The Isbells • England, Lonoke County • East Central District Farm Family • Rice
By Caleb Talley
Agriculture is Arkansas’ largest industry, contributing more than $21 billion to the state’s economy each year. Because of our diverse landscape and unique climate, Arkansas produces a wide array of agricultural products and is among the nation’s leaders in a number of commodities.
Arkansas leads the nation in rice production, churning out 50 percent of America’s rice. As a result, Arkansas is also home to the country’s largest rice exporter, Riceland Foods. Arkansas is second in the nation in poultry production, with more than 2,500 farms raising chickens across the state. The nation’s largest poultry processor, Tyson Foods, also calls Arkansas home.
According to Farm Bureau, Arkansas has more than 14 million acres of farmland. More than 6 million acres of that are crops, while livestock and hay production make up the remaining 8 million acres. And across all those acres, Arkansas excels in the production of the following commodities: beef cattle, cotton, dairy, aquaculture, pork, horticulture, poultry, rice, soybeans, wheat and so much more.
“Farm families are multigenerational, and that, to me, is what’s so important,” says Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “They’ve survived good times and bad times, tough economies, and they have been able to make a living for their family.
“They’re leaders,” he adds. “They’re survivors. And they’re hard workers. They’re community oriented. That’s the nature of a farm family. You help your neighbors, and that’s helping our communities.”
In honor of the state’s largest and most vibrant industry, Farm Bureau continues to highlight the people who make it all possible: the Arkansas Farm Family. Each year, Farm Bureau celebrates the men and women and their families who make up the state’s most important business sector through their Farm Family of the Year program.
Each spring, a family is chosen from each of the state’s 75 counties. Of those 75 families, eight are chosen to represent their district. Arkansas Money & Politics has joined forced with Arkansas Farm Bureau in showcasing these hardworking men and women and their families, honoring them for all they do for their state and their community.
These eight families are diverse in what they farm, how they farm and why they farm. They represent various commodities, backgrounds and trades. But they all have one thing in common. They’re all salt of the earth people who hold this state together, both economically and societally. Learn more about these families and how their farms contribute to the Arkansas ecosystem.
Judy and Chris Isbell, along with their daughter Whitney, and her husband Jeremy Jones, and their son Mark and his wife Marda, grow rice on the Isbell family farm, also known as Zero Grade Farms, east of England.
Five generations of the Isbell family have grown rice at the Isbell family farm, something they have done for more than 70 years. “I was born on a farm and never left,” says Chris.
The Isbell family runs a unique rice-growing operation in that much of what they grow is used in the production of Sake, a Japanese rice wine made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. “Building on years of experience with Japanese rice varieties, [we have] in recent years shifted focus to even more unique varieties — rice grown specifically for the making of sake,” he says.
Rice grown on Zero Grade Farms is marketed to sake companies and boutique brewers in the United States and around the globe. In fact, Chris was the first Arkansas farmer to sell high-quality rice to Japan.
In addition to being recognized for their quality sake rice production, the Isbells are also known for their work to improve sustainability in farming. Their farm has a gold ranking from the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform. “At Isbell Farms, sustainability is part of our heritage and part of our future,” says Chris.
“Our initial goal was to do the right thing and do it well,” he adds. “It was only later that we learned that others had started using a word to refer to what we have long considered a core value: sustainability. We think of it in terms of stewardship.”
The Isbells are leaders in sustainable rice production, having reduced use of water, methane emissions and energy, creating carbon offsets. In 2016, they were the recipients of the Commitment to Quality Award from the American Carbon Registry. They were also among a small group of farmers to be the first to produce and market the world’s first carbon credits created through rice production. Their credits were purchased in 2017 by Microsoft.
The Isbells continue to innovate when it comes to improving their farming operation and the environment. They continue to employ zero-grade practices on their entire farm. Zero-grade farming, which the Isbells pioneered in the 1960s, means making the entire rice field level. This allows them to reduce water usage over levee rice by more than 30 percent.
The Isbells have collaborated with a number of researchers over the years to engage in the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and ideas, having hosted thousands of visitors from around the world. They have also contributed presentations and articles to various conferences and publications.
The family also works with researchers from the University of Arkansas and has received a grant to study the use of algae in rice farming.
“After fighting algae for years, we noticed rice seeded into algae could be encouraged to emerge from algae after drainage,” says Chris. “Upon rooting through the algae, the rice would then be protected from grass and weeds by the thick algae mulch, possibly reducing or eliminating the use of herbicides.”
Chris, who learned the trade from his father, Leroy, has ensured that his children and their families will carry on the Isbell legacy. His daughter Whitney and her husband Jeremy are active partners in Zero Grade Farms. Jeremy manages much of the irrigation of the fields during the growing season and oversees the drying and storage of rice after harvest. He serves on the Asia Trade Policy Subcommittee.
Their son Mark and his wife Marda live in North Little Rock but are very active partners in the family farm. Mark is a board member of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas and serves on various committees at USA Rice. He also frequently authors agricultural articles for national trade publications. In 2016, he was named Rice Farmer of the Year at the Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, Tenn. The same year, he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives on the importance of trade with Cuba to American farmers.
Chris and Judy’s nephew Shane Isbell, along with his wife Lisa, are also an active part of their farm partnership, having joined them full-time after graduating high school in 1989. Shane also manufactures sickles that specialize in cutting lodges or fallen rice.
In addition to being honored as this year’s district Farm Family of the Year, Chris Isbell was named the 1996 Arkansas Farmer of the Year. He was also named to the Homeward Professional Who’s Who in 2000-01, and was named Farmer of the Year nationally in 1992. The Isbells attend Stuttgart Harvest Church.