Fourth-generation Newport farmer Jennifer James has held many leadership roles in the U.S. rice industry, setting benchmarks for one of Arkansas’ major exports.
Photography by Ashlee Nobel
When she’s asked how she finds the time for all the leadership positions she’s held with the U.S. rice industry, in addition to being a full-time farmer, Jennifer James laughs.
“Well, yes,” she said. “These are all volunteer positions, of course, and they do have to come second to making a living. But I enjoy it, and I have personal interest in it because it is good for me to learn about what’s going on in the industry, as in markets and promotion events, and then also to help my neighbor farmers in all those areas, too. So, I think it’s very beneficial to me and to my business to stay involved in what’s going on.”
James comes to farming naturally. Her father and business partner, Marvin Hare, Jr., has farmed for more than 40 years. After she obtained her degree in agribusiness from the University of Arkansas, James returned to the farm in Newport, as did her brother, Trey Hare. They’re fourth-generation farmers, and run the 6,000-acre, diversified row crop farm along with their dad and James’ husband, Greg. Her son, Dylan, is almost 15 “and so far, he seems to be very interested in the farm,” Jennifer said, “so if that’s what he wants to do one day, we’d be proud to have him farming with us as well.”
She said she’s seeing more women entering the business, in both production agriculture and related companies, and advancing to leadership positions in agriculture.
“I think they are welcome, and I think their perspective is welcome,” James said. “I think women might have a little more attention to detail. … I’m sure that there are probably things that we look at differently.”
While the farm comes first, James has found time to hold positions with farm groups and participate in their leadership activities and task forces since 1997. It started with the USA Rice Federation’s Rice Leadership Development Program, four weeks of training that took her to Washington, D.C., and to parts of the U.S. rice belt, which stretches from California to Texas and the mid-South.
“After I did that, I started asking to join committees and be a part [of the industry], and started trying to volunteer,” James said. Since then, she’s been chairman of the USA Rice Federation Communications Committee and has chaired the planning committee that organizes the group’s annual USA Rice Outlook Conference. She has also served on the boards of two state producer groups, Arkansas Rice Farmers and Arkansas Rice Federation, and has helped lobby on political issues. She currently serves on the Arkansas Agriculture Board.
James has also chaired a USA Rice Federation task force whose work is seen as critical to the future marketability of U.S. rice. The Sustainability Task Force was started in 2009 to identify current initiatives and programs and to launch new ones that would reward sustainable production practices in the marketplace. She said they started by joining Field to Market, an alliance of trade groups, corporations and universities.
“[They] already had cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat members trying to measure a benchmark from which we could start measuring sustainability,” she said. “So, we worked quite a bit of time on gathering information and getting a benchmark for the rice industry in the areas that they measure, which at the time were things like land use, water use, conservation, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Field to Market’s latest development has been its Fieldprint Calculator, where a farmer enters information about a rice field online and sees how he or she compares with other growers in the area of sustainability, both locally and nationwide. They can also measure progress toward those benchmarks.
“I think farmers are obviously the first conservationists,” James said. “‘Sustainability’ may have not been the term they’ve used for decades, but being sustainable in business for any farmer means conserving our natural resources and also trying to stay in business financially.”
How about getting into business? The 43-year-old James said the financial investment is so great that it would be very difficult for a young person to get into production agriculture. Her family was already farming, but she said another option for a person just starting out is to find a family farm with no successors coming back to the operation, and working one’s way into that business.
It’s also getting tougher to stay in farming. James said when she started out 20 years ago, a farmer could survive a bad crop year or a couple of errors in judgment.
Now, “the margins are so thin, and each decision is so important, that one bad decision can make the difference between having a profitable year and a nonprofitable year,” she said.
“I think it’s getting harder, not easier, to be in production agriculture, but I also think that the people that are coming out of college these days are a lot more intelligent than I was; they’ve got a lot more going on, and they have access to lots more information. I think that we’ll see production agriculture continue to be successful.”