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Spring Harvest 2019

Raising Growing

S Sheep heep LOCAL STORES, LOCAL FOOD

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Spring Harvest 2019

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BUGS AND CLIMATE CHANGE Monitoring and Managing Crops

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CENTRAL ARKANSAS MARKETS Find local food in these locally-owned grocery stores

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ARKANSAS HIGH TUNNELS Extending the Growing Season

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RAISING EWES Growing Sheep Gains Popularity

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OLDE CROW GENERAL STORE Bringing Farm-Fresh Food to Downtown Benton

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IN PARTNERSHIP WITH

ON T H E COV E R :

Photography by Katie Childs

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arkansasfoodandfarm.com ALAN LEVERITT President alan@arktimes.com KATHERINE DANIELS Publisher katherine@arktimes.com LACEY THACKER Editor lacey@arktimes.com MANDY KEENER Creative Director mandy@arktimes.com KATIE HASSELL Art Director/Digital Manager PHYLLIS A. BRITTON Sales Director phyllis@arktimes.com BROOKE WALLACE DARLENE SIMPSON LEE MAJOR LESA THOMAS NATHAN STAMP TERRELL JACOB Account Executives HANNAH PEACOCK Advertising Assistant WELDON WILSON Production Manager/Controller ROLAND R. GLADDEN Advertising Traffic Manager

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SUMMER HARVEST ISSUE - JULY 2019 FALL HARVEST ISSUE - AUGUST 2019 Contact Katherine Daniels with story ideas or advertising opportunities at katherine@arktimes.com. SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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SHEEP GUARDS

Farming is hard.

Alan Leveritt President, Arkansas Food & Farm Arkansas Times Publishing

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Photography by Katie Childs

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f the rains don’t stop soon I’m going to forget about planting heirloom tomatoes and just stock the field with catfish. We’ve not had a week without rain since October and Bayou Meto, which cuts through my farm. has been brown and roaring. You can hear it 100 yards away through the woods. There is a patch of bottomland on the farm where Bayou Meto hits a limestone bluff and makes a hard left as it hurtles to the Arkansas River. Every year when the Dogwoods bloom, I can find at least a few morel mushrooms there, usually nestled up to large hardwood trees. This year there was two inches of standing water in the bottoms, effectively drowning the harvest. I don’t know if it is connected to the incessant rain and flooding but our sheep have been attacked by coyotes constantly this winter. More than any other year. The predators charge right through the electric wire and have killed eight or nine animals since November. Inevitably I find a head, ribs and skin. The coyotes must be starving because everything edible is devoured. In the morning I find myself scanning the fields, dreading the sight of buzzards on the ground. Sheep friends recommended donkeys as guard animals, so we bought four and promptly lost three sheep in two weeks. So another friend offered to give me an Anatolian that he said was a great sheep guard but had killed a neighbor dog recently and needed to disappear. So now I have Roxie, who looks like a long German Shepherd, loves people and takes no nonsense from other animals. Every night I put her in with the donkeys and sheep and let her up in the yard in the morning. So far we’ve had two new lambs and no coyote attacks. I have seen Roxie take down a big Great Pyrenees twice and yet she will lay down within a few feet of a new born lamb. But I’m not sure Roxie gets all the credit. The same day Roxie arrived, one of the donkeys had a foal and two days later, another jenny gave birth. A friend's puppy wandered out into the pasture and Dominica, my brown donkey, charged him and ran him under the wire. So now I have four donkeys, two foals and a big dog. If this keeps up, soon every sheep will have a personal bodyguard.


