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Outside the box and into the mud

Pulling up to Tommy and Susan Conder’s farm just outside Judsonia, there’s little at first glance that makes it stand out from the countless other farms that dot Arkansas’ landscape.

But not far beyond the pastures where the Conders’ cattle grazes is a challenge waiting to be conquered.

A few years back, Tommy and Susan attended a Natural Resource Enterprise workshop in Stuttgart. Put on by the NRE program at Mississippi State University, the workshop was designed to spark the imaginations of farmers and landowners as to how their land could do more to make money than simply produce livestock, row crops or timber.

The wheels began turning for Tommy and Susan, who quickly recognized that there was a lot more they could do with the 800 acres of land in White County that they and one of Tommy’s sons own.

“Some people at that workshop,” Tommy said, “they were doing corn mazes and things like that on their land. We thought, ‘We’ve got other stuff we could do.’”

That “other stuff” eventually became an 8-kilometer obstacle course that spans a large portion of the Conders’ farm – most of it land not suitable for grazing, but perfect for mud pits, climbing walls, hay bale obstacles and water slides, just to name a few of the course’s features.

The Beast

Tommy and Susan recently took me and Program Officer Samantha Evans on a tour of the course, and although the temperatures were a fair bit cooler than they are in May when they hold their big annual competition – Mud Mayhem – it was easy to get a sense of the type of atmosphere that exists on race day.

“We really love people laughing and having a good time,” Tommy said.

But all the fun and laughter requires quite a bit of careful planning. It takes a staff of 20-30 to make the race happen, and they are trained for several weeks leading up to the event. Susan takes care of the planning and logistics - hiring and training folks from the surrounding area - while Tommy focuses on building and managing the course itself.

“I’m not a businessman,” Tommy said. “I’m a worker.”

Susan agreed and praised Tommy for his resourcefulness in constructing the course.

“If I can describe it to Tommy, he can build it,” she said.

The finish

Eight hundred acres is no small piece of property, and the Conders have imaginations big enough to fill it all and then some. Tommy admitted that in the five years they’ve held Mud Mayhem, they have yet to break even. But that’s only because they keep building and adding onto the course.

“We’ve sunk quite a bit of money into it,” Tommy said. “Would I go back and change that? No. We can still see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And they’re finding new and creative ways to diversify the potential of what they’ve already built. Tommy explained that most of the obstacles on the course are mobile. They plan to load a number of them up on trailers next year and set up a course at Portfest in Jacksonport. They’re looking at other opportunities to take their obstacles on the road, too.

But more important to the Conders than finding ways to make money off their land is the way they’ve been able to give back.

A few years ago, Tommy’s son Sean returned home after serving a tour in Afghanistan as part of the Air Force. Tommy explained how Sean’s unit was involved in combat and survived life-threatening situations.

“They came back pretty spooked,” Tommy said. “We wanted to find a way to help them feel normal again.”

So Tommy and Susan organized their first Heroes R&R, an experience they have since expanded to include members of the military, firefighters, law enforcement officers and health care workers – all those who serve on the front lines of emergency situations. The Conders organize excursions for these groups, which may involve camping, fishing, trap shooting or the obstacle course. They utilize the eight-bedroom lodge they’ve built for these experiences, and the results have been amazing.

After that first experience with Sean’s Air Force unit, Sean’s squadron commander told Tommy, “This has brought our squadron back together.”

Tommy and Susan are exploring grant money that is available to support the excursions, hoping that it will help them expand what they offer.

Parachute

For what looks like a standard 350-head cattle operation from a distance, Tommy and Susan Conder have built something spectacular. And it all started with the spark of an idea at a workshop for landowners.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is partnering with Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service to present a similar workshop here at the Institute on Thursday, March 9. The workshop, which is supported by the Arkansas Forestry Association, the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, will be geared toward landowners who produce timber, but all landowners are welcome and stand to gain some knowledge about income diversification, land management, the Farm Bill, legal issues and more.

Learn more about the Landowners Workshop by clicking here.

You can learn more about Mud Mayhem here or on the race’s Facebook page here.

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Annual meeting highlights opportunities and emerging trends in forestry

I attended the Arkansas Forestry Association’s (AFA) annual meeting held earlier this month in Fayetteville. Since 1945, the annual meeting has brought together professional foresters, private landowners, educators and forest researchers to exchange information on best practices and learn about the latest research and new trends in the industry. This year’s meeting unveiled growing opportunities for Arkansas’ economy and identified issues and trends affecting our greatest resources: forest and water.

