by Rob Anderson | Photos by Caleb Talley
“I try to be a good neighbor, but when you come upon a stranger in your chicken houses, you tend to get a little defensive,” says Bob Shofner, a rancher from Centerton, with a chuckle as he describes one of the challenges of owning open land and curious-looking buildings next to a growing residential neighborhood.
“Farms are open and people will just walk on in. They may come take pictures in front of the hay bales, or if they see a pasture, they think it’s for them to go explore,” he says. “I understand it, but it’s really about respect for private property and liability is also a concern.
“We have a lot of people who’ve moved in for Walmart support or Tyson or J.B. Hunt and other businesses – and a lot of these people are in this rural environment for the first time, so we constantly have to work on educating the public.”
Shofner, as well as dairy farmers Bill Haak and Susan Anglin all have stories to relate about their interactions with new residents and the non-farming public, though Haak and Anglin point out that they are not as close to residential developments as Shofner. All agree that communicating about agriculture and modern farming practices is critical to building understanding.
“People are the biggest challenge,” Haak says of the area’s growth. “There’s lots of impatience and some people are far less cordial. There’s really a lack of comprehension of agriculture.”
Washington County dairy farmer Cassie Davis says many area farmers and ranchers have a constant fear of how new neighbors will react. “You don’t know who is moving in, and you don’t always have a good chance to explain farming to people,” she says.
Anglin explains that the lack of understanding about agriculture is another reason she and other farmers receive so many phone calls.
“It’s mostly out of concern. People will see a cow that’s calving and they may call because they think they’re having a (health) problem,” she says. “In a nice way, we thank them for calling and tell them we’ll go and check, but that the animals are going to be okay.”
A piece of the Anglin’s property abuts a well-traveled roadway, and she says that in the spring, when cows are calving, newborn calves sometimes wiggle out under the fence. “You wouldn’t believe the number of calls we get. I told Ryan not to put any more calving cows over there,” she says.
Noise and smells are also an issue that brings phone calls or visits from new neighbors, meaning certain practices, such as burning off crops, are eliminated altogether by some farmers, while others, such as spreading manure or chicken litter, must be done judiciously or at different times.
Shofner notes the clamor from calves being weaned– the process of gradually withdrawing calves from their mother’s milk and moving them to a new food source – often leads to the phone ringing because some think the cows are in physical pain, when they are really calling out for their mothers. He was forced to give up two of the donkeys he used to protect his cattle from coyotes because the animals bray loudly when predators are near and this was bringing noise complaints from nearby residents.
“These are our customers, but they need to understand our modern agriculture practices. They just don’t have any farm connection and haven’t had classroom instruction about agriculture,” Shofner says.
Despite the challenges they have faced, Shofner and Anglin say they appreciate the importance of the region’s impressive economic development and the population growth that accompanies it. In addition, they acknowledge that they have had largely good experiences working with local governments and have often taken on leadership roles when possible.
“I think Farm Bureau in Benton County has a good working relationship with county government,” says Anglin, who serves on the Benton County Quorum Court.
Haak concurs, saying, “My experiences with our city police officers and county representative have mostly been very good and cordial. I know all the police officers around here. They’re very good people, and I think the world of them. They’re very farm friendly.”
“Our county Farm Bureau is pretty active – we do ‘meet the candidates’ events and host legislative appreciation and quorum court meetings,” adds Shofner, though he says he and other farmers in the area remain vigilant about issues such as annexing, zoning, taxes and property rights. Annexing he says, is a concern to many because “taxes go up when you are inside the city, but your income from production agriculture does not.” In addition, becoming a part of a city means more regulations that could make activities like adding a new building to your property more complicated.
Despite the ongoing concerns, local economic development and community organizations appear ready to work or continue to work with the region’s farmers and ranchers.
“Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, and it is likely that ongoing population and non-agricultural economic growth will continue moving into to rural area, traditionally reserved for agriculture,” says Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “Agriculture remains a key piece to the economic success to this region, and local, regional and state leaders understand its importance.
“This understanding and appreciation should ensure that effective policies are put in place that promote continued economic growth to benefit all area residents while preserving our historic agricultural focus.”
The Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO Graham Cobb sees an opening for his organization to facilitate conversations and meetings between those in agriculture and the general population and to help educate new residents on farming practices. He says he also believes that the skills and knowledge of some of the area’s new residents can ultimately be beneficial to the region’s farming and ranching population. “As you develop and attract tech talent for the bigger businesses, you explore how some of this talent can help farmers and other traditional businesses become more profitable or more efficient.”
Still, some local farmers have doubts about how well their voices will be heard in the future and concerns about the community as a whole.
“We (farmers) are such a small part of the population, it’s hard to find representatives to speak up for us or look out for us. It can be hard to get a farmer elected,” says Cassie Davis.
“I moved here for the quality of life,” says Haak. “Hopefully we can leave an inheritance for our children and grandchildren and hopefully – Lord willing – where they can find the next place that is like this was in the 70s and 80s. Nothing is for sure, though.”
Editor’s Note: This article was republished with permission by Arkansas Farm Bureau. Read Part 1 in October’s issue of Arkansas Money & Politics or online at armoneyandpolitics.com.