SPRING, AGAIN

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Lacey poses in the gardens of Marlsgate Plantation in Scott, Arkansas.

hen I first saw the shoots of daffodils peeking above the soil in February, it was hard to imagine that one day soon after, we would awaken to find everything blooming, the softness of foliage covering the hard skeleton of bare winter trees. Soon it will be blazing hot and, soon after that, the leaves will start to turn, winter once more on its way. It seems the planet circles the sun so quickly these days; but still, to everything there is a season. As the weather warms and I am outside more, I’ve been more deeply considering humanity’s impact on the earth—including trash we produce, oil we use, the natural habitats we affect—and wondering how we can ever begin to minimize the changes we cause. It seems to me the only possible answer is to make caring the default position, and that starts with individuals deciding the earth is more important that convenience. This consideration has also led to renewed concern about the impact of climate change on growing crops. To help answer a few questions about how to manage for possible drought and increased pests, entomologist Dr. Warren Sconiers shares some of his research. You’ll also read about extending the growing season through the use of hoop houses, the history of raising sheep for meat in Arkansas and emerging local food markets in Central Arkansas. I hope you enjoy this issue outside, with the sun shining and a glass of something cold.

Lacey Thacker Editor

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Bugs and Climate Change Notes from the Field By Warren Sconiers, Ph.D.

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limate change is a buzzphrase that has many meanings and possible consequences. Simply put, climate change is just that—a changing climate. But what does that really mean? First off, let’s start off with a foundational understanding of climate. The “weather” is what you experience day-to-day in your town (hot days, rainy days, etc.), whereas “climate” is the long-term pattern of weather (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). For instance, much of Arkansas is a subtropical, humid climate from its weather pattern across seasons. This includes the hot sunny days and the dusting of snow in November last year. Global warming describes the warming trend that is being observed around the world. Increasing temperature leads to more energy that drives our climate. Thus, global warming is a driving factor for climate change. More heat means more storms and extreme weather as that energy is released. While global warming and climate change are separate phenomena, they are intertwined.

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CLIMATE CHANGE, CROPS, AND INSECTS

OK, so how can this affect you? Well, growers and farmers in Arkansas may experience changes in how they raise their crops due to behavioral changes in insect pests. That’s right, bugs! The amount of insects depends upon the weather, especially temperature. For instance, insects reproduce faster when temperatures are higher, leading to greater emergences and generations of insects during the growing season. With warmer temperatures, we can expect warmer and shorter winters between growing seasons. In general, insect pests will continue to reproduce later in the growing season and emerge earlier in the next growing season. Adjusting your planting schedule to accommodate earlier pests may be key to avoiding yield losses. For instance, planting corn before May can help you avoid southwestern corn borer and budworm damage. Western flower thrips are notorious for damaging seedlings and may arrive earlier with warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures typically lead to drought. Water deficiency in plants can make insects feed more compared to wellwatered plants. From my research, plants suffering from repeated cycles of rain and drought (or water deficiency) may become more nutritious, making some pests prefer these plants. Cotton aphids, cotton fleahoppers, Southern green stinkbugs, and Western flower thrips may become numerous on irrigated cotton recovering from water deficiency. How does this work? Plants will speed up their recovery from water deficiency by gathering nutrients to vulnerable places. Nutrients such as sugars and proteins will be moved to these places; however, insects use these same nutrients to develop and reproduce, making drier plants more nutritious at times. How can you tell that your plants are suffering from drought? Unfortunately, the typical sign of wilting plants is one of the last symptoms of a dry plant. Nutritional changes commonly occur before a plant wilts. However, growers and farmers may use a device called a pressure chamber that tests a sample of plants for water deficiency. A pressure chamber can signal the early signs of water deficiency days before plants wilt. I have used them for my research and they are very handy. For a complete source list, visit arkansasfoodandfarm.com.

insects reproduce faster when temperatures are higher, leading to greater emergences and generations of insects during the growing season.

Aphids and stinkbugs are two of the pests that can proliferate on water-deficient plants.

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lady bugs and green lacewings aggressively consume aphids and small armyworms.

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WHAT CAN WE DO?

