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Outside the box and into the mud

Pulling up to Tommy and Susan Conder’s farm just outside Judsonia, there’s little at first glance that makes it stand out from the countless other farms that dot Arkansas’ landscape.

But not far beyond the pastures where the Conders’ cattle grazes is a challenge waiting to be conquered.

A few years back, Tommy and Susan attended a Natural Resource Enterprise workshop in Stuttgart. Put on by the NRE program at Mississippi State University, the workshop was designed to spark the imaginations of farmers and landowners as to how their land could do more to make money than simply produce livestock, row crops or timber.

The wheels began turning for Tommy and Susan, who quickly recognized that there was a lot more they could do with the 800 acres of land in White County that they and one of Tommy’s sons own.

“Some people at that workshop,” Tommy said, “they were doing corn mazes and things like that on their land. We thought, ‘We’ve got other stuff we could do.’”

That “other stuff” eventually became an 8-kilometer obstacle course that spans a large portion of the Conders’ farm – most of it land not suitable for grazing, but perfect for mud pits, climbing walls, hay bale obstacles and water slides, just to name a few of the course’s features.

The Beast

Tommy and Susan recently took me and Program Officer Samantha Evans on a tour of the course, and although the temperatures were a fair bit cooler than they are in May when they hold their big annual competition – Mud Mayhem – it was easy to get a sense of the type of atmosphere that exists on race day.

“We really love people laughing and having a good time,” Tommy said.

But all the fun and laughter requires quite a bit of careful planning. It takes a staff of 20-30 to make the race happen, and they are trained for several weeks leading up to the event. Susan takes care of the planning and logistics - hiring and training folks from the surrounding area - while Tommy focuses on building and managing the course itself.

“I’m not a businessman,” Tommy said. “I’m a worker.”

Susan agreed and praised Tommy for his resourcefulness in constructing the course.

“If I can describe it to Tommy, he can build it,” she said.

The finish

Eight hundred acres is no small piece of property, and the Conders have imaginations big enough to fill it all and then some. Tommy admitted that in the five years they’ve held Mud Mayhem, they have yet to break even. But that’s only because they keep building and adding onto the course.

“We’ve sunk quite a bit of money into it,” Tommy said. “Would I go back and change that? No. We can still see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And they’re finding new and creative ways to diversify the potential of what they’ve already built. Tommy explained that most of the obstacles on the course are mobile. They plan to load a number of them up on trailers next year and set up a course at Portfest in Jacksonport. They’re looking at other opportunities to take their obstacles on the road, too.

But more important to the Conders than finding ways to make money off their land is the way they’ve been able to give back.

A few years ago, Tommy’s son Sean returned home after serving a tour in Afghanistan as part of the Air Force. Tommy explained how Sean’s unit was involved in combat and survived life-threatening situations.

“They came back pretty spooked,” Tommy said. “We wanted to find a way to help them feel normal again.”

So Tommy and Susan organized their first Heroes R&R, an experience they have since expanded to include members of the military, firefighters, law enforcement officers and health care workers – all those who serve on the front lines of emergency situations. The Conders organize excursions for these groups, which may involve camping, fishing, trap shooting or the obstacle course. They utilize the eight-bedroom lodge they’ve built for these experiences, and the results have been amazing.

After that first experience with Sean’s Air Force unit, Sean’s squadron commander told Tommy, “This has brought our squadron back together.”

Tommy and Susan are exploring grant money that is available to support the excursions, hoping that it will help them expand what they offer.

Parachute

For what looks like a standard 350-head cattle operation from a distance, Tommy and Susan Conder have built something spectacular. And it all started with the spark of an idea at a workshop for landowners.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is partnering with Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service to present a similar workshop here at the Institute on Thursday, March 9. The workshop, which is supported by the Arkansas Forestry Association, the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, will be geared toward landowners who produce timber, but all landowners are welcome and stand to gain some knowledge about income diversification, land management, the Farm Bill, legal issues and more.

Learn more about the Landowners Workshop by clicking here.

You can learn more about Mud Mayhem here or on the race’s Facebook page here.

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