Through a series of panel discussions and a riveting keynote from Tom Martin of the American Forest Foundation, participants engaged deeply in discussing the successes and challenges that affect our forest and timber industry. 

Tom Martin, executive director of the American Forest Foundation, formally kicked off the meeting by leading a call-to-action to educate the next generation by continuing to invest and collaborate in developing powerful stories that illustrate the social, economic and environmental benefits of using wood products. Martin highlighted a few policy initiatives his foundation is advocating, including the Timber Innovation Act and increased funding for wildlife management practices. Martin encouraged participants to actively engage in legislative outreach in order to educate their local officials on the significant contributions and strides the forest industry has made.

While we know forests play a critical role in both our economy and environment, did you know that for every dollar invested in forest management, $27 is saved to treat drinking water? Catherine Weisman with the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities showcased that through the Southeastern Partnership for Forestry and Water Quality. Arkansas is playing a critical role in creating clean, well-managed, healthy forests to benefit drinking water and local economies. The Southeastern Partnership is an innovative partnership among several states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Texas. These states forestry sector leaders and water utilities work together to answer the call to address various threats, such as population growth, climate change, timber markets and invasive species.

At standing room only, representatives from Canfor, Interfor and West Fraser joined a panel discussion to discuss why international companies are choosing Arkansas to invest. Due to the mountain pine beetle infestation and other factors, these three Canadian companies were attracted to Arkansas for its Southern Yellow Pine and workforce. As the housing sector continues to grow in the United States, these companies expressed an interest in expansion over the next few years in the South. Arkansas and these companies will need to prepare its workforce to meet these demands.

The meeting concluded with a unique showcase of AFA award winners and their contributions to the state. The awards ceremony was an illustration of the many impressive on-the-ground impacts that are a result of strong partnerships, innovation and thoughtful leadership from private owners and volunteers. It was remarkable to witness the Earl T. Smith family representing three generations accept their award for Tree Farmer of the Year and Lee Anne Fitzgerald discuss how she works with hundreds of volunteers in the Central Arkansas Log A Load For Kids program to raise more than $8 million for Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

The family legacies represented in the room were powerful, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is excited to begin working with leaders to focus on advances in the forestry sector as well as challenging issues facing the industry. As such, we will offer a landowners business workshop Thursday, March 9, 2017. The workshop, representing a partnership with Mississippi State University’s Natural Resource Enterprise program and the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, will inform owners of timber land about various income diversification opportunities. For more information, follow the link or contact me at sevans@uawri.org.

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The space between

The Cuba Consortium Agriculture and Food Roundtable was full of great moments.

The two-day event, held here at the Institute back in March, represented a partnership between the Institute, the Howard Baker Forum and Winrock International. It provided an opportunity for key leaders in the national conversation about normalizing relations with Cuba to share ideas, identify opportunities and map out the next steps that are needed to responsibly examine the issue of normalization.

The greatest moments didn’t come when Gov. Asa Hutchinson opened the meeting with a welcome address, in which he shared some of the things he learned about Cuba during his trip to the island nation last fall – though that certainly was a great moment.

They didn’t come when Minister Counselor Ruben Ramos Arrieta (pictured in the center above), a representative from the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., gave an impassioned, impromptu speech about the importance of understanding all sides of this issue and not simply assuming that the Cuban people have everything to learn and nothing to teach – though that was a particularly powerful moment.

They didn’t come when expert after expert illuminated the unique nuances of the issue so that all who attended left with a much better understanding – though those were important moments.

The greatest moments came in between sessions, when panelists mingled with attendees, when scholars, policymakers, farmers and government officials all shared their common interest in building a future that was good for Americans (particularly Arkansans) and Cubans alike.

And we’re beginning to see the fruits of those great moments.

Since attending the Cuba Consortium meeting, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward has been named to the consortium’s board. Ward will accompany our very own Dr. Marta Loyd and Janet Harris on a trip to Cuba next week. The trip, sponsored by the Arkansas World Trade Center, is designed to explore opportunities in agriculture, biotechnology and economic development.

In one of those side conversations at the consortium meeting, Arrieta had the opportunity to meet with an official from the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. UACC-Hope has the premier program in power plant management in the South, and since the March meeting, the school has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Cuban officials about possibilities for partnering on education programs related to energy. It’s still to be determined what will come of these conversations, but the seeds have been planted.

So while it was a truly remarkable experience to hear people like Gov. Hutchinson, former Sen. Tom Daschle and a slew of trade and agriculture experts give their thoughts on the bright future we might have with our neighbors to the southeast, it was even more remarkable to see in action the power of convening the right people with a common purpose.