In 2017, Arkansas produced over $1.7 billion in soybeans, $380 million in corn and $369 million in cotton, with rice production at over $950 million, according to the USDA. These crops form the cornerstone of Arkansas’s $16 billion agricultural industry with 97% of farms family owned, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Over the next few decades as our population increases, farmers are expected to grow more food and become more productive to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people as of 2050 as estimated by the United Nations. As it gets warmer and plants dry out, farmers may see more of these insects after they irrigate. If crops are irrigated after they become water deficient, try scouting for pests within a day or two post-irrigation. This will help determine necessary pest-mitigation steps. One possible pest solution is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), in which growers use other living organisms such as insect predators, spiders or parasitoid wasps to control crop pests. For example, lady bugs and green lacewings aggressively consume aphids and small armyworms, and can be purchased from insectaries such as Rincon-Vitova (rinconvitova.com). The benefits of natural pest control is that these insects remain on your crops, will reproduce and will not damage crops, providing lasting production. Along those lines, bioinsecticides such as Helicoverpa NPV are viral infections that only infect the target pests in Helicoverpa, such as soybean podworms, tobacco budworms and corn earworms, the University of Arkansas says. There are also parastoid wasps that lay eggs in and kill a variety of aphid species, and predatory mites that preferentially consume thrips. These approaches are still susceptible to pesticides but can allow for natural and sustainable methods to control pests. In the end, expect to adjust your routines to accommodate climate change, but this is a gradual process. In some areas of the country, changes may already be here, while others may take longer to notice. Just keep an eye out for thirsty plants, and consider natural pest control.

Green lacewings and ladybugs both consume pests that can damage crops. SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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Photography by Brian Chilson

Central Arkansas Markets Local Stores, Local Food By Richard Ledbetter

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rkansas is blessed with a temperate climate and lengthy growing season, so it’s no surprise we also find ourselves fortunate in the number of fresh food sources available. Three locally owned and operated markets come to mind offering a wide variety of grassfed beef, buffalo, elk, pork, lamb, poultry, eggs, honey, seasonal fruits and fresh, clean produce.

Bramble Market

9325 Ferndale Cut-off Road Little Rock Owner David Rice told us, “We are a local momand-pop shop. I’m pretty much a one-man show with contributing volunteerism from my lovely wife, Micah.” Bramble Market began as a small operation with help from family and friends, who all pitch in as needed. Though they’ve only been around since August of 14

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2018, they set their roots in a spot that’s been in the community for decades. “It was an old landscaping showroom we converted to a market. My wife and I both grew up within a few miles of here,” Rice says. But the market doesn’t just provide basic groceries. They’re working to create a community food experience, something that’s made easier with their health department-certified kitchen. Rice says, “A private chef and I have done 40-person private dinners a few times. Essentially the crowd hires the chef to prepare the meats and produce we provide. We clear out the middle of the building and set up tables to just let everyone do their thing and enjoy themselves.” The meals were so popular, the Bramble Market developed a waiting list, and they’re working on setting up ready-to-heat meals that people can pick up and take home. Bramble Market sources its meat from five farms around the state, and it also offers fruit, vegetables and mushrooms in season. Produce is gathered from local


The Bramble Market offers local honey, produce and community events.

growers and distributors as demand requires. Rice says, “I want to see the farmstead or garden of every local provider to make sure they’re clean and wholesome. Our rice comes from a 10th-generation farm and our beef comes from a fourth generation farming family. It’s all naturally grown good, clean stuff. I can’t emphasize enough the value we attach to our vendors and how proud we are to provide a showcase for them. We have lots of art pieces and pottery from local artisans. We even have fresh baked cookies local 12-year-olds bring to us to sell. “What I believe sets us apart from everyday markets is we’re near Pinnacle Mountain State Park and we have 4 acres here where we do a lot of outdoor programs. This coming weekend we’re working with the [Arkansas] Game and Fish [Commission] for kids to come in and assemble prefabricated bluebird boxes. We’re very

involved with the community and work closely with the food bank. Most weekends we have one or two food trucks set up cooking. “We have a fall harvest festival around the middle of October where with a pumpkin patch for the kids and some 30-plus vendors selling everything from homemade wooden spoons, cutting boards, soaps and pottery. Several food trucks show up for that with a variety of fare." Rice concluded saying, “Every little market is looking for its own niche and rhythm. I’d say what best describes our store on a daily basis is we are like a farmer’s market with 50 different booths all under one roof, but there’s just one register.” Call Bramble Market at 501-954-0754. Open Wed.- Fri. 9a.m.-6p.m., Sat. 9a.m-4p.m. and Sun. 1p.m.-4p.m.. SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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Photography by Brian Chilson

