Riceland Foods turns 100

Riceland Foods turns 100

Stuttgart always takes the spotlight in Arkansas on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with its Wings Over the Prairie Festival and World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest. The calling contest has been around since 1936.

Stuttgart was founded as a colony of German immigrants in the late 1800s and later became the nation’s capital of rice farming and duck hunting. People from across the country still descend on the Stuttgart area each duck season.

Even though I was in Jonesboro at that city’s impressive new Embassy Suites Hotel and Red Wolf Convention Center, I was thinking about Stuttgart history earlier this month. The occasion was the 100th anniversary celebration for Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods, which has grown into one of the world’s top agricultural cooperatives.

Hundreds of people gathered for Riceland’s annual meeting in a convention hall filled with newspaper clippings, old photos and more from the cooperative’s first century.

A Lutheran minister, George Adam Buerkle, founded Stuttgart. He was born in Germany and immigrated to America with his family in 1852. Buerkle was working in Ohio when he came to Arkansas and purchased thousands of acres on the Grand Prairie in 1878. His first colony of 48 people arrived in the fall of that year. A second group came in October 1879.

“Buerkle kept almost half of his original purchase of land for his family and sold the remainder to his colonists for the same price that he paid for it, $3 per acre,” Bill Shrum writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “On April 30, 1880, Buerkle was appointed postmaster of a post office in his home. He named the new office ‘Stuttgart’ for the town in Germany near where he was born.

“Probably all of the adults in this settlement had been born in Germany. For years, services in the Lutheran churches were held in German. The Germans had their own private schools, and a weekly all-German newspaper was published in Stuttgart for more than 20 years.”

Farm income on the Grand Prairie was mostly from cattle and hay. In 1902, Bill Hope planted a plot of rice near Stuttgart that yielded 139 bushels per acre. William H. Fuller had first tried growing rice on the Grand Prairie near Carlisle a few years earlier. In March 1907, the Stuttgart Rice Mill Co. was incorporated. It reported a profit of $16,000 the first year. A second rice mill was built in 1910.

“Crop prices fluctuated wildly during and after World War I, dropping from $3 a bushel to 30 cents a bushel during the same growing season in 1920,” writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. “In January 1921, Arkansas rice producers met in Stuttgart to try to stabilize the situation. On Sept. 23, 1921, they created a farmers’ cooperative. Calling themselves the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative Association, they decided to lease enough rice mills so their rice could be sold as a finished product.”

That was the beginning of what’s now Riceland Foods. A rice mill at Wheatley was purchased by the cooperative in 1927. It burned and was a total loss in 1929. A Stuttgart rice mill was purchased in 1928.

In a March 1953 letter to Stuttgart newspaper publisher Garner Allen, cooperative secretary-treasurer A.F. Knoll wrote: “The association started as a rough rice sales organization. This didn’t prove adequate for the reason that independent buyers weren’t always in the market for rice when it was offered for sale. In 1922, the association entered into a milling contract with Stuttgart Rice Mill Co. This company milled rice for the association, and the milled rice was sold through brokers throughout the United States. Some rice was also exported.

“In that same year, the association was granted a commodity loan in a sum not to exceed $1 million by the War Finance Corp., which was an agency that came into existence after World War I. In 1924, the association leased the rice mill at Lonoke, which was then owned by the Arkansas State Rice Milling Co. A few years later, this mill was dismantled by the owners.”

Knoll said leasing mills didn’t work out as board members had hoped, leading to the purchase of the Wheatley and Stuttgart mills. A Jonesboro mill was purchased in 1939 as the cooperative continued its growth.

“With the availability of the modern combine and an artificial drying process, rice became a popular crop in Arkansas,” Hendricks writes. “In 1944, the first local grain-drying cooperative was organized, followed by locals formed in 1945 at Jonesboro and Wheatley. Local drying co-ops were subsequently formed almost every year.”

In 1946, the Riceland label was launched for the cooperative’s products. It would become one of the best-known brand names to come from Arkansas. In 1960, the cooperative opened a soybean processing plant at Stuttgart as it began to diversify operations. A decade later, Riceland Foods became the official name for the cooperative, and a new headquarters was opened at Stuttgart.

“Riceland’s business lines include grain storage and rice milling in addition to consumer products and food service industry products,” Hendricks writes. “Its product lines include rice, rice flours, rice oil, rice feed, bran and hulls, soybean meal, soybean oil and more.”

The cooperative eventually had members in Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in addition to Arkansas.

“The future of Riceland is bright,” board chairman Roger Pohlner told those attending the Jonesboro meeting. “Our founding members knew we were stronger together.”

Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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