By Isaac Davis
Sweat poured out of my skin like a breached dam. My stiff khakis felt like an armor, and the oversized Wellies were getting a little too heavy for my tiny feet. We began our weekly ritual of shoveling dung from the sheep's pen into wheelbarrows a little late today. The sun must've been upset by our tardiness, because it was bearing down with such vengeance even the sheep wouldn’t leave the pen.
Dad's farm was about fifteen acres of "no man's land" that stretched behind our bungalow. The sheep's pens were spread on the tree-shaded northeast corner while the rest of the land was littered with over ten different fruit trees and vegetables varieties. Dad had a background in industrial design, education and theology…but like most Ghanaians, the science of growing crops just ran in his blood. He particularly fancied himself "a man of the soil."
"Farming is a divine endeavor!" he often told my sisters and me.
I had nothing against “divine endeavors,” except this one greatly messed with my hard earned play time on the soccer field. The girls would rather help Mum grade term papers and sip lemonade in the shade than work on the farm with the old man.
On this Saturday, like most, I had the unfortunate honor of working with Dad on the farm. I looked forward to these Saturdays with mixed feelings. I dearly missed hanging out with the other kids on the soccer field, yet I loved the stories Dad told when we were on the farm. In these conversations, I always felt a sense of trust - a bequeathal of wisdom, a deepening of our friendship. In these moments, the spankings I got for mischief, which I had such an uncanny propensity for, were nothing but a distant memory. He knew how to lay life lessons in a way I understood - in a way that inspired a sense of wonder... and the farm was his classroom.
A gentle breeze had been blowing south most of this afternoon, bringing with it a much needed coolness as well as the stench from the pens. I was tired, thirsty and badly in need of a break. So when Dad suggested we head for the raffia mat under the shade of the mango tree, I obliged. Once we settled in the shade, he grabbed a fistful of dirt and carefully brought it to his nose, much like how a vintner would smell an aged Pinot Noir for its unmistakable bouquet. He massaged the soil, pondered his findings for a bit, and smiled as broadly as his measured personality would allow him.
"We are primed for a bountiful harvest this season!" he declared.
“But how can he tell?” my 10 year old brain wondered.
Well…this is how - here’s a lesson I never forgot:
Life depends on food. Food depends on seeds. Seeds depend on the soil. The soil depends on organic matter - pretty much smelly "once-alive-now-dead" stuff. In other words, in farming, the more crap the better. This is a principle at the very foundation of life. It so turns out that God in his wisdom, which sometimes is counterintuitive to man, chooses to nurture the best outcomes from circumstances we look down on with regret and even disdain.
One such regrettable circumstance in Fort Smith is the devastation Whirlpool’s closure left in its wake. This city was left with more than shattered dreams of a life of upper-middle class comforts. The very survival of thousands of families was threatened. Sometimes I wonder if the recession hit harder anywhere in the country than here. Yet Fort Smith has never been riper for investment. It may sound counterintuitive, but just like the soil on my old man's farm, the junk that unfortunate life events have thrown this city ironically perfectly positions it for growth. These three reasons help paint this picture:
Reason 1: Low Cost of Doing Business (CODB). According to Inc.com, Fort Smith is the second least expensive place in the entire country to start a business. Forbes.com pegs CODB here at 23% below the national average and ranks Fort Smith in the top six least expensive places nationwide to do business.
Reason 2: Low cost of living. In a recent study, Forbes.com reported the cost of living in Fort Smith at 12.9% below the national average. This translates into savings in living wages and housing costs for both the prospective business owner and employees.
Reason 3: More financing options now than ever. There are more resources available to today’s budding entrepreneur than most people think. The BORSA program, which allows you to invest your 401K in yourself penalty-free is a prime example. CBI Team’s Loans 4 Business ( L4B) program assists buyers to secure financing by shopping a deal to about eighty banks who then send proposals back within a week. Another great resource is the “Seller Financing” feature of most businesses for sale. Many business owners will hold a note for a percentage of the listing price of a business for sale. These notes are usually below market interest rates.
Fort Smith's economy can only go up from here. We entrepreneurs get to be at the forefront of this rise. We get to help recreate our culture. Steve Clark, the visionary behind 64.4 Downtown and The Unexpected Project was featured recently in Talkbusiness.net. He put it quite succinctly when asked about all the effort he's putting into the arts in Fort Smith. His answer was, “Because it is the city I want to live in.” He is planting seeds of how he envisions his city (Read full article here). This is the kind of "early adopter" we all can be.
Big corporations are good for any economy, but the two million square feet footprint Whirlpool left us is a stark reminder that ultimately, cities, especially ours, are best built with bricks of smart small businesses and passionate individual endeavors. Our individual hopes and aspirations are the threads that will weave the beautiful tapestry of what Fort Smith can become. This city has never needed each of us to live out our dreams more.
Two Australian-bred sheep turned into hundreds. Harvests of fruits and crops each season filled every space we had to spare on our modest property. We helped feed our neighbors when food shortages hit Ghana in the 80s. This is what God can do with a few seeds and dirt.
In these ashes of our “burnt” economy lies the incredible beauty of our individual dreams and the collective potential of our city.