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Me and McGee Market 10409 U.S. Highway. 70 North Little Rock

Logan Duvall told Food & Farm, “My grandparents Debbie and Larry McGee started selling pecans by the roadside that they gathered on the property. My mom, Neva Collier, suggested planting a little garden for the family. A lot of folks travel Highway 70 and they just started pulling in. Mom suggested building a small stand, and customers just kept picking up until we couldn’t grow it all. That led to working with local farmers to meet the demand. When Grandpa Larry got real sick it broke my mom’s heart to see their roadside market just go away, so she moved out here and pitched in full time.” That’s about the time social media took off, due in no small part to Debbie’s efforts styling and photographing what they had to offer. From there, market traffic exploded. It grew to the point that Logan quit the real estate business and ambulance service to join full time two and a half years ago. The family uses a lot of Dale Carnegie techniques, greeting people with a smile and remembering their name. Logan says, “It seems with social media these days we are more connected than ever while at the same time we’re more disconnected personally. Once we get people out here and they see what we’re doing, they keep coming back.” “We were closed for winter and just reopened in April. Seeing all the smiling faces we hadn’t seen in months reinvigorated us all. We try to give everyone who stops in an experience they’ll feel worth repeating. But none of this would be here if it weren’t for the hard work and sacrifices of my mom and her parents.” Call Logan at 479-857-4799. They’re open Weds.-Fri. 10a.m.6p.m., Sun. 11a.m.-4p.m. Me and McGee Market began as a roadside stand to sell extra produce from the family garden. SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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Photography courtesy of Heights Corner Market

Heights Corner Market 5018 Kavanaugh Blvd Little Rock

Eric and Louanne Herget took over Terry’s Finer Foods in March 2017. The spot has been a neighborhood market for over 70 years. Herget said, “It’s not easy today with so many large-scale competitors, grocery delivery and the like. But we’re in the neighborhood and we fully support local producers. We always go with grassroots growers. That makes it work for us and our customers. We offer a selection of wines and if there’s something you need after hours, track me down and I’ll get it for you." In addition to the grocery store, Heights Corner Market has three restaurants under one roof. The market itself has a deli in the back offering fresh sandwiches. The Green Room, next door, plays directly off the Corner Market. “Our chef gathers his ingredients from our aisles every day just

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like our clientele. He has access to a broad selection of foods your typical restaurant won’t have,” Herget says. And if you see something in the market meat case not on the menu, just ask and he’ll prepare it for you. On Sunday, The Green Room serves brunch from 9a.m. until 2p.m. The newly-opened Walter’s Coffee Shop and Speak Easy offers coffee and breakfast in the mornings, but after 4p.m. the Speak Easy opens with drink specials and occasional light music. Herget says, “We are a small company, which allows us to make decisions quickly. If you suggest a dining idea, it may well appear on our menu that night. We take pride in telling people ‘yes’ and we carry out your groceries. We’re an old school grocer surviving in a Walmart world.” Call the Heights Corner Market at 501-663-4152. Hours of operation are Mon.-Sat. 8a.m.6p.m., Sun. 11a.m.-2p.m.

The Heights Corner Market includes a coffee shop, bar and restaurant, along with the grocery store, which sources many products locally.

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Arkansas High Tunnels Extending the Growing Season By Benjamin Harrison

Barnhill Orchards is known across Central Arkansas for their sweet strawberries.

