The people of Stuttgart, Arkansas, have got one thing figured out: duck and rice go well together—and not just on the table. Rice grows best in flooded fields, and after harvest they are flooded again to retain nutrients and prevent erosion. Such farmer-induced wetlands mean just the right environment for the millions of North American mallards migrating to the South for the cold season. Since the fields around Stuttgart lead the nation in rice production (nearly half of U.S. rice is grown in Arkansas), the area has also become the most popular wintering-waterfowl region in the world. Together, rice and ducks rake in a nice little income for this small Arkansas town of German origins, and both traditions benefit the state, third poorest in the nation per capita, in a tremendous way as well.
In 1878 Lutheran minister George Buerkle from Plattenhardt, Germany, bought 7,000 acres in the prairie-land area he would later name Stuttgart. Likely neither rice nor ducks were on his mind. Rice was slowly becoming an important crop in the South—primarily in Louisiana—but to date Arkansas farmers had not had much luck with it. Buerkle sold half of his land to other future Stuttgartians for three dollars an acre and then settled down to create a respectable town with no rice and no ducks.
But when Arkansas farmer William Fuller went on a hunting trip to Louisiana about twenty years later, rice fields attracted his notice. With an eye for such things, he thought rice could do just as well if not better in the Grand Prairie region of Arkansas in which Stuttgart had been located. The land was flat, had a good clay subsoil to prevent too much drainage, and the area surrounding the confluence of the White and Arkansas Rivers, with all its streams and bayous, provided the abundance of water rice needs to grow. Fuller had a hunch.
In 1903, also believing Fuller was on to something, several businessmen offered him $1000 (equivalent to $25,000 today) if he could figure out a way to produce thirty-five bushels of rice per acre. The following year his yield was nearly seventy-five bushels an acre, more than twice the amount needed to win the prize. His success bred success, and soon farmers from Illinois, Ohio, and other Midwestern states migrated to Arkansas to try their hand at the new wonder crop. In 1921 farmers formed at Stuttgart the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative Association, which evolved into Riceland Foods, today the world’s largest miller and marketer of the grain. Arkansas rice, by far the most important crop for the state in the following century, was here to stay.
The ducks were not far behind. Not that ducks had been strangers here before, but the flooded rice fields transformed the area into a wintering wonderland for the fowl. Duck-hunting mania ensued. In 1936 Stuttgart was already so well known for its duck hunting that a national annual duck-calling contest came into being. The winner that year, Thomas Walsh of Greenville, Mississippi, who made the duck-calling sounds with his throat, received a six-dollar hunting jacket. Today’s contest attracts thousands of sportsmen from around the world, and the prize is worth more than $15,000.
Regardless who takes the prize as champion duck-caller, Stuttgart is likely to retain its position as Duck and Rice Capital of the World. Arkansas cultivates nearly two million acres in rice and exports a billion dollars’ worth of rice to other countries each year with Stuttgart’s hand right in the middle of the pot. Add to that the nearly two million ducks descending upon Stuttgart and the surrounding wetlands each year as well, and you have the makings of a great partnership that is sure to bring the area much-needed success for years to come.