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Hot catfish at Grady

For the 56th time, they held the Grady Lions Club Fish Fry under the big trees of the Ned Hardin pecan grove.

It’s always held on the third Thursday in August. Always.

It was cooler than usual last night.

The crowd seemed bigger than it had been in recent years.

The fried catfish, fries, hushpuppies and sliced watermelon were as good as ever.

I checked my old calendars and was able to determine that this was the 15th time in the past 16 years that I’ve been to Grady on the third Thursday night in August. The only fish fry I missed during that stretch was in 2004. I was Gov. Mike Huckabee’s representative on the board of the Delta Regional Authority at the time, and we were interviewing candidates in a Memphis hotel that day for the DRA’s chief operating officer’s job.

I’ve written before that my favorite annual winter event is the Slovak Oyster Supper and my favorite annual summer event is the Grady Fish Fry. Both are rural Arkansas traditions.

Bubba Lloyd was behind the wheel last night. I figure that if you’re headed to a catfish supper in southeast Arkansas, you at least ought to have a Bubba driving.

First-time attendees Blake Eddins and Randy Ensminger joined us for the trip south.

More than one person remembered Blake from his days as a Razorback basketball player for Nolan Richardson.

Randy, meanwhile, is a member of the board of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at New Orleans, and we found a fading sign that we’re hopeful the Hardins will donate to the museum. It advertises sorghum, sweet potatoes, pecans, cane syrup — all things Southern.

I have a feeling that Blake and Randy will be back at this event next August. They took it all in — the prisoners waiting tables, the prison band playing, the politicians making the rounds, the folks from all over southeast Arkansas visiting with each other and enjoying themselves.

As always, we visited at length with Sen. Mark Pryor, who also makes it a point not to miss this event.

It’s like something out of a movie. If you have any doubts that the South still lives, all you have to do is show up at the Hardin pecan grove on the third Thursday night in August and erase those doubts.

They start serving the fish each year at 4 p.m. They stop at 8 p.m. In between, hundreds of people make their way through the line and watch the amazing hushpuppy machine (constructed years ago from salvaged farm equipment) drop the batter (two hushpuppies at a time) into the hot grease.

My love for south and east Arkansas — areas of the state that are losing population and often are overlooked by the so-called opinion makers — is evident to those who read this blog. There are fine people and rich traditions in these areas of our state.

I attended the fish fry on a day that had started on a bright note. While having my first cup of coffee, I read in the newspaper that W.O. Prince is reopening his classic Riverfront Restaurant and Fish Market where U.S. Highway 70 crosses the Cache River at Biscoe.

For years, one of my regular stops on the old highway to Memphis was the place known to the locals simply as W.O.’s. You would turn down the gravel road to your right just before crossing the Cache River bridge when heading east. You would order your supper in the bait shop. You would then walk down to the boat that floated on the Cache. They would bring the food down the hill to you. The steaks were as good as the catfish.

They’ll serve lunch on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

They’ll serve dinner each Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.

They’re supposed to open today. I’ll make a road trip soon.

In thinking about east Arkansas landmarks such as W.O.’s and the Hardin pecan grove, I go back to the points I made in a newspaper column earlier this week. I see nothing on the horizon that leads me to believe that the population shift in this state from the east and the south to the north and the west will slow anytime soon.

People go where the jobs are. It’s that simple.

Grady is in Lincoln County. Biscoe is at the edge of Prairie County (my mother’s home county) just before Monroe County begins on the other side of the Cache. Places such as Lincoln, Monroe and Prairie counties have been losing population since the end of World War II, when the mechanization of agriculture meant that thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were no longer required. Monroe County, in fact, lost more population than any county in Arkansas during the previous decade — 20.5 percent.

The rural-to-urban trend, of course, is a nationwide trend. It’s hard to believe that rural America now accounts for just 16 percent of the nation’s population.

Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau put it this way in a recent interview: “Some of the most isolated rural areas face a major uphill battle, with a broad area of the country emptying out. Many rural areas can’t attract workers because there aren’t any jobs, and businesses won’t relocate there because there aren’t enough qualified workers. So they are caught in a downward spiral.”

Here, however, is the thing most of those who write about and comment on the population shifts in Arkansas miss: The forests of south Arkansas and the farmlands of east Arkansas remain vital to our state’s overall economy.

I would contend that they’re about to play a bigger role than ever.

Here’s why:

— The latest projections show that the world’s population will increase from about 7 billion people today to 9.5 billion by 2050.

— That population increase means that net agricultural production will have to increase by 60 to 70 percent during the next four decades just to satisfy the need for food and energy.

— More than 37 million acres of arable land are displaced annually by population growth, making key agricultural areas such as Arkansas more important than ever in our interconnected global economy.

— Extreme weather conditions in 2009 and 2010 across Russia, China and Southeast Asia helped drive U.S. grain and cotton prices to record highs. Because of predictions of even higher prices for corn and wheat, along with record demands for soybeans and cotton, U.S. farmers planted 10 million more acres this year than last year. Arkansas is in a prime position to take advantage of these trends.

— Low cattle inventories, the grain shortage and revised trade agreements have pushed milk, meat and egg prices to record highs. Due to this and the high grain prices, U.S. farmland values have increased an average of 5 to 7 percent despite the recession. That means that land in the Arkansas Delta is becoming more valuable rather than less valuable.

— Advances in technology are making the production of alternative fuels more feasible, another factor in betting that the value of the pine woods to the south and the row-crop areas to the east will increase in the coming decade.

— In what’s increasingly an urbanized state, the farming, livestock and forestry sectors still account for 260,000 Arkansas jobs. That’s more than one of every six jobs in the state.

— Agricultural products account for 12 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. That compares to 6.94 percent for the Southeast United States as a region and 5.52 percent for the nation as a whole.

— Agricultural workers in Arkansas receive more than $9.5 billion in annual wages and salaries.

— With 49,100 farms on 13.6 million acres, Arkansas ranks 12th nationally in farm receipts, first in rice production, fourth in timber, second in broilers, third in cotton and cottonseed, third in catfish, third in turkeys, fifth in sweet potatoes, ninth in eggs and 10th in soybeans and grain sorghums.

Even as the population of many east and south Arkansas counties declines, their value to the state’s overall economy remains strong. That’s a fact that shouldn’t be lost on this state’s growing percentage of urbanites.

For me, the Grady Fish Fry represents more than a chance to eat fried catfish.

It represents all that is right about rural Arkansas. 

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