Duck hunting turned George Dunklin Jr., into a farmer. Farming turned him into a duck habitat conservationist.
By Chris Price | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Arkansas is renowned as the home of the world’s best duck hunting. And in the Natural State, when the greenheads fly, so do the greenbacks. Migratory bird hunting brings in nearly $300 million annually to the state, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.
For millennia, ducks and geese have flocked to breeding grounds in Canada and north-central United States, and when the freezing weather of winter arrives, they have moved south to warmer climates along one of four major avian superhighways. The largest, the Mississippi Flyway, follows the Mississippi River and its tributaries from its headwaters in Minnesota to its delta at the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. It gets about half of the continental population of ducks every year. It narrows roughly north of Memphis, and, funnels millions of ducks into eastern Arkansas, where they find rest on rivers, ponds, bayous and low country swampland filled with insects, seeds, grains and oak trees dropping acorns which nourish and sustain them on their migration to warmer climates.
Since the early 1900s, they have also found one of the state’s greatest cash crops – rice. Arkansas farmers began growing rice in and around the Grand Prairie region when they discovered the land could be easily flooded to create the right environment for its cultivation. Before mechanized farming, as much as 30 percent of the rice crop was lost during harvest. The uncollected grain left in the field served as an all-you-can-eat buffet, drawing millions of birds annually, generation after generation. But what if the environment that attracted migrating waterfowl were to disappear? That was a concern for George H. Dunklin Jr., a rice farmer from Humphrey, who noticed farming trends in the 1970s and drought in the 1980s were decimating natural waterfowl habitats and made their preservation one of his lifes primary missions.
Taking Flight
Dunklin’s passion for duck hunting began during his formative years in the 1960s and 1970s. He grew up in Pine Bluff, a little less than 32 miles, as the duck flies, from Stuttgart, the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World.”
Just eight years old when he made his first trip into the field, he looked forward to duck hunting on his mother’s family farmland in Arkansas and Jefferson counties. He cherished the time he got to spend with his father and cousin on trips commuting to and from the field and the magic they got to share in the blinds in the family’s rice fields and flooded timber.
Like his father, he was a renowned tennis player. His skill earned him a scholarship to the University of Memphis, where he majored in business management, something his dad told him he could use anywhere. Upon graduation, he figured he would stay in Memphis or move to Little Rock and work in a bank or private enterprise. Once he got his degree, however, he kept thinking about his family’s land, the duck hunting he enjoyed in his youth and wondered if his future was in farming.
As he describes it, his father had his own business in Pine Bluff, and his parents were absentee landowners who leased their land to tenant farmers and managed things by telephone.
“My mother basically inherited these farms the year I was born, 1956,” Dunklin says. “I really did not have any idea what we had. That was something that was never talked about. When I was raised, no one ever asked how many acres you have. That’s just like asking how much money you have in your bank account. So they never told us. I never asked. I’m not sure if my mother even knew, and she owned the land.
“I knew, though, before I went and started a career, I at least needed to know what this was,” he adds. “I knew I needed to learn it.”
Down on the farm
In his early 20s, unmarried and glad to be out of school, Dunklin returned to Arkansas eager to learn all he could about cultivating crops, especially rice.
“When I came over here, I knew nothing about farming,” he says. “I knew where the ducks were, and that’s what really drew me back over here.
“I told my mother, if I’m going to learn it, I’ve got to learn from the ground up.”
Dunklin set his sights on starting with 600 acres, met with several neighboring farmers and his family’s tenants to soak up as much farming knowledge as he could, bought a tractor and a combine and went to work.
Unfortunately, just as he was getting his start, Arkansas was faced with one of the worst droughts in its history. Without water, lots and lots of water, rice can’t successfully grow. To get what they needed, farmers began digging wells. At first, they found what they needed 200 feet underground. Soon, they needed to go to 500 feet. The further down they went, the more their costs increased.
“It gets real expensive when you have to use wells, and costs just grew exponentially,” Dunklin says. “Things got really lean. People gave up their soybean water to save their rice. They had to make decisions consciously. Everybody was saying, ‘Well, how can we survive a 1980 if that ever happened again?’ That was a driving point for me to figure that out, so I began to focus on how to save water, reduce expenses and become a low-cost producer.”
As he studied and employed new techniques, including increased use of reservoirs and zero grading fields to reduce runoff, he began to notice some of the farming strategies that had been pushed in the late 1960s and 1970s were detrimental to water retention. When Earl Butz was secretary of agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he pushed large-scale corporate farming and urged farmers to clear their property and plant “from fencerow to fencerow.”
“People took that literally and cleared everything,” Dunklin says. “We really expanded our global sales, but we just started destroying critical habitat for ducks. And if there’s any commonality between rice and ducks, it’s water.”
