The career of Willard Sparks might aptly be compared to a shooting star, one that burned brightly over an enormous path, yet was gone far too soon. Sparks’ legacy was that of a successful businessman, dedicated to his family and community.
Born on a Dust Bowl-era farm near Dibble, Okla., in 1936, Sparks learned about hard work and developed a passion for agriculture which he maintained throughout his life. Family members and business associates confirm that Sparks was an “advocate for agriculture” long before that term became popular and was well-known as one of America’s leading authorities on agriculture.
He was also described as a visionary, entrepreneur, humanitarian and philanthropist. The oldest of seven children, Sparks was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a BS and MS in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University and then going on to earn a PhD in statistical science from Michigan State University. By the time of his death in 2005, Sparks was internationally recognized as an authority on agricultural commodity research and analysis, and his life’s work provided a positive influence throughout the agricultural industries.
“Willard had an extraordinary intellect,” says Denver-based cattleman and long-time business partner Ken Green. “He had an uncanny ability to be engaged in many complicated business transactions at one time.”
Sparks moved his family to Memphis, Tenn., in 1963 where he joined Cook Industries as director of economic research. He later became senior executive vice president and director of Cook’s worldwide Agriproducts Group. While at Cook, he played a dominant role in orchestrating the first large sale of U.S. grain to Russia.
In 1977, he launched Sparks Commodities, later named Sparks Companies, Inc., where research and analysis and consulting specialists served hundreds of the world’s leading agribusinesses. He also became involved with Vining-Sparks, a NASD-registered general securities firm headquartered in Memphis. He also purchased a minority interest in Refco, LLC, one of the world’s largest futures commission merchants headquartered in Chicago, and he held membership in many of the major U.S. commodity exchanges.
Despite his rapidly growing business interests, Sparks maintained his passion for production agriculture, which he began to incorporate into his enterprises. In 1988, he and business partners purchased a feedyard in Liberal, Kan., and later added feedyards in Fort Morgan and Sterling, Colo., and Happy, Tex. These yards were operated under the name Cattlco, LLC.