In this episode of “Reimagine Rural,” host Tony Pipa visits DeWitt, Arkansas, deep in the Mississippi Delta, where a failed biofuel project sparked a shift in the community’s economic identity. Entrepreneurs share the stories of how their small businesses got off the ground and what their plans are for their future and the future of DeWitt.
We’re gratified to have heard from many of you about your own town and the positive things happening there. Feel free to send a note about your rural town to GlobalMedia@Brookings.edu. We’d love to hear from you.
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BOYD-MATHEWS: Family ties has always been a big draw for me. My family’s all here. I still have my grandparents—they’re 86 years old. But not just that. There is just a potential for DeWitt that a lot of people, especially young people, do not see, where we do have kind of a unique geographical area and a unique kind of setting where and businesses where you could grow. And I think a lot of the younger generation are going away and not coming back and really capitalizing on it.
PIPA: That’s Chandler Boyd-Mathews, the 27-year-old executive manager of the Boyd Farmhouse Inn, explaining why he returned home to DeWitt, Arkansas, after college to play a leading role in getting this new family-owned hotel built and up and running. Such entrepreneurial energy is central to this episode of “Reimagine Rural,” as you’ll hear how local businesses are at the heart of helping DeWitt adapt to the changes that have affected its downtown and its overall economy.
I’m Tony Pipa, a senior fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, and your host for Reimagine Rural, this podcast where I visit different places across rural America that are making progress on their efforts to thrive or renew themselves amid economic and social change.
I’ve been gratified to hear from many of you about your own town and the positive things happening there. Feel free to send me a note about your rural town at GlobalMedia at Brookings dot edu. I’d love to hear from you.
Here in the U.S., we celebrate entrepreneurs, seeing them as emblematic of the American dream. Yet we don’t generally associate entrepreneurship with rural places.
Entrepreneurship, however, is becoming part of the lifeblood of DeWitt, a town of about 3,000 in the Arkansas Delta, a little more than 80 miles southeast of Little Rock. DeWitt is actually one of two county seats of Arkansas County in the flat plains of the Delta that are home to the largest rice-growing region in the United States.
My visit to DeWitt showed me not only that rural entrepreneurship is alive and well, it’s crucial to sustaining the town’s future—and it also has its own characteristics, which are a bit different from the unicorn companies that venture capitalists are hoping to cash in on.
Our story begins, as most good stories about entrepreneurs usually do, with … failure.
POLONIUS: It was a renewable energy conference and there was an assistant instructor from the community college in DeWitt who came up to me afterward and said, We’ve been working on this bioenergy crop to see if it would work in the region, and I think it would work really well for this model.
PIPA: That’s Ines Polonius, who you first heard in episode three when we talked about federal rural policy. Ines is the CEO of Communities Unlimited, which helps provide entrepreneurship support and capital, and works with communities across seven states in the South to help them build and execute strategies for improving their prosperity.
Agriculture is a cornerstone of DeWitt’s economy. The town is surrounded by flat fields that are still mostly family-owned farms. The biofuel idea that emerged from the community college was seeking to leverage those local assets. Here’s Ines on what happened next.
POLONIUS: He invited me to a meeting with the then mayor, Ralph Relyea, and suddenly a whole host of folks showed up at the community college, and I did the same thing—I presented the model to them. They told me a little bit about the crop and what they were doing with it. And quite frankly, bioenergy was like the furthest from my mind, but it was so exciting.
And this was the meeting when the mayor infamously said, We lost our shoe manufacturer, I don’t want another business with 400 jobs. I would much rather have ten businesses with ten and 15 jobs so that if I lost one, I still have the nine others and all the jobs with that.
And that to us was such a clear sign that this community was ready to reinvent itself in a whole new way.
PIPA: Now, as luck would have it, about six months later another company would take over that shoe manufacturing space with a contract to make military boots and replace those jobs. But the impetus to diversify the local business base with new ideas had already taken hold.
