Chamber farm tour highlights region’s farming heritage

The Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce showed off examples of the area’s agricultural economy Tuesady including the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture and Fisheries program, Gavilon Grain and the Euseppi Brothers farm near Altheimer.

The chamber hosted its annual farm tour for about 30 members of its current Leadership Pine Bluff class Tuesday.

“It is important to have an event like this because it allows us to give an education to the future leaders that are part of Leadership Pine Bluff on the importance of agriculture to Jefferson County and how the price of farm commodities affects the incomes of businesses throughout the county,” said Richard Metcalf of Pine Bluff National Bank and chair of the Chamber’s Agriculture Committee.

“Agribusiness is worth more than $125 million per year to Jefferson County and that money turns over three or four times in businesses countywide. Agriculture is worth $4.1 billion statewide every year in Arkansas.”

Metcalf said that the agribusiness sector employs one in four or 27 percent of all Arkansans.

“The reason we do so well is that while we don’t have a large manufacturing sector we do have a big agricultural base,” Metcalf said. “When other parts of the country experience an economic boom we don’t necessarily have the same effects but when the rest of the country goes into a downturn we don’t go down as much. So our economy is not as cyclical as the economies in other parts of the country.”

Metcalf said that Arkansas is home to 50,000 farms and that 97 percent of them are family owned.

“In Jefferson County we grow soybeans, cotton, rice and corn,” Metcalf said. “Jefferson County has 253,000 acres of agricultural land with soybeans at 110,000 acres; rice at 59,800 acres; corn at 53,000 acres; wheat at 22,400 acres; cotton at 4,400 acres; and sorghum at 3,100 acres. Statewide there are 13.5 million acres of land dedicated to agriculture. Arkansas is number one in rice and poultry production.”

Ann Williams, director of the Chamber and executive director of Leadership Pine Bluff, said that incorporating the Farm Tour into the leadership program was an important step in educating the city’s business community about the importance of agriculture to the area economy.

“We want them to see the process from start to finish,” Williams said. “By giving them a closer look at the UAPB Aquaculture program they are able to see how important the facility is to the area economy.”

Participant reaction

Toni McCastle, media liaison with the 15% Set Aside program at UAPB, said that the tour opened her eyes to the scope of the university’s fisheries program.

“I was really surprised to know that UAPB is such a hub for the nation’s aquaculture industry,” McCastle said. “I was also intrigued by the diversity within the field of agriculture. It was interesting to talk to people with a business degree who are working in the agricultural industry. This is teaching me how to tie a skill set into a totally different profession.”

Scott Green, manager of The Pines mall, was impressed by the tour.

“I thought it was great,” Green said. “Day in and day out I just don’t have an opportunity to visit a farm. I had no idea aquaculture is as big as it is.”

Angela Turner, with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences-Area Health Education Center in Pine Bluff, appreciated the opportunity to get an up close look at the business of agriculture.

“I thought the tour was very educational,” Turner said. “Growing up I went fishing with my family but as a kid I didn’t really think about how everything works. This was a chance for me to see agriculture up close.”

Tour stops

The visit to UAPB included a tour of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries experimental station conducted by program director Carole Engle.

The second stop of the day was made at Gavilon Grain along the Arkansas River on Island Harbor Marina Road, where manager Kevin Storz led a tour of the facility.

Storz said that the company is planning to expand its facility to include a fertilizer operation that is scheduled to be in place by January of next year and continues to do everything it can to assist area farmers.

“We load barges from our terminal that are capable of holding 60 truckloads of grain which equals 80,000 pounds per truck,” Storz said. “Back when farmers were trying to get their harvest in before the hurricane came this summer we stayed open until 9, 10 or 11 to accommodate them. We try to take care of them.”

The tour visited Joe Euseppi, who is co-owner of the Euseppi Farming Co., a 5,000 acre farm near Altheimer.

Euseppi said that he is one of the few farmers in the area who still grows cotton.

“We have 1,500 acres of cotton that we are harvesting now,” Euseppi said. “The cotton picker we have cost us $646,000. The only way we can justify that expense is having a farm as large as ours is. A farmer with only 400 or 500 acres would never be able to pay off a piece of equipment like that. A good cotton crop for this area is 1,000 pounds per acre.”

Metcalf explained that the cost per acre for growing cotton is around $500 while the cost for growing an acre of soybeans is around $200.

The tour concluded with a barbecue lunch at the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service office provided by Cooter Failla that was hosted by Extension Staff Chair Dennis Bailey.