By Rob O’Connor ’95
Despite his physics degree from Hendrix and leadership
of two successful start-up businesses, Cody Hopkins may have dashed the dreams
of his father and grandfather.
"They were brick masons, and they didn’t want me to
have to work with my hands," he said, laughing at the irony.
When he graduated from Hendrix in 2001, the Van Buren
native became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college.
And soon after, he became a farmer.
In 2007, Cody formed Falling Sky Farm near Marshall,
Ark., with his partner Andrea Todt, a Searcy County native and alumna of Earlham
College in Indiana. In addition to raising grass-fed livestock, they have a newborn
son, Samuel Hopkins, who was born in November 2010.
Like the food he grows on the farm, Cody’s interest
in farming and food culture grew organically.
"One of the side effects of going to a liberal arts
college is that you get interested in so many things," he said.
During college, Cody spent two summers working in a
restaurant in Providence, R.I., where he first became interested in food.
When he graduated from Hendrix, he moved to Providence
and spent two years teaching math and physics at an all-boys Catholic high school.
"I enjoyed teaching, but not in a classroom per se,"
he said. "And I missed the South and missed my family."
He followed his interest in food back to the South,
first to Lafayette, La., where he lived for a year baking bread, before he moved
back to Arkansas to manage Serenity Farm, a bakery in Leslie beloved by locals and
Living in rural Arkansas quickly left an impression
on the recent college graduate.
"Searcy County is an economically-challenged environment,"
he said. "It’s hard to find a job. Most people go off to find work."
Inspired by reading Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin,
he began to get interested in economic development. He initially considered getting
a master’s degree but decided instead for a more hands-on look at the local food
movement and its impact on rural economics.
"I thought ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome if some of these
farmers marketed their products this way’," he said. "The idea at the time was there
was no way in hell."
So he resolved to start "a demonstration farm" to show
that organic farming can be a viable agri-business model that’s better for the farmer,
consumers, animals, and the land, he said.
Somewhat fortified with capital thanks to a grant from
Wild Gift, an Idaho-based nonprofit that supports young entrepreneurs, the couple
started raising meat chickens, turkey, ducks, beef, and pork on 40 acres they leased
for free from a family friend of Andrea’s.
They stayed there for three years before they outgrew
the space and moved to a 160-acre parcel, where they now live in a newly acquired
"We don’t have a lot of money, but we’re committed
to showing it can be done," he said.
Most customers will immediately notice the improved
flavor of 100 percent grass-based livestock. More importantly, Hopkins noted, is
the meat is healthier because of the conditions it’s raised in.
"It’s not just what you eat but what you eat eats,"
The couple realized really quickly that the infrastructure
for their type of farming doesn’t exist anymore.
"A hundred years ago, 80 percent of the population
lived on a farm, today it’s less than one percent," he said, adding as an example
that there are no more than three USDA-certified facilities in the state where small
scale farmers can get a cow butchered.
To sell their products, Cody began establishing relationships
with central Arkansas farmers. He joined the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market,
a group of central Arkansas area farmers, and now serves on its board. They began
selling crops to restaurants and looking for a venue in Conway.
Hopkins soon met Eric Wagoner, an Athens, Ga.-based
farmer, at a conference in Kentucky. Wagoner had created Locally Grown, a web-based
farmer’s market program.
Cody quickly adapted the turn-key program and, in 2008,
Conway Locally Grown, his second venture, was born.
It has grown rapidly – from five farmers, 15 customers
and less than $30,000 in total sales in 2008 to 40 farmers, 300 members, to more
than $150,000 in gross sales in 2010.
"That’s pretty fast growth," he said. "It’s going to
be really interesting to see how the growth trend continues."
"We’ve grown really fast, but I still feel like we’re
in the start-up phase of this business," he said, adding that the money they have
made so far has gone back into the farm.
Their goal is to make the farm financially viable and
to serve as a model for rural economic development.
The couple has clearly piqued the interest of the local
community, which voted them Searcy County Farm Family of the Year.
"It was surprising because we’re kind of oddballs,"
he said. "We didn’t have any experience, which was sort of a good thing … Young
people trying to start a business in this community are unheard of."
Though he didn’t exactly meet his family’s goal of
not working with his hands, Cody calls his journey "stressful but exciting," and
no one is more surprised than he.
"Out of all the things I’m doing, the thing that surprises
me most is being an entrepreneur," he said. "I wish I would have taken more accounting
classes in college."
Farming, he said, is an education unto itself.
"Farming is a lot like going to a liberal arts college," he said, citing the
accounting, marketing, product development, and research that go into farming. "There’s
lots and lots of problem solving, which hopefully you get better at in college …
I know I did."