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tretching over the pastoral northern fields of Barnhill Orchards in Lonoke, high tunnels dominate the horizon. But the hope for extended seasons and greater profits mirrors an unpredictable local market, hefty startup costs, and crop and soil management issues. Despite this, some growers have balanced the act and aspire to better compete with high-mileage produce from out of state. “Our plan is to have a whole bunch more,” says second-generation farmer Ekko Barnhill. “Ideally, everything we wanna grow is gonna be in a tunnel. That would be perfect because you keep the wind and the rain off it.” Her brother, Rex Barnhill, adamantly agrees. “I’m trying to go big,” he says. “I mean, to me, 2 acres is big. I’d like to come in first of March and go out (the) middle of July. That’s my goal with strawberries. California does it year-round. For some reason, they’ve got the right environment. We don’t.” Five years ago, when the Barnhills began installing high tunnels, the cost of one was around $5,000. Today, that cost has nearly doubled to around $9,000. “What you see here, in this bay, is one-fifth of an

“Ideally, everything we grow is gonna be in a tunnel.” —Ekko Barnhill

acre,” Rex says. “So if you multiply that out, for an acre, that’s $50,000.” But there’s money to be made. Strawberry season in Arkansas usually lasts 4-6 weeks, but Rex has managed to stretch it to four-and-a-half months. High tunnels magnify the sun’s natural heating capacity in late winter and early spring. During the summer months, shade cloth is applied to lower temperatures within the tunnels by 10-15 degrees. Each crop a farmer grows has a specific set of needs. For Barnhill, growing year-round is restricted to its signature Muir lettuce. June pushes 90-degree temperatures, a death knell for strawberries, and the cool winter weather restricts summer onions and the like. Costs associated with high tunnel production don’t stop with the initial installation. The plastic coverings have to be replaced every 5-6 years. Gusting winds are the largest factor for high tunnel growers in Arkansas. “When the wind comes in here,” says Rex, “about 60 miles an hour is all these things can handle. Some of this plastic’s gone way over there in the next county. I don’t even know where it is.”

Adding high tunnels to their farm has allowed Barnhill Orchards to expand their strawberry season to around four months, up from four to six weeks.

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Bobby Burrows walks the rows of a high tunnel at the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas.

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The majority of Barnhill Orchards’ high tunnels were purchased without the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Services, which provides partial funding to farmers for high tunnels. Some growers may consider the NRCS standard tunnels somewhat overkill for Arkansas weather. Their metal posts are more tightly spaced, and they are designed to withstand heavy sleet, snow, wind and rain. They’re also about twice the cost of most of the tunnels at Barnhill Orchards. NRCS high tunnels may be a better fit for a smallscale nonprofit operation like the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas in North Little Rock. They received financial assistance through an urban farming grant from the NRCS and three high tunnels through the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Following the guidelines and requirements to receive funding for the high tunnels can be a bit of a bother, and the sturdier tunnels may not be necessary in Arkansas’s less-extreme climate. The growers at St. Joseph’s are only in their second year of high tunnel operation, but they have already seen their share of successes and struggles. “We carried our tomatoes to November last year,” said Bobby Burrows, which is about a month longer than previous seasons. “We put shade cloth over the top, and we can keep our tomatoes and peppers going

in July and August. We’re just now [in early April] getting into where we started planting last year. But we’ve been going all winter with lettuce and radishes.” Still, demand in the local market determines which crops growers experiment with and, ultimately, how high tunnels are used in Arkansas. “We started doing more head lettuce and salad mix,” says Travis DeLongchamp, another grower at St. Joseph’s. “The nice thing about the lettuce is we can get rid of it pretty easily. We’d do other things if we knew people would buy it.” That sentiment is echoed by Rex Barnhill, who is running a trial of five varieties of strawberries this season. “You need to extend the season [on strawberries],” Rex says. “I’m not doing a very good job here, because my main squeeze is lettuce.” High-mileage, low-cost produce from out of state pressures local growers to focus on the easy money first. For many farmers, that’s lettuce. “If I’m raising lettuce,” Rex says, “I can pay off [the tunnel] in one year. If I’m raising strawberries, I can probably pay it off in one year. I charge twice as much, but every leaf on [my] plant is usable. And in the strawberry business, I’m not picking it green and letting it ripen on the truck. The flavor is there. The flavor in a California berry isn’t there, because they’re picking them green.”

