World War I had ended three years earlier and the public was dealing with the final throes of the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed millions around the world. Agriculture commodity prices had been volatile in the years following the war and farmers in the Arkansas Delta were searching for a way to collectively protect themselves.
Riceland Foods, an agricultural cooperative, was born in 1921.
The organization has played a key role in transforming Arkansas into the top rice growing state in the country and that will continue into the future, Riceland Foods Board of Directors Chairman Roger Pohlner said during the cooperative’s stakeholders meeting Thursday (Nov. 11) in Jonesboro.
“The future of Riceland is bright. Built on the backs of our ancestors, our founding members knew we were stronger together,” he said.
Riceland had sales of about $995 million during the 2020-2021 growing season, Riceland interim President and CEO Andrew Dallas said. That’s up from $868 million in sales during the 2019-2020 growing season.
Those sales increases were largely fueled by stronger commodity prices and increased demand, he added. About $600 million went as payouts to farm members, up from the $485 million farmers received the previous season.
Prices for long grain rice averaged $6.28 per bushel with Riceland, which was 61-cents higher than the U.S. Department of Agriculture national average. Medium grain rice traded at $6.84 a bushel, 99-cents above the USDA average. Riceland also paid out $11.09 per soybean bushel, a 29-cent increase above the USDA average, Dallas said.
Keynote speaker at the event, journalist, author, and political commentator Rex Nelson told attendees what Riceland achieved is no small feat. Shortly after it formed, one of the worst flood events ever recorded happened in the Mississippi River Delta Region in 1927. The “Great Flood” covered more land in Arkansas and displaced as many people as the flooding caused in Louisiana and Mississippi combined, he said.
That was followed by the Great Depression and then a historic drought in the early 1930s. Another flood enveloped the region in 1937 and served as an inspiration for several songs written by Johnny Cash.
World War II followed and then Arkansas went through its worst depopulation period since it was founded. From 1940-1960, no state lost a higher percentage of its population than Arkansas. At its height, the state had seven congressional delegates, but the loss of residents caused that number to drop to four.
A lot of the population loss occurred in the Delta where machines began to replace workers on the farm and many had to leave the state to find new jobs. This loss of population in the Delta continues to this day, Nelson said, and it could have consequences for farming in the coming years.
As urban centers, such as Jonesboro continue to expand, rural counties will have fewer people and will produce fewer legislators at the local, state and federal levels. That in turn will mean there will be fewer politicians in office with direct knowledge of agrarian or rural life, he said.
Riceland will have a number of unique challenges it will face during the next 100 years, and one of them will be to find a permanent president and CEO. Former President and CEO Danny Kennedy retired earlier this year and an effort to find his replacement is underway, Pohlner said.
A Denver-based firm, FCCS, has been hired and a CEO search committee has been formed. Applications for the position will be accepted through the end of November, with the first slate of interviews to be held in January. The goal is to have a new president and CEO installed by the end of March, he added.