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The duck lands of White County

In the previous post, I described a delightful trip down Arkansas Highway 36 last week from Searcy to where the road ends at Georgetown in White County.

As the second-largest county in the state as far as the landmass (1,034 square miles), White County is incredibly diverse.

In the western part of the county, they raise beef and dairy cattle. Increasingly, they drill for gas in the Fayetteville Shale, an activity that has made Searcy a bit of a boomtown these days.

In the east, the hills give way to the bottomlands, and row-crop agriculture takes over.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (my gosh, what a gift that product is to our state) describes the county this way: “It is a microcosm of the state as a whole. The southeastern part of the county is alluvial land that today is mostly used for farming and timber production. … The north-central and northeast parts of the county contain the eastern terminus of the Ozark Escarpment.”

In other words, Rose Bud, Romance and El Paso in the west have very little in common with Georgetown and Griffithville in the east.

I’ve come east in White County on this day. I’m driving through a part of the county that has become a mecca for hunters and fishermen. As the trees give way to huge fields just east of West Point, something dawns on me. Watching the large tractors bust up the soil on a sunny April afternoon, it appears that this area represents a good example of a place where agriculture done on a large scale can exist in harmony with the government protection of wetlands.

In the 1970s, as soybean prices soared, thousands upon thousands of acres of Arkansas wetlands were cleared for crop production. As I’ve written before, it became apparent in the years that followed that much of this poorly drained soil should be returned to bottomland hardwoods.

A large percentage of Arkansans fail to understand just how big a role agriculture plays in our state’s economy. Agriculture represents 16 percent of the state’s total labor income. With about 46,500 farms on 14.3 million acres statewide, Arkansas ranks 11th nationally in total farm receipts.

We’re the country’s largest producer of rice, and we rank second in cotton production, fifth in grain sorghum production and 10th in soybean production. In fact, Arkansas ranks 21st or higher in the production of 19 commodities.

According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture: “Arkansas agriculture contributes a larger share to the state’s gross domestic product than does agriculture in neighboring states and the U.S. economy. Agricultural production, processing and retail account for 11.6 percent of the gross domestic product. This compares to about 7 percent for the Southeast United State and 5.2 percent nationwide.”

The farmers of east Arkansas are some of the best in the world at producing food and fiber. Just as the overall state economy needs Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods to be strong, people in all parts of this state have a vested interest in row-crop agriculture remaining strong. We must constantly search for new markets, greater efficiencies and more value-added products.

At the same time, however, we must protect the natural elements that make this state unique. There’s a balance that must be achieved, and it’s not often an easy balancing act. But it seems to me that Arkansas has made great progress during the past 20 to 25 years in better achieving that balance.

To the north of me as I head southeast toward Georgetown is the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,800-acre tract along the Little Red River that attracts large numbers of migrating waterfowl each winter. The refuge was acquired by the federal government in 1993 as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Much of the land had been part of a corporate farming operation owned by the John Hancock Insurance Co. Parts of the refuge have since been reforested and returned to wetland conditions.

Through a cooperative farming agreement, some areas are still farmed. Up to 25 percent of the crop is left unharvested to feed the migratory birds and other wildlife.

Also to the north of me is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area. The land once was owned by the company that made Singer sewing machines. It later was sold to the Fisher Body Corp. in the 1930s. Part of it became a game refuge in 1941, and the wildlife management area was created in 1958 to protect the bottomland hardwoods that were rapidly disappearing across east Arkansas. During the next 12 years, the Game and Fish Commission continued to make land purchases in order to increase the size of the management area and protect even more bottomland forests.

The 17,000-acre refuge is along both the White River and the Little Red River. Glaise Creek runs through the area, and there are numerous oxbow lakes with great names like Honey Lake, Mallard Pond, Big Brushy, Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell and Whirl Lake.

Water-control structures are closed early each fall to hold runoff water and make the area more attractive for ducks. Almost 8,000 acres are flooded each year at Hurricane Lake WMA, the third-largest wildlife management area operated by the state.

To the south of me as I head toward Georgetown is the Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Wildlife Management Area, which was a parcel of bottomland hardwoods before it was cleared for farming in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2000, Morrison Farms was enrolled in the Westland Reserve Program. Later that year, the state acquired the 4,063-acre farm.

During the past decade, the state has worked hard to restore native vegetation in the area. There are almost 11 miles of restored channels along Raft Creek and its tributaries. Cypress and oak trees have been planted along those restored channels. In other areas, pecan and ash trees have been planted along with oaks. Some fields have even been seeded in native prairie plants.

With a national wildlife refuge and two state wildlife management areas, one can see why hunters and fishermen flock to this area of White County.

And, yes, I’ll give yet another plug to the catfish at the Georgetown One Stop, where the road ends. After all, that was my ultimate destination.

I know that makes two posts in a row in which I’ve talked about the Georgetown One Stop, but it’s one of those remote places that make rural Arkansas so special. The walls are covered with photos of some of the thousands of people who have visited there during the past dozen years.

“I wouldn’t want to spend any money on decorating,” owner Joanna Taylor once told The Daily Citizen at Searcy. “That would take away from what we’re doing here. It’s all about the catfish.”

Here’s how Tim Bousquet described it in The Daily Citizen: “This is, without doubt, the finest catfish in the land. Light as a cloud, not too fishy and fresh, newly fallen dew fish. No need to gussy up this catfish. Taylor serves it plainly, maybe a hushpuppy or two on the plate with a side of sliced onion, tarter sauce, lemon and a pickle. Have as much as you want, Taylor will keep it coming until you tell her to stop, which might be a good long time.

“The trick, she says, is simple: She gets her fish direct from commercial fishermen working the White River, and she serves it fresh, never frozen. She’s meticulous with her product, working through the fillets, serving up fish as fat-free as possible, changing her oil daily — the kind of care long lost to the inland chain restaurants.”

Southeastern White County — a fascinating slice of a state whose rural areas never fail to surprise and amaze me.

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