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Raising

Ewes 26

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SHEEPISH: Arkansas farmers are growing more sheep every year.

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“It’s a great livestock animal for kids.” —Mike Reynolds

FAIR, NOT FARE: Many sheep are sold to children for 4H competitions.

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t’s early morning near Greenbrier, cold but clear, as Mike Reynolds makes his way to check on his ewes, most only weeks from lambing. This is perfect birthing weather. A 34-degree rain can kill a newborn, while a lamb’s wool coat is the perfect protection from dry freezing temperatures. As Reynolds and his border collie, Patches, ever on the lookout for predators, enter the fenced area, the ewes turn toward them, softly bleating their welcome. Some even run in his direction. Forget commercial farms and feedlots; most of Arkansas’s approximately 22,600 sheep are raised on small farms like Reynolds’. Arkansas’s Greatest Generation was reluctant to embrace mutton, because it had been served on the battlefield by Australians to American soldiers during World War II, and it was often described as having an unpleasant “twang.” That earned mutton a bad rap that continues today. James Morgan, of Round Mountain Farm near Fayetteville, would often counter any customer’s objection to lamb by saying, “It’s the red meat with flavor,” and perhaps adding, “Beef is boring.” He recommends starting with a lamb chop and following the cooking instructions carefully or grilling a lamb cut like a shank or ribs, saying, “It really enhances the flavor.”

GRASS, NON HORMONE FED

“I’ve seen a lot of changes. …These days there’s a willingness to explore new foods,” Morgan says about his 22 years in the business. Lamb is an easier sell these days,

because shoppers are more likely to give it a first bite. And now, Morgan sells all the meat he raises on his 15-acre farm about 10 miles east of Fayetteville. Most of the year, he has as many as 30 Katahdin ewes, but during lambing season his herd swells to about 90 (yes, sheep often deliver twins). Unlike large commercial livestock operations, Morgan relies on his pastures to keep his sheep fed. Of course, he supplements their diet when needed, but doesn’t use medicated feeds or hormones. Ultimately, he is able to offer his customers—many are loyal fans—quality lamb or ewe meat at grocery store and competitive prices. That’s important, he says. In Arkansas, Morgan’s operation’s size is typical with nearly 800 farms each raising under 24 head, while only about 300 farms have up to 100 heads. According to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, there are 33 operations with more than 100 head and only two with more than 300.

GROWING SHEEP, GROWING MARKETS

According to 2017 UA stats released in mid-April, the number of sheep raised on Arkansas farms has grown by about 3,800 head since 2012. Chelsey Kimbrough, a Specialty Livestock/Youth Education Specialist with the UA System Division of Agriculture, says, “We’ve seen an increase, with more producers in south [Arkansas]. Dr. David Fernandez is interim assistant dean for academic programs’ School of SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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“These days there’s a willingness to explore new foods.” —James Morgan

GOOD EWES: Sheep are inexpensive and easy to feed.

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Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He also raises about 25 ewes on 20 acres near Grapevine in Grant County. He says there’s a growing demand for lamb in some of Arkansas’s ethnic communities, including Jewish, Hispanic and Islamic. In the Hispanic community, both lamb and sheep are popular, while in the Jewish and Islamic communities, lamb is served during certain religious holidays.

REASONS TO RAISE EWES

Besides lamb being “tasty and nutritious, and a lamb chop is the perfect serving size for a child,” Fernandez says sheep are relatively easy to raise, even during the hot summer months. Fernandez says because the animals are inexpensive to buy and feed and are small, sheep are well-suited to grassbased and small-scale agriculture. Sheep can digest weeds and other vegetation that cattle can’t, and are excellent at weed and brush control, and can actually improve the quality of a pasture. Sheep can also coexist with cattle. As importantly, a farmer’s rate of return on an investment is quickly turned around because ewes reproduce at a young age and have a high twinning rate. A lamb can be marketed at 6-10 months. Even grown sheep are not intimidating or dangerous and, as such, are good enterprises for women, youth and aging farmers.

