Benton County farmers saluted by Gov. Hutchinson, Walmart for stewardship efforts

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 268 views 

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson talks with John Pennington, executive director of Beaver Watershed Alliance, at the Benton County Ag Day event held Tuesday (March 15) at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. Both men spoke at the event.

At $529.128 million, Benton County is first in Arkansas for value of agricultural products raised and sold annually thanks to 2,157 family farms in the county that quietly work the land amidst the buzz and limelight of a global retail headquarter.

Conservation experts, government and business officials agree that a long lineage of conservation practices by local family farmers have been a huge part in the fresh water that is so plentiful in this region.

About 150 farmers and agriculture advocates took part in celebrating National Ag Day at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. The event highlighted farm efforts in Benton County. Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) commended family farmers for their attention to conservation practices. He said growing up on a poultry and cattle farm in Gravette, he learned from an early age the importance of being good stewards over the land. He said Benton County leads in the state in its conservation efforts.

John Pennington, executive director for the Beaver Watershed Alliance, said the large percentage of agriculture land in Benton County is one reason the drinking water is in good shape before it ever reaches the treatment plant. He said no one takes better care of the land than the farmers who make their living from the soil. Pennington also said the water quality and abundance of natural water has been instrumental in facilitating the recent years of population growth in Benton County. He said with rising land prices more farms are being sold and that will likely have an impact on water quality in the future, which will mean more emphasis is needed on conservation for all segments of society.

Dorn Wenninger, recently named global vice president of global food sourcing for Walmart Latin America and an advocate for family farming, said the retailer wants to source more fresh food locally, an effort he’s been working on for the past five years in his former role of vice president for Walmart produce in the U.S.

Wenninger, one of the featured speakers at the Ag Day event, said fresh food and buying local is the trend and Walmart is helping facilitate that with $800 million worth of local produce purchased from around the country in states where it operates. In Arkansas he said the retailer’s local purchases of produce grown totaled $6 million. He said that doesn’t include Fayetteville blueberries sold in Jane, Mo., or Bartlesville, Okla. He admits that $6 million is not enough given that Arkansas, particularly Benton County, is rich in farm products.

He said the retailer is always looking to add supplier farms and even if the business starts small, there is proof it can grow along with Walmart, like Dave Sargent in Prairie Grove. This once-retired farmer has been selling his home-grown produce to Walmart for 15 years. Sargent started small with one-third of an acre and a decade later his 1,400-acre farm sells $1.5 million worth of produce to Walmart annually.

Living near downtown Bentonville, Wenninger pulls his two young children in a wagon to the local farmer’s market on the square each Saturday. He said buying local means fresher and though he’s often ribbed by his Walmart coworkers for shopping the local farmer’s market so regularly, he said there’s something about a farmer’s market experience, the sights and smells that continue to draw in consumers.

He said Walmart is working to create more of a Farmer’s Market experience in its produce departments. Over the past five years he was responsible for setting up regional produce centers in California, Texas, Michigan, Florida and soon North Carolina that help to get produce sourced more locally. In stores he said the company has invested in more chillers which are prominently displayed out front welcoming the customer in with items like berries or grapes, which have typically be kept at the back of the department. He said there are more personnel and department managers in produce departments now rotating and helping to ensure better freshness. Wenninger admits that other grocers used these techniques for many years with Walmart just catching up.

Brent Butler of Siloam Springs spoke at length on his family’s farming operation as Benton County Farm Family of Year in 2015. He and wife Rhonda raised their three sons on their small family farm, which they purchased from his family shortly after marriage 33 years ago.

Butler said they began with three acres on which Brent was raised. They added to that homestead so if their sons wanted to come home and farm they would have the opportunity. After completing college each of the Butler sons moved home, married and began working on the family farm which now has 37 poultry houses on 8 smaller farms which produce 40 million pounds of chicken annually. They have 825 acres over two farms spaced 15 miles apart and 250 of those acres are leased. Butler said they run about 275 head of mama cows, most of which calf in the spring or fall. The farm also supports six other families who work and live nearby

Butler said his young grandchildren, six of them under the age of 3, live nearby and spend time on the family farm, making the fifth generation of Butlers to enjoy the homestead they call Crestview Farms. Butler said the farm put in its own water treatment facility a few years ago with help from the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The farm also has comprehensive nutrient management plan for spreading litter, more conservation efforts to protect future water quality.

He said water pumped from wells on his farm is treated with basically the same process used at the city’s water treatment center. That water is pumped into the chicken houses which are all temperature controlled with some houses being 28 years old and some of them newer. He said each son has his own business on the farm to run. While they each have their individual strengths, he said the family still meets once a week after Sunday dinner at his house to go through their business plans and talk through any issues they are having or simply plan for future.

Hutchinson said shortly after he set up his lawyer’s office on the square in Bentonville, following law school, he and wife Susan purchased 15 acres in Gravette where they set out to raise their young family. He said despite working as a lawyer, he loved coming home and watching the kids pick raspberries which they raised on the farm. He said all across Arkansas there is a connection to agriculture. He said family farms need support from outside markets given that the state produces far more food than can be consumed here. For that reason he said new export markets like Cuba are important in helping the state sustain and grow its agricultural sales.

He said Cuba has opened for U.S. poultry but there are still hurdles for rice and other products given than Cuba can’t purchase from the U.S. on credit. This is just one hurdle he sees for this export market, noting that Cuban officials don’t really understand capitalism which will take a little more time.

Hutchinson said everywhere he goes on behalf of Arkansas business, whether Silicon Valley, China or Cuba he continues to tout all Arkansas products. He said China is buying Arkansas timber and maybe one day they will also want Arkansas beef raised in Benton County.

Benton County
No. 1: State rank in farm product sales
$529.128 million: Market value of farm products sold
2,157: Number of farms
995:  Farm workforce
54,700: Head of beef cattle
393: Number of poultry farms,
121.9 million: pounds of chicken sold