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Thursday, November 03, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Digging for Roots, Day 3 - part 1

ARKANSAS DELTA COUNTRY—"Blytheville, Arkansas,"  Jeanne insisted.  "Grandmother always mentioned Blytheville, Arkansas.  Maybe we'll find her grandparents there."  We've been talking about Blytheville for a number of years.  Today we'd finally start our search there.  But first we had to traverse the Arkansas Delta from Monticello northward.

If we had any doubt about the primary industry of the Delta, driving up US-63 erased all questions.  This rich alluvial soil begs to be cultivated, and Arkansas farmers are glad to comply.  Thanks to our mother's agricultural knowledge produced by a farm upbringing, we were able to identify and have close encounters with a variety of crops as we traveled north.  

Rice field near Wabbaseka, AR
Rice, we learned, is picky about where it grows, and the Arkansas Delta has the right combination of soil and climate for commercial rice production.  Traditionally, rice fields are flooded after young seedlings are planted.  This not only provides irrigation but discourages the growth of weeds unable to tolerate the water and deters vermin that might offer unwanted help with the harvest.  More than 90% of the rice consumed in the U.S. is cultivated domestically, and Arkansas is the nation's largest rice producer, growing almost half of the American crop.

(Photo from Wikipedia)
The area's vast rice fields, flooded in the off-season to prevent erosion and preserve soil nutrients, coupled with natural wetlands play winter host to a large population of North American mallards.  The ducks and other waterfowl thrive in this hospitable resting and foraging habitat.  Of course, this population attracts thousands of duck hunters annually, and a premier waterfowl sports outfitter makes its home in the area.  And local young ladies vie for the honor of Queen Mallard and Junior Queen Mallard at the annual "world championship" duck-calling contest in the town of Stuttgart, named by its German immigrant founder for a familiar city back home.
Near Stuttgart, the self-proclaimed "Rice and Duck Capital of the World," our intrigue got the better of us when we came across Stratton Seed's 800,000 bushel bulk storage facility. We visited the office there to learn more.  Formed by a World War II veteran in 1948 with one small seed cleaner in an old wooden rice mill, Stratton Seed Company has steadily increased its activity and capacity, becoming a major player in the seed processing industry.  The company contracts with farmers in several states to grow soybean, wheat, and rice as seed crops.

Stratton Seed
The world's largest miller and marketer of rice for consumption is also located in the small burg of Stuttgart (pop. 9,326).  Founded in 1921, Riceland Foods is an agricultural cooperative with 9,000 member farmers and sales of more than $1 billion annually. 

Soybean field near Blytheville, AR
Though Arkansas may be the star of the rice industry, more than three million acres of Arkansas farmland (2.5 times the rice acreage) are devoted to the growth of soybeans, which generate only slightly less revenue than rice.  Like rice farms, soybean production is concentrated in the moist alluvial plans of the eastern portion of the state.  Soybeans account for 25% of Arkansas' agricultural production, but the state's output lags well behind soy hotbeds like Iowa and Illinois, putting Arkansas in 10th place in soybean production nationally.

Soybeans are harvested with large combines, which simultaneously harvest the beans and separate them from the pod.  Since the green plants will clog the equipment, farmers depend on Mother Nature to kill most of the foliage with a hard freeze before the beans are harvested.

Cotton field
Another crop we saw in abundance was cotton.  In the U.S., only Texas and Mississippi produce more cotton than Arkansas.  From a farmer, we learned about the latest in cotton harvesting.  Traditionally, picking machines have been used to pluck the cotton from the open bolls and deliver it to boll buggies pulled by tractors.  The buggies carted the cotton to stationary module builders set up in the field to bale the cotton.

Now there's a picker machine that does the work of all those, compressing and baling the cotton as it goes and dropping the bales at the end of rows to be picked up for transport to the gin.  No boll buggies, no tractors, no module builders, no tarping and no employees to operate the equipment.  One person can do it all.  And this incredible machine can be had for only $700,000.

Sticker shock?  Not when you consider the cost of the buggies ($70K), the module builders ($100K), the tractors ($185K) and the traditional picker machines ($300K) that this behemoth replaces.  Of course for those of us who are accustomed to automobile sticker prices, these numbers make a Lamborghini Aventador seem pretty reasonable with an MSRP of $387,000.  In defense of the Deere, though, the Batman car doesn't look as if it would pick too much cotton.

My, oh my, we do digress.  Yes, we did make it to Blytheville today.  But that's another story for another post.  Meanwhile, we didn't find any lost relatives in the Arkansas Delta but we certainly learned a lot about agriculture.

More Crop Photos

Jeanne harvests rice the combine left behind
Don't miss the duck calling contest in November!
Stratton Seed employee patiently satisfies our curiosity.
Soybean combine with 35-foot header joyriding on US-79
Persimmons, anyone?