READING, WRITING AND A’RAISING SHEEP

Not all of Arkansas-born lambs end up as Sunday dinner, but as many as 400 sheep are sold to kids and entered into the Arkansas State Fair competitions through the Future Farmers of America and 4H youth programs each year. Most of Mike Reynolds’ lambs, born in late winter, are sold to students through 4H. “It’s a great livestock animal for kids,” he says. Reynolds is a Central Arkansas farmer raising sheep under the name Pin Oak Club Lamb and is the Arkansas State Sheep Council president. Reynolds runs about 65 adult Suffolk Hampshire cross ewes on his 64-acre farm near Greenbrier. “My lambs are weened at 60 days,” and ready for sale by April, Reynolds says. The kids then raise the lambs to about 60 pounds, and that’s big enough “to compete at county and state fairs by summer,” Reynolds says. A number of Arkansas youths have competed and won at the national level. Each year, the Arkansas State Sheep Council awards about $15,000 in prize money to students members of the Arkansas Junior Sheep Council, Reynolds says. “The youth gain life skills like time management and fiscal responsibility. … They learn about themselves,” Kimbrough adds. The students grow professionally and personally, and, she says, many who raise sheep may impact the future of the state’s agriculture preferences.

SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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Olde Crow General Store

Bringing Farm-Fresh Food to Downtown Benton By Benjamin Harrison

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The newly-opened Olde Crow General Store in Downtown Benton hosts a permanent food truck and honey and produce from local farms.

SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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The interior of the Helton’s first store off Highway 5 near Hot Springs Village.

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B

efore he became a farmer, Damon Helton had completed five tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The natural next step upon returning to the homeland, it seemed, was selling tactical equipment and apparel to the military. “I thought I was a big man,” he says, “because I was Diamond on Delta or whatever. I flew a hundred-thousand miles a year. It was great money, but I wasn’t home. Jana (his wife) was raising the kids, and I lived out of a suitcase. My quality of life sucked.” In 2012, Damon left his sales job, and the Heltons—taking what they refer to as a leap of faith—purchased their farm, established the foundation of a house, and began peppering the property with livestock and infrastructure. Two years later, they settled into their new home, and in October 2015 they opened shop on the Olde Crow General Store down the road, on the outskirts of Benton, off Highway 5. In a mere three years, and with guidance from other farmers in the regionsuch as Rex Barnhill of Barnhill Orchards, Damon has settled into the farming lifestyle. “When I first started,” he says, “I was like, ‘Hey man, why's my cow got runny eyes?’ I had no idea what I was doing.” Jana, Damon’s wife and the matriarch of the Helton family, discovered Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group through a client at her workplace in Little Rock. From there, she discovered Armed to Farm, a National Center for Appropriate Technology program that provides sustainable agriculture training to military veterans. “We were the only people from Arkansas that were picked,” Damon says. “It was on campus [in Fayetteville]. We stayed in the dorms, and we were there for a week of training. That really gave us the kick in the ass to kind of run with it.” From their experience with Armed to Farm, the Heltons discovered the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and they felt they’d found a support network that would allow them to fully embrace their newfound role in the sustainable agriculture and local food movements. But, as with most growers, the tricky local food market has a way of wearing down a farmer. “Farmers markets are great,” Damon says. “But, you know, your calendar’s cut in half, you only get six months. I was doing everything I could to generate income, but it was futile.” Fuel costs were through the roof, and Damon was in the meat grinder. Then one day, the lightbulb moment came. He looked out over the dash of his white dually Dodge Ram, across the intersection of Highway 9 and Hot Springs Highway, at the old white abandoned Shell station. It had sat empty for a decade, save numerous short-lived enterprises that had passed through. He called Jana right then and told her, “We're gonna open up that store across the street.” The closest grocery store is 25 miles away, and Olde Crow General Store had Hot Springs Village to help jump-start the business. Roughly 80 percent

“I work harder than I’ve ever worked, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” —Damon Helton

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Jana Helton opens the Olde Crow General Store in downtown Benton.