Stay tuned, because this assuredly won’t be the last time we report about our work on this issue.

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Arkansas Grown: Connecting Arkansas consumers with Arkansas producers

The holidays are upon us and as we look at the winter season ahead, we may be missing the fun colors and activities of fall. You may have picked your own pumpkin, then your own Christmas tree. You probably enjoyed a hayride and some hot chocolate at a nearby farm. Most people seem to be able to find these types of adventures during the fall season. But what if you want to buy local produce all year, or you are interested in activities that may be available at a local farm during the winter and spring months? The Arkansas Agriculture Department has developed a great website and program called Arkansas Grown (ArkansasGrown.org) to connect Arkansas consumers like you with Arkansas producers and their business information.

The Arkansas Grown website allows any producer in the state to list their marketing information at no charge. Consumers are then able to search those producers by location, type of produce or homemade product and point-of-sale options. So if you live in Conway County and want to know what type of pick-your-own operations are nearby, you can apply those filters on the Arkansas Grown website and find the farm nearest you with a description of their operation from the producer. I had a great time searching through the hundreds of farms listed on the website, and I now have several weekends booked with plans to visit the nearby farmers’ markets and pick-your-own farms in my area.

In addition to the website, Arkansas Grown has a branding program that promotes Arkansas agricultural products. The “Arkansas Grown” mark is a registered trademark of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, so if you see that logo in stores, you can be assured that you are buying a product that was grown locally. The program also has trademarks for “Arkansas Made” and “Homegrown by Heroes” to help potential buyers locate products produced by Arkansans or produce grown by Arkansas veterans. With the recent push to buy local, this program helps consumers easily spot the produce and products in stores.

So if the cold, rainy weather of winter has you missing the fun of fall, just remember to check the Arkansas Grown website to plan ahead for your next visit to a local farm or farmers’ market!

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Workshops help landowners increase income through outdoor recreation

As a senior wildlife associate with the Natural Resource Enterprise (NRE) program at Mississippi State University, I get asked all the time by landowners about nontraditional ways of earning income from their land. I’m passionate about helping people find ways to increase incomes or build additional revenue from existing assets on their property.

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but outdoor recreation is a $145 billion industry in the United States. That’s billion with a “B.” It’s bigger than the entire motion picture industry and the entire airline industries combined. Did you know that nature tourism, including wildlife watching, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the outdoor industry?

These are just a few of the nuggets you’ll learn about during our workshops, one of which is scheduled for Sept. 24 at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. But those are just teasers. The fact is the bulk of what you’ll learn is:

  • Habitat management.
  • Ways to cost-share conservation practices.
  • Business planning.
  • Customer satisfaction.
  • Legal aspects of recreational businesses.
  • Estate planning.
  • Pitfalls of operating outdoor businesses.

The NRE program has engaged landowners in 10 states and two European countries with research-based information about wildlife and fisheries recreation. Since 2001, we’ve worked diligently to put together more than 200 presentations tailored at helping landowners navigate recreational business and increase incomes from outdoor recreation. Many of our attendees have bolstered previous revenue streams from existing recreational businesses.

Over the past 14 years, we’ve worked with landowners across the Southeast improving habitats for wildlife and fish. From coastal wetlands to the prairies, landowners are all trying to be better stewards of their land and use the latest habitat practices to increase populations of game and nongame animals. Many landowners also understand the advantages of fee-based access to these resources. Landowners are creative, and many have used a lease as their primary profit tool.  Leasing has been around for generations in many cases, and we’re not in the business of trying to increase lease prices on hunters and anglers, but we do try to help landowners understand the actual value of these resources. It’s about knowing what the market will support and how to key in on market indicators that show you how to valuate a property to recreationalists.

Of the landowners who have attended our NRE workshops in the past, 90 percent didn’t have a management plan before they came. A year after attending the event, these same landowners, when surveyed, reported an average annual income of roughly $14,000 on average of 800 acres from natural resource enterprises they established. Astonishingly, this was attributed to increased knowledge of habitat practices and information they learned about recreational business during the event.

Come see for yourself how you can make these ideas work for you. As I mentioned earlier, our next Outdoor Recreation Business Workshop will be Sept. 24 at the Institute. The focus of this workshop will be on land associated with cattle production. However, there will be information valuable to landowners of all types as well.

Registration ends Sept. 17, so be sure and sign up soon. Hope to meet you there.

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