Falling into Success
Husband and wife team Cody Hopkins and Andrea Todt build a farm from the ground up and grow a community of farmers
By Lisa Herndon Armstrong Photography by Matthew Martin
With a name like Falling Sky Farm, it sounds as if something frightful might happen. And at first, livestock farmers and husband-and-wife team Cody Hopkins and Andrea Todt did face tough times.
With their 200-acre, pasture-based livestock farm in Leslie, founded in 2007, the couple hopes to “start a revolution in small-scale farming in Arkansas," Hopkins said. Selling high quality, sustainable poultry, beef, pork and other products, Falling Sky Farm is turning a profit. But it has taken the decade since they started farming, plus lots of hard lessons and hard work to get there.
Raised by her back-to-the-land parents in Marshall, Todt met Hopkins after her return from college. Interested in exploring broader horizons, Todt wanted a ride west to Colorado, and Hopkins offered to take here there. While in the Golden State the young couple visited Polyface Farms, “America's premier non-industrial food production oasis." Inspired by that farm's community building approach, Hopkins and Todt were enthused about their prospects in Arkansas. However, still uncertain about farming, Todt set off for an equine internship, as horses are her “first love."
Hopkins stayed behind in Arkansas and started a small chicken farm near Marshall. It wasn't long before the formula of absence and the desire to farm helped Todt realize she was in love with Hopkins and wanted to return home. “We started our farm with chickens as they are the most manageable and have the greatest profit return," she said.
As both were first generation farmers, there were some bumpy spots on the road to success. “Our biggest challenge was learning to treat the farm as a business," Todt said. "At first, we were trying to do too much—raising poultry, processing the meat, compiling orders and making deliveries. I was processing turkeys within a week of having my first child," she said. The couple also encountered another set of challenges—competition. Nearby small farmers were also raising sustainable poultry. “Even though we were competing for the same dollars, we were helping each other out, making deliveries and sharing the cost of feed," she said. As a result, Todt and Hopkins decided to start a cooperative business, at first just with their neighbors.
In 2014, Heifer International's Seeds of Change manager, Perry Jones, heard about what Todt and Hopkins were doing and offered to help. Seeds of Change, a domestic program of Heifer International, works with farmers in Appalachia and Arkansas to support small sustainable farmers build infrastructure and provide funding. “Seeds of Change was integral to our success with technical assistance and training for the co-op. We also set standards for farmers who wanted to become members," Todt said.
The couple’s program, called Grass Roots Co-Op, now includes more than 15 sustainable livestock farmers from all over Arkansas. Grass Roots Co-Op has also helped found a meat processing company, allowing a reasonable distance and better control on how their meat is handled. Natural State Meat Processing in Clinton has created 17 new jobs in Searcy County, a place where jobs are often difficult to come by.
Between Todt managing the farm, plus Hopkins managing Grass Roots Co-Op, the demanding workload continues, especially during the busy season from March to November. Working together to distribute the responsibilities that were once so tedious for the couple alone, the co-op has provided them and other farmers with accounting, distribution and marketing services.
A typical day for Todt begins with animal care four days a week. Using tractor-pulled “schooners," 2,000 chickens must be moved to new ground, once daily. The 40 head of cattle must be moved twice a day, which requires taking down and putting up fences to accommodate them on greener pastures. More than 100 hogs must also be fed twice daily, as well as 400 turkeys. “I have a man who has been with me for several years who helps me, as well as a woman who is getting into the business as part of the co-op,” Todt said.
Starting out with a consumer-supported agriculture meat share program with limited offerings, Falling Sky Farm now provides an e-commerce platform for CSA customers called “Build Your Own Box." This approach allows consumers to cherry pick the types and amounts of meats they want. Todt said Falling Sky Farm is also working to get their meats into retail grocery establishments.
“The bottom line is: How is your wellbeing affected when you consume meat that has been raised in the industrial system? There's a lot behind our price tag. We're trying to raise animals right, while remaining environmentally conscientious. If people are going to continue to eat meat, our approach is the only way, and that’s sustainable," Todt said.
All things considered, she attributes Falling Sky Farm's successes to people. “The only reason we've gotten where we are is because of the people we've gotten to know and who have helped us."