POLONIUS: So, the value chain project really started with a group of farmers who had an interest in growing this crop. We very intentionally engaged a former USDA technical assistance provider because he had such good connectivity to the Black farmer community, because we wanted to let all farmers be aware of this potential new crop and include them right from the get-go.
We knew that the crop would be very seasonal, and that we needed to build out these businesses in this value chain to run all year long. And so, we began to look at waste vegetable oil from the restaurants within about a 50 mile radius of DeWitt. It turned out that the city ended up investing in this and the city created the jobs to collect this waste vegetable oil because they had a keen interest to keep the waste vegetable oil out of the pipes, out of the sewage pipes, as well as the central waste wastewater system.
So, now we had two products that we could turn into biofuel. We ordered the very first refinery. If you see it in DeWitt, it’s the size of a washing machine. And again, the whole idea was that we wanted to start small. We didn’t want to invest hundreds and thousands of dollars before we could prove out the product.
PIPA: The group did targeted research to ensure that the market would be there for the biofuel.
POLONIUS: We wanted to be certain that there was demand for the biofuel. And we actually talked to Valero—they have a facility in Memphis and they were ready to buy, but only by the tractor trailer load, which would take us a while to produce that kind of volume. So, we knew we had the big volume. Then we went back to the city and said, who would use it locally so that we could begin to develop that market?
It was the farmers. The farmers were so eager to use a locally produced fuel in their equipment. And that was really what convinced us that we could move forward with the whole model.
PIPA: In the end, however, the growing season proved inhospitable, and the changes involved in successfully cultivating a new crop were too complicated. Tami Hornbeck, a farm and business owner in DeWitt, was also involved in the project.
HORNBECK: Well, I’ve grown up DeWitt all of my life. Fourth generation of our families that have lived here and been in agriculture, because that’s the main driver of our economy here in DeWitt.
My husband and I own HBK Farms and we farm a few acres, but our son farms the rest of it. So, we are still involved with agriculture. We had a seed business for 30 years and developed soybean technology and varieties that we grow here in our area in the mid-South. And grew that business and worked with farmers on a daily basis and knew knew their culture and their needs.
PIPA: Given Tami’s experience with seeds, she explains what happened.
HORNBECK: We had several farmers that planted this experimental crop in our area because it doesn’t normally grow in our area and farmers were not familiar with it. And so, we tried out a few acres to see how it did. And it just it didn’t it didn’t really fit in with our climate here as well.
And with the the other row crops, it was really hard to introduce a crop that didn’t have a market already established. The systems that the farmers are currently working in, there are certain seeds that are planted, they’re booked early. They know the fertilizers. They know, you know, all of the inputs that they are going to need and in including the fuel and the equipment. And so, with the camelina it was totally different because the seed size was much smaller than they were used to. So, they didn’t have the proper equipment or storage for that type of seed.
PIPA: From Ines Polonius’s perspective, however, the project was far from being a failure. It was a catalyst for stimulating everyone involved to think about what might be possible.
POLONIUS: They had one sort of pilot season. They had one very strong season. And then what we started seeing was way too much rain during that window when the plant bolts and produces the seed. And so, the farmers tried it for two, some of them tried it for three years and finally decided that there just wasn’t a window during which they could grow the crop.
There was still some refining of the waste vegetable oil that was done, but really then the true market opportunity was gone and we had to retool. And we brought the whole team together and said, What do we do with this? Because we had clearly shifted the mindset in the community from a, Oh, woe is us, you know, we’re declining, there’s nothing going on here to there are entrepreneurs who stepped into this value chain wholeheartedly—
—including one gentleman who invested a lot of his own money to really refurbish the old Exxon station into a new restaurant, into a feed store. And that that got a lot of attention.
PIPA: Tami Hornbeck came out of that experience and decided to open up a coffee shop downtown. Called 420 & Turnrow, it simultaneously has an artsy and cozy feel. Tami explains the meaning of the name.
