The soil reference is warranted because the university was originally created in 1909 as a regional agricultural high school called the Second District Agricultural School. In 1925, it added a two-year college agri program and changed the name to Arkansas Polytechnic College. In 1927, it dropped the high school courses and in 1928 my grandfather was enrolled there and milking cows for the Tech dairy to help pay his tuition and then went on to work for the USDA Conservation Service after graduating. In 1966 my dad graduated from Tech with a business degree after doing a stint in the Navy and hanging out on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Cuba during Cuban Missile Crisis. He then went on to become a produce broker and rancher. In 1977, Arkansas Polytechnic became Arkansas Tech University. In 1992, my brother graduated from there with an ag-business/pre-vet degree and went on to become a veterinarian in the Army and now is a district manager for the USDA making sure the meat you buy at the grocery store doesn’t kill you. As for me, I graduated from there in 1996 from with a journalism degree and then again in 2002 with a Master’s degree and somehow stumbled my way onto the journalism faculty a few years later while spending my time as a professor telling stories about being connected to the land and sailing over horizons.
As for the university president at the podium, the decline began to occur after her first year at the helm, and what followed in her presentation was reason after reason why the current state of the university wasn’t her fault. The vote of no-confidence in her leadership by the faculty from the previous academic year was not mentioned. To be fair, challenges like declining state birth rates and a pandemic are storms that aren’t to be blamed on leaders. But the ability to navigate a ship through a storm is something every captain must accept responsibility for. You don’t make excuses about the weather, you grab the goddamned wheel.
Now years later, tenured and sitting in the auditorium, I was appalled at what I heard suggested from the stage. In order to increase university revenue, her plan was to start leasing out the pasture land that has been used by Tech’s agricultural programs for over a century to commercial developers. In defending her plan, she mentioned that student’s “want” more places to “hang out” and then joked that one of the first things potential students see when they visit Tech are “cows.” She paused for effect and a few snickers from the audience.
I wasn’t laughing.
The next slide was how US Representative and Arkansas Tech alum, Steve Womack secured three quarters of a million dollars for the Arkansas Tech Agricultural program.
Over the past decade, Arkansas Tech’s now former administration tried to distance the university from its cows and agricultural DNA and focus the “tech” from its polytechnical roots to STEM fields. And to be certain, “Redneck Tech” wasn’t a great nickname and there is a very real need to evolve and do some work on branding. But, in that time the administration also managed to distance the university from the state legislature, faculty and surrounding community.
The glaring irony is that agriculture is the largest industry in Arkansas. According to Arkansas Farm Bureau 2023 statistics, agriculture accounts for $16 billion of the state’s economy. Arkansas has 49,346 farms, 97% of which are family owned. In total Arkansas has 14.5 million acres of farmland, 8.3 million acres of ranchland, 18,778,660 acres of forest. Not to mention it is the home of Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and Riceland Foods which is the largest exporter of rice in the United States.
The second glaring irony is that the average age of an Arkansas farmer/rancher is 57. The state desperately needs to increase the number of younger people going into to agriculture. But, those young people also need to be able to make a living, and in our modern world that takes innovation and resources.
That being said, rural economies are in trouble and in desperate need of innovation. The exact kind of innovation that a university could bring to the area it serves. Or it can just discount it and make fun of cows.
Land and equipment are expensive for someone to start from nothing. For those with existing family farms, those farms often barely produce only enough to support a single family and many of those also rely on outside income. They’re land rich but cash poor. For others, aging farmers and ranchers are sometimes reluctant to retire and wait to pass on the farm business until they simply can’t do it anymore or death makes the choice for them. Help is often encouraged or expected of younger generations, but compensation only comes in the form of inheritance of land sometime later in life. They have the choice to work themselves into the ground and not make any money or leave the farm behind. I can tell you from experience that finding yourself at 1 a.m. in the freezing cold and working at the back of a squeeze shoot trying to pull a calf, so you can try to save the life of a heifer you’ve spent the last few years raising, tends to bring introspection and clarity. Many find that choice is an easy one to make as they try to pull themselves together to go to their day job a few hours later.
Years ago, I was discussing this with a friend of mine who also grew up as a farm kid. He told me the story of a guy he knew who was late into his 50’s. The guy’s dad was an old farmer, deep into his 80’s, who adamantly refused to give up the reins to the farming operation. One day the old farmer showed up at his door unannounced and when his son answered the door the old man just said, “I’m done. You need to start running the farm now.”
When the guy told his dad that he wasn’t going to do it, the old man was shocked and outraged at his son. It never occurred to him that the way he managed the business of the farm and the failure to consider his son’s financial needs, had pushed his kid to find and build a successful career outside of agriculture. And by the time he was ready to hand over the farm, the son was grey-headed and just a few years away from being able to retire himself.