To fully appreciate E. Ritter Arnold’s perspective on where northeast Arkansas is heading, you have to understand his connection to its past. This son of the Delta has a DNA that goes back four generations to his great-grandfather’s relocation from Iowa to Marked Tree in the 1880s.
At the time, Marked Tree was a timber camp. Arnold’s ancestor and namesake, Ernest Ritter, was recruited to the region as a telegraph operator. With an entrepreneurial spirit, he took an opportunity to invest in a general merchandise store and expanded into farming and a sawmill business.
He needed a way to keep connected to these different enterprises, and with the advent of a new invention – the telephone – great-grandfather Ritter invested in the new technology. Others took note and soon the business took off.
Ritter Communications is one of two primary commercial interests driving the Ritter Arnold family business. Ritter Communications has evolved from the old landline business, transitioned through cellular competition, and now involves cable and broadband services in 11 states.
Agriculture is another primary component of the family portfolio. That involves leasing farmland, a farm management operation, and a cotton gin. There is also some “experimental” work in raising flowers and berry crops. Additional enterprises that have come and gone include an auto dealership, a retail lumber company, and a crop inputs business. There are also a variety of important nonprofits in which Arnold and his family participate, including his status as immediate past chairman of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Talk Business & Politics CEO Roby Brock quizzed Arnold on what he sees on the horizon.
Roby Brock: How do you cope with the changes in the marketplace and understanding when something is definitely moving in a different direction? What’s the instinct that triggers that for you?
Ritter Arnold: That can be a very difficult thing to do. Change is not easy, and a lot times with change, you have to let go of things that you’ve been very comfortable with. For example, we used to farm a lot of our own ground in the past, but we found out that by co-oping with good producers, they could do just as good of a job for us as we could do for ourselves. I think you have to keep your eyes on the horizon and you have to watch what you’re doing each year. Sometimes trends will come at you pretty quickly. Sometimes they come very slowly. You definitely have to keep an eye on your business and look at what the numbers are telling you.
Brock: So let’s talk about the future of agriculture in the Delta. You have obviously transitioned some things in your business. Are we on the cusp of a major change in agriculture similar to the revolution we saw when machinery take over that aspect of farming?
Arnold: I don’t know that we’re on a cusp of any immediate sudden change, but I would call it just an evolution. I think ag has been evolving for 60, 70 years now. I think it’s going to keep on going. Something as benign as four-wheel drive harvesting equipment, you might think on the surface that wouldn’t mean a lot to the industry. But to your producers now, it means they can harvest, they can get back in the field almost no matter what the conditions and keep going. It didn’t used to be that way. We’ve got all these improvements that have been coming in the way of seed, growing techniques, certainly chemicals and equipment, I think that snowball of progress keeps getting bigger and bigger.
There was a time when I think being a producer or being a farmer meant just that, being a farmer. Today, I often think that the younger producers coming along are really more technologists than anything else. They’re taking advantage of new technologies in many different areas. I think the opportunity is always going to be there, but farmers and producers are going to have to equip themselves to stay in the game.
Brock: Let’s turn our attention to the Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas region specifically. What do you see as potential and dangers for the region?
Arnold: At least in Jonesboro, particularly Craighead County and Greene County right now, I think things are going extremely well. I would say we’re on the verge of actually running out of skilled labor if we haven’t done that already.
The chamber has efforts ongoing to help bring students that are in high school along, introduce them to modern manufacturing, and in many cases, get them to consider careers in manufacturing whereas in the past, a lot of those same students would have matriculated to a four-year college. There’s a terrific amount of opportunity in manufacturing, in industry. I would say that the challenge in the future is going to be equipping a labor force to satisfy the needs of industry.
If there is a concern, outside of Craighead County and Greene County, a lot of the surrounding Delta counties continue to lose population. I think that’s due to the continuing evolution of agriculture and the fact that we just don’t need the labor that we used to. I know Mark Young at the [Jonesboro] Chamber of Commerce has said that Jonesboro only really does well when all the surrounding areas also do well. I think the challenge in the future may be working together with some of the collar counties around Craighead and Greene counties to help them advance as well.
Brock: What would some of those advancements look like? Where do you see potential for a Marked Tree, for an Osceola, for a Walnut Ridge, places like that?
Arnold: I think every community has its own future. Marked Tree used to be its own economy. Just about anything that you needed was there. That has evolved. I think the future of Marked Tree is going to be a bedroom community for Osceola, Blytheville, Memphis, and Jonesboro going forward. Again, I think each community is going to have its own unique future. Each community has got to figure that out and then work towards fulfilling that vision.
Brock: You’re not going anywhere anytime soon, I presume, but do you think regional leadership is in place to handle the future?
Arnold: I’ve been very impressed by the number of people in Jonesboro that are very willing to give of their time and their talent to help move the community forward. I’ve watched a generation of leaders come and go. At one time, I was wondering where the next group was going to come from, but they are definitely there. Yes, I think a key to the future here in Craighead County is for folks to determine what they want Jonesboro to be and then trust in and work towards that common vision. It might mean some sacrifice on the part of some, maybe having to give up things, but the area’s definitely got a bright future.