While Butz was advocating planting every possible inch available, farming equipment modernized. Lost crops were limited, which improved yields and farmers’ incomes, and further exacerbated the expansion into undeveloped land that was natural habitats for migrating ducks.
“Animals follow resources – food, shelter, a place to rest – and if they can’t consistently and easily find what they need, they will find someplace else to stop,” Dunklin says.
Understanding the causal relationship between increased land use and decreased waterfowl habitat, he began to direct his energies into saving and expanding habitats that made Arkansas a world-class destination for ducks and duck hunters.
“Something genetically kicked in, and I loved it,” he says. “I fell in love with the dirt, and I loved everything about it. I wanted to improve everything I had. I wanted to make things better.”
Conservation Becomes Critical
Ducks Unlimited, the world’s leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation, started in 1937 with a mission of habitat conservation after Dust Bowl-era drought-plagued waterfowl and dropped their populations to unprecedented lows. Dunklin first joined the organization when he was 16, but as he became more experienced with land management as a farmer, he knew to provide the right habitat for waterfowl was the only way to ensure there would be enough birds to fuel his and others’ duck hunting passion.
Before he took over management of the family farm, his mother leased a portion of the land to the Memphis Furniture Co., which built Five Oaks Lodge in 1976 as a place to entertain clients over duck hunting trips. When the company lost its largest account with Sears Roebuck & Co. in 1983, they sold the lodge to Dunklin. With a new revenue stream opened, he began to pay more attention to how he used his acreage to farm and provide the habitat migratory and wintering waterfowl crave. He hired a wildlife biologist to help him develop a plan that included adding thousands of acorn-producing Nuttall and Willow oak trees, plots of corn, millet, buckwheat, and milo, and indigenous herbs, like crabgrass, toothcup, and smartweed, for traveling birds to eat as they moved south.
“We’ve put decades of research and scientific study into the nurturing relationship between waterfowl and habitat, and our land-management plans have a national reputation for success,” he says. “When you go out into our fields, it looks like weeds to us. But to ducks, it’s a smorgasbord. They get out here, and they’re like, ‘Man, I’m at Franke’s Cafeteria.’ There are great carbohydrates to keep them warm when their metabolic rate increases in the cold weather. And the moist soil is loaded with protein-rich bugs and invertebrates that they need to fly the thousands of miles they travel from the Great Plains to the Yucatan.
“If there weren’t anything for the birds to eat when they got here, it wouldn’t take many years for these populations to die off. And a great example of that is what’s happened to quail in the state of Arkansas.”
Dunklin’s passion and success led him to get involved in conservation efforts at statewide and national levels.
In 2003, he joined Ducks Unlimited’s board of directors. Two years later, then-governor Mike Huckabee appointed him to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, a position he held for seven years and served as its chairman from 2011-2012. Budweiser and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation named him Conservationist of the Year in 2009 and awarded him a $50,000 grant to support a conservation project of his choosing. He donated it to make improvements to the state-owned 33,832-acre Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. He was elected to a two-year term as Ducks Unlimited’s national president in 2013 and elected the organization’s chairman of the board for a two-year term in 2015. That same year, he was inducted into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame and was an inaugural member of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame in 2016.
“George Dunklin has earned his rightful place among the historic conservation leaders of Arkansas, and is well recognized across the United States and Canada for his pioneering work in wetlands restoration and conservation,” says Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall. “His leadership at Ducks Unlimited helped mold the approach to bottomland hardwood wetlands and rice management partnerships with agricultural interests throughout the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. These wetlands are critical to the health of the delta, to the river, and in holding back flood waters. George is a true conservation hero.”
Pat Fitts, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, says Dunklin’s work is an inspiration.
“Everywhere you look, when conservation issues are on the forefront of what we’re doing, there stands George Dunklin,” Fitts says. “He’s always ready to roll up his sleeves and do what needs to be done for the resources of the state of Arkansas.”
Focused on the Future
With the conservation methods Dunklin and other duck hunting enthusiasts have promoted working hand in hand with Arkansas’ attractive natural habitats, the sport will continue to thrive in the Natural State.
“Arkansas is the northernmost state on the Mississippi Flyway that doesn’t freeze,” he says. “More Mallards winter here than any other place in North America, and they return year after year. That’s what makes Arkansas so special.”
With as many as 600,000 Mallards taken in Arkansas alone over the 60-day annual season, hunters will continue to come here for the unparalleled experience the state provides.
“We call it the power of the duck,” Dunklin says. “Duck hunting is done in groups – with your family, friends, clients, whoever you have in the blind. It’s not like deer hunting, which you usually do alone. You’re creating memories, and you all can share that forever. That’s what makes it so unique, and why it’s so loved by so many people.”