Magazine October 2019

Small Town Sensibilities, Big City Industry: Agriculture, Waterfowl Fuel Stuttgart

Small Town

by Ryan Nix

Stuttgart is a city of small-town sensibilities with big-city industry. Despite having fewer than 9,000 residents, Stuttgart internationally is known for being the home of two of the largest rice farming co-ops, Riceland Foods and Producers Rice Mill. Stuttgart also is famous as a world-class destination for waterfowl hunting, drawing thousands of avid hunters every season.

Driving into the city, Stuttgart’s rice mills and silos are visible from miles away, rising from the uniform flatlands of the Arkansas Delta to create the illusion of an industrial cityscape. Riceland is the world’s largest miller and marketer of rice, providing its 6,000 farmer-members with access to the worldwide rice and soy market. At its headquarters, Riceland directly employs nearly 400 Stuttgart residents along with an additional 200 mill employees driving in from surrounding areas each morning. 

“It’s just a great town with great people. Stuttgart has a lot more community activity and industry than a lot of similarly-sized towns.” Danny Kennedy

Danny Kennedy, Riceland’s CEO, is proud to call Stuttgart home. 

“It’s just a great town with great people. Stuttgart has a lot more community activity and industry than a lot of similarly-sized towns,” Kennedy says. “We’re proud of our hospital and our group of young doctors. We’re kind of a hub community for a lot of the south-central, eastern part of Arkansas, so our city has access to a lot of luxuries that a lot of other similarly-sized towns don’t have.”

Even though Stuttgart is a small city in east-central Arkansas, it’s still touched by the troubles and turmoil of the outside world. Specifically, Stuttgart has been affected by the trade conflict between the United States and China. 

“We’ve not yet sold rice to China,” says Kennedy. In fact, the Chinese market was closed to American rice until last spring, when a California company struck a deal to export 44 tons of rice to a Chinese importer. While the rice market has remained relatively undisturbed, the trade conflict has adversely impacted local farmers upon whom Riceland and many other agricultural co-operatives rely. “I couldn’t name one of our rice farmers who also doesn’t grow soybeans, and the higher tariffs have been really hard on them,” Kennedy says. 

Due to the conflict, Riceland has adopted a “wait and see” approach. “China provides a unique export opportunity,” says Kennedy. “Depending on future economic and political situations, we’d definitely be interested in entering the Chinese market.” 

While agriculture is the foremost industry in Stuttgart, the city also has a strong manufacturing element. Lennox Industries, a company specializing in HVAC equipment, has a large plant in Stuttgart. 

For more than 100 years, this serendipitous geography has drawn hunters from all over the country to Stuttgart’s 40 duck hunting clubs and public hunting areas.

“Lennox employs about 1,400 people, and make all the air-conditioning units for Walmart.” says Bethany Hildebrand, executive director of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce. Lennox, and other manufacturing companies like Delta Plastics and CAVU Aerospace, inject vital diversity into Stuttgart’s economy. Due to all this industry, Stuttgart has the fifth lowest rate of unemployment in the state, a mere 3 percent.

Also buoying the city is Stuttgart Unlimited, a local organization promoting economic and industrial growth. Since 2000, Stuttgart Unlimited’s 20 members contribute thousands of dollars each year to support incoming businesses, making it easier for new companies to enter Stuttgart’s market. 

“Stuttgart Unlimited works to support economic development in our community,” says Hildebrand. The association also find strategic ways to fund important community projects. “Most recently the city needed to update our tornado sirens, so Stuttgart Unlimited agreed to fund a large part of that, which really helped the city,” she says.

Even with this constant and varied economic activity, Stuttgart relies on duck season for its survival. In fact, Stuttgart is referred to as the “Duck Capital of the World” due to its location at the heart of the Mississippi Flyway being particularly attractive to wintering waterfowl. Three major rivers run near the city, which is surrounded by thousands of acres of flooded rice fields and bottomland hardwoods, providing migrating ducks and geese ideal areas for food and rest. 

For more than 100 years, this serendipitous geography has drawn hunters from all over the country to Stuttgart’s 40 duck hunting clubs and public hunting areas. Providing hunting supplies has also proven itself to be a viable industry. Since 1944, Mack’s Prairie Wings has served as the Delta’s premier hunting outfitter, where hunters can browse more than 104,000 square feet of retail space.

“We did a study about 15 years ago, and found that duck season brought in $1 million every day; since then those numbers have definitely sustained, if not grown, and I’d say during festival week that amount is doubled,” Hildebrand says. 

The festival she refers to is Stuttgart’s Wings Over the Prairie Festival, Arkansas’ oldest public festival. Celebrating its 84th year, Wings Over the Prairie attracts 30,000 to 40,000 visitors during Thanksgiving week. Among the festival’s featured events, the Queen Mallard Pageant and World Championship Duck Calling contest stand out. Additionally, high school seniors can vie for college scholarships in the Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest, which has awarded more than $73,000 in scholarships since 1974. 

“I love all the elements of the festival because there’s such a camaraderie, and so many people come in to Stuttgart once a year for it,” says Hildebrand. “If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the duck calling championships. That’s why the festival was originally formed, and it’s great to see the talent on display.”

Stuttgart does face some interesting challenges, the foremost of which is promoting growth. Since its peak of nearly 11,000 in 1980, Stuttgart’s population has decreased by 21 percent to 8,670 today. David Earney, Stuttgart’s mayor, chiefly blames inflated property values for this decline. 

“Sixty percent of Stuttgart’s workers commute from smaller communities around us,” says Earney. “People have told me for years that they’d love to stay here, but they just can’t find affordable housing in the city.” 

The median price of listed houses in Stuttgart is about $90,000. While lower than both national and state averages, it’s relatively expensive compared to other areas in southeastern Arkansas. Relatively high housing prices coupled with an outsized local industry helps explain why a small city like Stuttgart has such an unusually high commuter population. Stuttgart is taking steps to address this issue. 

“The city is working with developers. One currently is putting up 28 new houses by Phillips Community College and others are looking into building multifamily housing,” says Earney. 

The mayor hopes more affordable housing will attract new citizens and convince those currently commuting to move into the city. “We have a lot of business and industry for such a small town, we’re actually having trouble finding enough people to fill them,” says Earney. “If we could bring down the cost of living, we could help Stuttgart begin thriving again.” 

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