by Rob Anderson | Photo by Carlee Buckner
Bob Shofner gets a lot of phone calls these days – some are pleasant, some are angry; some are early and some come in the middle of the night; and sometimes they’re from law enforcement. It can get a little hectic, but he’s used to it now. It’s all part of farm life in the suburbs.
Shofner is a rancher with a cow-calf beef operation in Centerton, just west of Bentonville, and his home and farmland are almost completely surrounded by neighborhood developments.
“It’s just exploded. Never in our wildest imagination in the early 80s, would we have dreamed we’d be where we’re at today,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a blessing and a curse. If you’re trying to do a farming operation, it’s not good. If you’re wanting to sell out, it’s fantastic.”
Shofner is addressing the unique facts of life for farmers in the Northwest corner of Arkansas, particularly in Benton and Washington Counties, two of the three most populous counties in the state. Both counties have a rich history of agriculture. In fact, according to 2017 USDA statistics, Benton County is tops in the state for cattle/calves, and Washington isn’t far behind. Benton County is also first in the state for milk cows, laying hens and broiler chickens.
“We are still one of the highest-producing agriculture areas of the state, but we’re in this urban-rural interface now,” says Shofner. “We’re constantly dealing with the rural-urban issue.”
Valuable Real Estate
Shofner has a very good understanding of the issue. Not only is he a farmer whose property is right in the path of major development, he serves on a regional planning board and works for Tyson Foods, one of the major employers in the area.
“I’m still sitting here kind of in an island on my own,” he explains. “I have a bigger farm over at Pea Ridge and I’m in the same shape there, with subdivisions on three sides.”
The most fundamental issue, Shofner says, is the growing price of land in the area and the impact that has on the economics of farming and planning for the future. While owning valuable property can be a boon to farmers interested in retiring and getting out of agriculture, it complicates things for those still actively engaged in farming or planning to hand over farming and ranching operations to the next generation.
Shofner says he and other farmers realize they are “blessed” to be in an area where land values have gone up, but that they also feel “cursed” because “you can’t expand and pay for it with what you make from production agriculture.”
“It changes long-term views about what we’re going to do, particularly in terms of passing the farm down to the kids. You’ve got to weigh all the options,” he says. “When you compete against a developer for a piece of ground – if you’re still trying to farm it – the math just doesn’t work.
“If you’re doing farm-to-market or farmers’ markets, and that stuff, it’s great because you’re close to the access points. But, if it involves land for running cows or row crops or forestry, you might as well forget that in this part of the world.”
For some, he says, this means that thinking shifts from continuing farm operations to seeing the land as an investment to hold onto for a few years before selling at the best price.
Cassie Davis owns a dairy farm in Washington County with her husband, Scott, and she agrees with Shofner on the challenges created by growing demand for land.
“The biggest issue so far is land value,” she says. “I can’t possibly cash flow more farm land. It really kills the desire for expansion because it’s just not realistic.”
Generational farming, she says, is in danger in the area, as more and more choose to sell their land.
“As the urbanization is moving out, people are selling out because prices are good,” says Susan Anglin, who owns Anglin Dairy in Bentonville with her husband, Ryan. “Aging farmers are another part of the issue, because they aren’t being replaced. It was already hard for young farmers to get into the dairy business and with land so expensive, it’s even more challenging.”
Both Davis and Shofner point out that the land issues are just the beginning. Growth, they say, means more infrastructure needs, the potential of more regulation and more interaction with the non-farming public, which can be either positive and encouraging or a new source of stress in an already stressful field.
According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Northwest Arkansas, or the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area, grew 2.3 percent to a total population of 537,463 during the one-year period from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017. These Census population estimates, released in March, show that the area gained nearly 34 people per day after factoring in births, deaths and migration, during the one-year period. From 2013 to 2017, the population rose 9.1 percent, from 492,739.
For many farmers in the area, the signs of this population boom are most evident in the increased road traffic, which causes logistical problems for their daily operations.
“Traffic is huge. It’s not safe. We typically get on the highway to move (equipment and materials) from field to field,” explains Anglin. “Used to you could plan your times – early in the morning or late in the evening to move – but now there’s no good time. There’s always traffic.”
Anglin points out that the infrastructure for dairy operators has changed substantially in recent years, due in large part to the dwindling number of dairy farms in the area.
“In 1985, there over 300 dairies in Benton County alone. We are probably closer to 12 or so now, so it’s a big difference,” she says. “We used to have a lot of feed, service and support providers for dairy around here, but now we have to travel for parts, equipment and supplies.”
Nearby Fayetteville is the primary place Anglin and her husband travel for supplies, but this is no longer an easy errand.
“It’s not 10 minutes to town anymore. It’s 35-45 minutes or an hour just to get down there sometimes. If I’m going to Bentonville, I better allow 20 minutes to go six miles and that’s at a good time of day,” she says.
Inconvenience aside, Anglin believes safety is the real issue with the increasing number of cars on the road, and she points out that most are “driving way too fast and they have no regard for tractors.” Shofner, who was struck from behind by a truck while driving one of his tractors on a nearby highway a year ago, also believes traffic safety has become a major issue for local farmers and ranchers.
“If I hadn’t been in my big cab tractor – if I’d been in one of my little John Deere’s – I might not be around today,” he says. “When you’re moving farm equipment, you’re a low-speed operation – you’re only doing 16-18 mph or so. And some of the roads are chancy – no shoulder, tight curves and things like that.”
Increased traffic is also a concern for Bill Haak, a former Arkansas Farm Family of the Year winner and another dairy operator in Benton County.
“You know, probably the most frustrating thing that I experience every day is when I go on these roads with my tractors,” says Haak, who also grows soybeans and has a sawdust and shavings business. “It used to be convenient for me to take a tractor six miles down the road, but now you better do it about 6 in the morning or about 7 or 8 at night, because in the middle of the day, it’s a zoo.”
Haak recalls a time when he “had traffic backed up for seven miles going down this road” and he said to himself, “okay, it’s time to change my ways. This is not good for the community.”
The increased traffic leads to other problems for ranchers in the area. Car accidents near farming operations frequently lead to fence damage, which, in turn, leads to escaped animals and alarming phone calls.
“We’ve had issues where someone runs into fencing and they don’t call you. It’s the state police that call you in the middle of the night, because you never want cattle on the highway,” Anglin says. “And, if someone runs into a fence and get caught, they don’t fix it because they don’t know how, so that’s up to the landowner.”
Anglin adds that the damaged fencing means an additional cost for the farmer or rancher, as well as more road trips to get the materials for fence construction. Meanwhile, Shofner notes that fence damage sometimes comes from other sources, like the development of new homes to house all of the new drivers in the area.
“We have a subdivision to the north of us and when they were building it and putting in electrical lines, some of the electrical guys decided they didn’t want the fence in the way and they tore out about 15-20 feet,” says Shofner. “I didn’t know anything about it until I got a call from the police saying, ‘We’ve got some cows up here on the highway and we think they may be yours.’ Then we had to go round them up.”
Like the area farmers, local business leaders recognize the infrastructure challenges a growing population and expanding development bring. Graham Cobb, president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, says that the area has done a lot to try to “get out ahead of the growth by building the best infrastructure to handle it,” pointing out work completed on several of the county’s busy highways and street interchanges. He says he understands the concerns voiced by the farmers and ranchers and notes there are still a number of projects in the pipeline “in terms of preparation and adjustment for the growth.”
Editor’s Note: This article was republished with permission by Arkansas Farm Bureau.