HORNBECK: Turnrow is where farmers come when they get to the end of a row on their tractor, if they need to meet up with family for lunch or to discuss something, they meet up at the end of the turnrow. And 420 is our address on the court square.
That was one of our main goals and values in starting the coffee shop, was to source as much as we could locally and support other entrepreneurs and maybe home businesses and cottage businesses to be able to help those entrepreneurs get their product out there.
So, in our coffee shop, we have a local baker who does all of our baked goods. We recently introduced an entrepreneur who has a spice and and dip mix line. We have a local farmer who provides lettuce and tomatoes and produce for us, as well as another farmer where we get our ground beef for different recipes and items that we have on our menu.
We also carry Loblolly Ice Cream, which is a company out of Little Rock. We have a native beer permit, so we have Arkansas beer. And so, we we have a good variety. And we just tried to expose our small community with other things in Arkansas.
PIPA: The coffee shop is on the court square, which is home to a historic art deco courthouse. 420 & Turnrow is one of several new bushiness there, and Tami is also investing in other ventures.
HORNBECK: Well, it’s a historic district. It’s actually on the historic register with several contributing buildings. And it’s the original square that was there from the since its conception. It has a courthouse in the middle and the pavement is on the court square is actually concrete, the original concrete that was put down on top of the dirt. So, we went from horse and buggy to the paved court square that we have now.
With our other properties, we have office space that we rent out. We also have a community event center that, it’s an old building built probably around 1960 that we can have music events, people rent out for wedding receptions, and other parties, and things to be able to offer a space in our community that has … it’s equipped with what’s needed to host something and then it has the charm of an old building.
The florist was recently purchased by a young lady and her family.
And then we have a dress shop that is … was recently purchased by two sisters that are young ladies with families. So, you just see more young people becoming involved in community leadership, being on boards, local clubs, and things like that. You just see them becoming more involved.
PIPA: There is no denying that court square is not experiencing the bustle of its past. Those businesses are bright spots amidst empty storefronts and much needed improvements in infrastructure.
But it’s also not indicative of all the entrepreneurial activity in the area. Over a mile away, Webb’s Sporting Goods has grown into a 4,000 square foot hub of the latest in outdoor gear for fishing, hunting, camping, boating—pretty much anything you can do outdoors in the Arkansas Delta. Webb’s even has its own podcast studio, where we taped several of our interviews. Meet Bobby Webb, the founder and owner of the store.
WEBB: Grew up in Possum Waller down there, and just hunted and fished all my life. Never been any kind of trouble. End up quitting school in eighth grade. I just wanted to go to work. I seen folks that had things that I liked and I just I just wanted to go to work. Grew up as poor as they get around here. I remember growing up getting $5 a week food stamps from my mother for … that was my allowance that week.
Went to work at a local Burger Master, and rode around with a buddy of mine that was a police officer—blue lights intrigued me.
PIPA: “Reimagine Rural” is a production of the Brookings Podcast Network. My sincere thanks to all the people who shared their time with me for this episode. Also, thanks to the team at Brookings who make this podcast possible, including Fred Dews, producer; Gastón Reboredo, audio engineer; Zoe Swarzenski, project manager and policy analyst; Andrew Wallace, Heinz Policy Fellow; and Emma Uebelhor, former research and project coordination intern, all at the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings; Ian McAllister and Colin Cruickshank, who traveled with me to some of these places, captured the audio, and took great pictures and videos; Chris McKenna, who helped get the show off the ground; and the great promotions teams in the Brookings Office of Communications and the Brookings Global Economy and Development program.
Katie Merris designed the beautiful logo.
You can find episodes of “Reimagine Rural” wherever you like to get podcasts, and learn more about the show on our website at Brookings dot edu slash Reimagine Rural Podcast. You’ll also find my work on rural policy on the Brookings website.
I’m Tony Pipa, and this is “Reimagine Rural.”