of the Heltons' sales are from the community of about 15,000 people nestled roughly 5 miles down the road. Many of the residents there are not native to Arkansas, but they do possess a greater degree of expendable income than most of Benton’s population, as well as an appreciation for high-quality food. “If we were just kind of left to our devices and just the community,” Damon says, “we probably wouldn't have been able to see it through.” Hot Springs Village is the largest community of retired veterans in the United States. So the Heltons are a natural fit, not just for Damon’s military background, but also for the charm and energy with which he seems to fill his role as a sustainable and local food aficionado. When Damon first arrived in Benton, using words like organic and sustainable, he was considered unconventional, to say the least. “They told me, ‘You ain’t gonna make no money,’” Damon says. “‘Can’t do it.’” But the Heltons are still around, in spite of those who didn’t think he would last even one year. But now, Damon says, local residents are a little more curious about what he’s up to. 36

ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM | SPRING HARVEST 2019

Not satisfied only with carrying the message of sustainability to local folks, Damon also takes his knowledge—and pork chops—to local schools through the Farm Bureau’s program, Ag In the Classroom. “These kids,” Damon says, “have no idea where this stuff comes from. I say, ‘Hey, do you know where milk comes from? Do you know where beef comes from?’ And they’ll look at you and say, ‘Yeah, I grocery shop with my mom.’” Suffice it to say, Damon has his hands in a lot of cookie jars. Farmer, entrepreneur, educator, advocate, family man, community builder. “I work harder than I've ever worked,” he says. “But I'm happier than I've ever been.” “We think agriculture really is the answer for veterans,” Jana says. “Because it makes them exhaust their minds. You'll never get them behind a desk. They have to be outside and just exhausting themselves physically, and that really was like a saving grace for him.” Two months ago, with the success of the store on Highway 5 under their belt, the Heltons expanded operations to downtown Benton, 25 miles away, with their farm conveniently centered between the two stores.


The new location is up and running, with an unnamed red food truck serving the already popular Philly Beef Steak Sandwich. So far, Damon has sold out every day. His military buddies have suggested he title the food truck Dirty’s, a nickname he earned as the only Arkansan, or country boy, in his Army platoon. It’s yet to be determined. The sign to the building still reads Main Street Station, but it does assuredly house Olde Crow General Store, as well as a Loblolly ice cream parlor. “Phase three of all this,” Jana says. “We bought two historic buildings on the square [in downtown Benton]. We'll eventually have a farm-to-table restaurant.” Hot Springs is a popular destination, and just west is the Ouachita National Forest. “We’re at this convergence,” Damon says. “Everything’s coming this way.” And with the recently slated $138 million widening of I-30, urban dwellers in Little Rock and its surrounding areas who venture west to either of these popular travel destinations have along the way, in the Olde Crow General Store, what the Heltons hope will become an iconic food stop. “Know your farmer. Know your food.” That’s the mission statement of Olde Crow General Store. “That’s what the store was for us,” Damon says. “Any car that goes by, chances are it's a farmer.” But the Heltons have just about every reason in the book to be where they are and doing what they’re doing. Violet, one of their four children, had eczema until the family started raising and eating their own whole foods. As a veteran, as someone who wants to stay close to his family, wants to nurture the land and expend energy and the anxieties of the past into its soil, who desires a connection with his community and to a positive movement, for things to be in their rightful place, Damon Helton is on the right track. “The word sustainable,” Damon says, “just, well, that makes sense. Let's do that.”

Damon Helton and one of the family farm’s pigs, Boris.

“We think agriculture really is the answer for veterans.” —Jana Helton

Part of the reason the Heltons entered farming was to allow them to spend more time with their children. SPRING HARVEST 2019 | ARKANSASFOODANDFARM.COM

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“We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.”

Photography by Katie Childs

—Wendell Berry

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Food & Farm | Spring Harvest 2019  

Growing Sheep Local Stores, Local Food Gettin’ Buggy What's A High Tunnel?

Food & Farm | Spring Harvest 2019  

Growing Sheep Local Stores, Local Food Gettin’ Buggy What's A High Tunnel?