St. Charles, Arkansas County • Southeast District Farm Family
Rice, corn, soybeans
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.
Tawana and Dean Watson and their 2-year-old daughter Ava, grow rice, corn and soybeans on their partnership farm in St. Charles, about 15 miles northeast of DeWitt. The family spends long hours working hard to contribute to Arkansas’ largest cash crops.
Dean is a third-generation farmer, having worked in the field as early as he could. “Farming is all I have ever known,” he says.
His grandparents, Sarah Belle and Marvin Lee Watson, began farming in the late 1940s. His father joined them in 1984, and Watson and Watson Farm Partnership was formed. Dean followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, joining them on the farm at an early age. He worked summers as early as middle school and joined the farm full time after high school.
In 2000, Dean took on his first sole farming operation, renting 90 acres from his grandparents. Over the years, he added rented property to his operation and purchased his own land, as well. In 2012, he and Kirk Vansandt, a friend, mentor and business partner, purchased roughly 190 acres of land together and formed Vansandt-Watson LLC.
The Watsons have overcome a number of challenges in building a successful farming operation, including battling red rice — which can result in crop yield losses — and overgrowth in their irrigation canal systems.
“Farming has always been a challenge and seemingly is becoming more and more,” says Dean. “I read somewhere recently: ‘the farmer must not only be a great farmer to survive, he must also be an expert financial manager, a pesticide application genius, a prudent environmentalist, a curious scientist, a savvy economist and a wise meteorologist. But above all, he or she must be an eternal optimist.’”
Dean credits the guidance of Vansandt, his local Farm Service agency, Arkansas County Extension Service, Arkansas County Conservation District, his family and loyal farm hands Donald Jones and J.P. Denny for his success.
For rice and row crop farmers, water and soil conservation is critical. All polytube used during the irrigation process is rolled, collected and transported by Delta Plastics to the company’s recycling facilities. Waste oil is stored and collected by Arkansas Oil Recovery Company. The Watsons also participate in the Conservation Stewardship Program, which includes conservation-based activities such as intermittent flooding of rice fields, controlled traffic farming and enhanced field borders to increase carbon storage along field edges.
The Watsons market their soybeans and corn with Bunge and ADM in Helena. Their rice is marketed at Producers Rice Mill through the seasonal pool.
In addition to running a successful farming operation, the Watsons also own and manage a popular duck lodge in their community.
Dean grew up duck hunting with his father and learned the art of duck calling from Butch Richenback, the founder of Rich-N-Tone duck calls. Dean’s father operated a duck guiding operation, and in 1995, he joined him. He also spent time working for Mary Lou and Tommy Cunningham, then-owners of Popa Duck Lodge in St. Charles.
In 2007, the Cunninghams retired and sold the lodge to Dean, who has operated it successfully for the last decade. “Over the last 11 years, we have met many people from all over the United States, have made many close friends. Many of our clients have become family to us,” says Dean. At the Popa Duck Lodge, the Watsons offer guests lodging, meals and guided hunts.
Through the lodge, the Watsons are able to supplement their income during the winter months, while also participating in something they enjoy. The lodge also creates opportunities for them to share farming ideas and practices with fellow farmers who visit to hunt.
Though she spends much of her time helping Dean at the farm and duck lodge, Tawana works full time as a registered nurse at their local hospital. She’s also worked for the Home Health Department, traveling across five counties providing in-home care to members of their community. Both Dean and Tawana are active members of First Missionary Baptist Church in St. Charles, Dean as a deacon and Tawana as church treasurer and Vacation Bible School leader.
Their daughter Ava is still being introduced to life on the farm, but the Watsons hope to teach her more and more as she grows. They planted her a one-acre patch of sweet corn to pick herself and also plan to plant Ava her own watermelon patch.