farming neighbors, Embry is facing a much larger hauling bill. “Our plan was to buy a bigger grain cart. If no one re-opens the Pilgrim’s facility, I’ll probably be forced to find another truck, hopper bottom and grain cart. That would mean at least a $35,000 investment.”

And the loss of a poultry contract with Pilgrim’s will also be difficult to make up. The Embry operation is “all connected. We use the chicken litter to fertilize the hay. That may be gone, now.

“The situation has growers around here a bit hamstrung. I understand Tyson has picked some of the poultry operations up. Others haven’t been. I’ve spoken with farmers who are in serious debt and extremely worried about the future. There is story after story like that around here.

“But, let me tell you, even with everything going on, we’re fortunate to be here. We’re going to make it and everything will be better than ever. I have to believe.”

A reason

There’s a simple reason Embry is optimistic and thankful: he’s seen subsistence farming up close. It isn’t pretty.

“Man, seeing the poverty and conditions some farmers around the world live in can wake you up fast. I’m not downplaying anything happening here, but it isn’t close to what they’re facing overseas. We’re so fortunate to be Americans, you can’t believe.”

Through nearly a decade of volunteer work with Arkansas-based Winrock International ( and other non-profit NGOs (non-governmental agencies), Embry has made trips to Russia and central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to spread the gospel of U.S. agriculture. Embry’s diverse farming background has led to trips focusing on corn, soybeans, pasture and irrigation.

“I generally go over by myself and stay for two weeks. Some NGOs like for you to stay three weeks.”

His most recent trip, taken last spring, was “pretty typical and the focus was corn production. I was working with a UN development program. They provided all the logistics and carried me around to all these villages in southern Kyrgyzstan, near Uzbekistan. There’s a lot of corn production there, most all for animal consumption.”

South Kyrgyzstan is full of proud people and a “fascinating” ancient culture. But there’s no getting around the poverty.

“There were hardly any tractors there. In Russia, the farmers at least have some very old tractors to use. But south Kyrgyzstan used work animals and hand labor. One thing they have a lot of is labor — and everyone works really hard.”

The farmers he meets on trips “are very nice and interested in what we do here in the States. I give talks, or seminars, explaining U.S. production of whatever crop they need help with. You can see in their eyes the hope that they can do some of the things (done in United States).”

Embry got started with the aid trips when his wife, Darla, brought home an application from Winrock, where she works in the payroll department.

“It was out of the blue. I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ Turns out, there are recruiters and a database of volunteers they reference to fit expertise with need.”

Not long after, Embry got a call asking if he was willing to travel to Turkmenistan. I thought to myself, ‘Where? Turk what?’ I didn’t even know how to pronounce it back to her. I found out it was near Russia.”

Embry was game and says the experience was eye-opening. “It wasn’t always easy, but it was great. The ability to help those poor folks, to give them some hope, really is rewarding.”

For the swings through rural, “sometimes wooly” areas, a translator is provided as well as an agenda to follow.

“In some of these poverty-stricken villages, they seem to be intrigued just by seeing the weird foreigner, you know? Some of these places are so isolated they’re straight out of National Geographic.”

And if just seeing an American draws the farmers in, “great, because what we’re really after is educating them and providing ideas for how they can improve their crops and, in turn, their lives.”

Each country is different in terms of control. For example, “Turkmenistan authorities are always asking to see your passport and papers. Kyrgyzstan is the opposite. There, I didn’t even bother carrying my passport with me. But even in Turkmenistan, the authorities didn’t bother me — you’re in their country, you play by their rules. No big deal.”

When working with subsistence farmers, “if we can help them get even a few bushels more, that alleviates a lot of stress and worry for them. Just bringing awareness to the possibilities is important.

“Lots of times they don’t even know about fertilizing regimes or when a crop should be watered. They may not even know the symptoms a plant shows when it’s stressed — simple things U.S. farmers take for granted.

“You’d be surprised at how many don’t know even the basics. That’s especially evident with corn production. Farmers I met actually told me the corn plant needs to hurt for water to do well. They deliberately allowed the crop to suffer.”

Embry says differences engendered by culture, politics and religion can be overcome — especially in the cause of feeding people.

“Through these trips I’ve been educated, too. These are ordinary people just trying to get by. If we help them just on a subsistence level, it helps keep them away from the radicals. America is made up of good, helpful people. I’ve got a cousin who says, ‘I’d rather feed them than fight them.’ And he’s right — God bless us all.”

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