Ducks and rice. It makes a nice main course, but it’s one city’s bread and butter.
Stuttgart, Ark., is the Rice and Duck Capital of the World. Many of the 10,000 or so residents in the southeast Arkansas town make their living on one or the other.
Riceland Foods, the world’s biggest rice miller, is headquartered there on the Arkansas Grand Prairie, where in the early 1900s farmers found the soil highly suitable for rice.
As the Mississippi Flyway funnels waterfowl to those very rice fields, ducks are headquartered there as well. The 60-day waterfowl season means a $60 million windfall for the region.
“It’s a big push for the economy around here,” said Bill Free, who heads the Wings Over the Prairie Festival that celebrates all things duck. “The Chamber (of Commerce) has estimated that during duck season, the dollars coming in turn over to be a $1 million a day.
“All the hotels are booked for the Festival and they all stayed booked for the duck season. It’s packed for 60 days and the majority of the people are from out-of-town. The out-of-towners are here to duck hunt.”
And the first stop for many of those people, Free said, is Mack’s Prairie Wings, known as America’s premier waterfowl outfitter. Each fall it gears up for brisk business as hunters go to the superstore to buy before heading out to the duck woods.
“It’s a big shot in the arm,” Free said, “and Mack’s, that’s their bread and butter for the year.”
The hunting in the region is first-rate, as evidenced by the number of guides. Duck season opens the weekend before Thanksgiving, and Free said it could be one of the best.
“The hatch was really good in Canada, North Dakota and South Dakota, and they’re talking record numbers and near-record numbers, so we should be in pretty good shape,” he said. “We just need some more water to bring some ducks. If we get some water, it should be good.”
The main event at the festival, however, is the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest, where competitors have blown their routines for 75 years. Last year Brad Allen of Judsonia, Ark., broke through to win the prestigious title and $15,000 prize package. There are a variety of other competitions that award a huge duck call trophy, including juniors, seniors, and women, but it all kicks off with a youth competition among Butch Richenback’s students.
Richenback, founder of Rich-N-Tone Calls that sits on property next to Mack’s, won the world’s title as well as a Champion of Champions, a competition held every five years that only invites World’s winners. Richenback holds youth classes leading up to the contests and has had his hand in teaching or fine-tuning many of the world champions.
“He is duck calling. That’s how you define Butch,” said Greg Hubbell of Belmont, Calif., whose son receives tutoring from Richenback. “Nobody knows more about calls; nobody’s trained more world champions. Nobody’s trained more people.”
The Duck Gumbo Cook-off is another popular venue, drawing thousands to its huge party tent to taste the offerings of cooking teams that sometimes wait years for a spot. Once that fest shuts down, many visitors head over to carnival and midway on Main Street then the Chamber of Commerce stage, where the World’s Championship gets down to the nitty-gritty.
Around 70 competitors start before the five judges listening behind curtains cut the field down to the top 10 or so. The finalists blow again until a champion is decided, usually long after the waterfowl have flown overhead at dusk heading back to their nighttime roosts.
Last year, the festival experienced an attendance drop as the home-state Arkansas Razorbacks had their annual season finale game against LSU moved to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the festival’s biggest day.
“The Razorbacks are back on Friday and in Louisiana, so we should have a full house again,” Free said. “The gumbo should be back up to normal size. We should have a good crowd.
“We don’t need to fix something that’s already working. We’ll have the competitors getting after it again.”