When it comes to farming and life, Chris and Judy Isbell do things differently. They always have. It seems to be an inherent family trait handed down through five generations.
After chosen to be the 2018 Arkansas Farm Family of the Year, Chris had to say a few words of acceptance. “I don’t mind making a few comments over a microphone, but I’d prefer not to if I had a choice. I’m just a behind-the-scenes type of person,” says Isbell, who is the kind of farmer who takes nothing at face value. “If a product claims to do something, I want to know how and why before I just buy into it.”
When the Isbells were nominated by the Arkansas Farm Bureau for the county contest in 1991, they won, but did not advance to district that year. When asked to participate again, they said yes, but only because they wanted their children to be exposed to the experience.
“We didn’t expect to win the district award, and we really didn’t expect to win the state award,” says Judy Isbell. She did not come from a farm family, but you would never know it by hearing her talk about farming almost as adeptly as her husband, who after just one month of courtship sang his proposal to her in song. “I was as surprised as my father, but I said yes immediately.” They have been married nearly 44 years.
The Contest and the Family
The Farm Bureau’s annual contest seems to highlight farm families with unique stories that captivate attention while relating the love for family and land often associated with rural living and farming.
“I thought being in the contest might also give us a chance to share our story with people who don’t farm, don’t understand farmers and what we do to feed and clothe them, their families, and the world. So many people think farmers farm because they are not qualified to do anything else. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Chris Isbell, who has always been very inquisitive and loves conducting farm-based research like rice varietal breeding and non-traditional rice production methods.
Their son-in-law, Jeremy Jones, who is blessed with intellect and a hard work ethic, has worked on the farm since he was a young boy. When he fell in love with their daughter, Whitney, Judy and Chris could not have been happier, but when someone asked Chris what he would do if the marriage did not work out, Chris, drawing from his quick and often dry wit, calmly said, “We can always find her a place to live.” The family laughs about the tongue-in-cheek comment still today.
Other families participating in the contest were certainly just as deserving as the Isbells, according to Judy. “Their stories were poignant and heart-warming,” she says. “To think we were chosen over all those who were nominated is beyond humbling and makes me proud to be part of a farming family from little known Humnoke, Ark.”
Chris Isbell’s brother, Benny, was killed in a car accident in 1990. A brilliant man who could build anything, Benny started a company that made “Jaws Cutter Bar Double Sickle” to harvest lodged rice. Benny’s oldest son, Shane, like his father, can build almost anything, has worked on Isbell Farms since he was 16, and still manufactures the specialty cutter bars today.
Over the Christmas holidays Shane was hit in the right eye by a ricocheting shotgun pellet while duck hunting. “The hunting glasses he was wearing probably saved his life,” says Judy Isbell. “Life is not without tragedy or trying times, but we are beyond blessed he is still with us.
Several years back when Leroy, Chris’ dad, was in the hospital for an extended period during planting, “our grandson Harrison, who was 14 at the time, along with Shane’s sons, Nathan and Colton, and a long-time farm employee, Carl Hill, planted the entire crop that year. It was hard to believe they did it, but they are hard workers and admirable young men. They will probably run this operation one day.”
Isbell’s only son, Mark, and his wife Marda have two children, Sam and Nora. “We just couldn’t do without Mark. He handles the business side of our operation,” says Chris Isbell. “He makes sure we stay in compliance with things and has already read through the new farm bill. He also works on the farm every day.”
Mark and Jeremy graduated from the Rice Leadership Council and travel extensively giving their leadership skills to rice-related boards and associations.
The Land and Hard Work
When Isbell’s great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Isbell moved to Arkansas and started clearing acres of tall timber, his efforts led to the establishment of five commercial sawmills that provided crossties for an expanding railroad. He left 140 acres of his land to Isbell’s grandfather, Bud, who handed it down to Leroy. “There have been many years of hard, back-breaking labor poured into this farm and this land,” explains Isbell. “Judy and I have been able to buy a few acres along the way, too.”
Since the day Isbell saw what could be done with vinegar and baking soda, he became hooked on science, research, and figuring out what makes things work. Years back he began attending a Rice Technical Working Group, where scientists gathered to showcase their research papers. “I wanted to learn how to apply nitrogen more efficiently,” says Isbell. “When they learned I was a farmer, I became the most popular guy in the crowd and everyone wanted my opinion.”
At one meeting in California, Isbell noticed a Japanese man standing by himself against the wall. Isbell initiated a conversation about the one topic of which they had in common — rice. The Japanese rice economist told Isbell how different Japanese rice is from U.S. rice. “I remember he said, ‘We judge rice like the French judge wine,’” says Isbell.
Isbell received a quick education on the subtleties of Japanese rice, the areas in Japan purported to grow the best rice and the Japanese variety considered the best rice in the world — koshihikari. “He said it would only grow in Japan,” adds Isbell. “Of course, I had to know why?”
After looking at a globe, Isbell discovered the latitude where koshihikari was grown in Japan was the same latitude as Humnoke, Ark. Isbell could not resist. After much effort, he obtained some koshihikari seed. Isbell and his father dedicated a few acres to the variety the next year. “It lodged, was difficult to harvest and had other agronomic issues, but we got it out of the field,” says Isbell. “We didn’t have the internet back then, so I found a book listing Japanese trading companies.”
After being snubbed by Japanese companies unwilling to try the Japanese rice grown in the U.S., Isbell finally found a trading company willing to offer their taste buds. Receiving a positive review, Isbell Farms began growing and selling koshihikari through the Nishimoto Trading Company. Brandishing the Isbell Farms name on the packaging, the rice developed an excellent following from Japanese Americans. “We have one of the first bags they produced on our office wall today,” adds Judy Isbell.
Bud Isbell grew cotton on 140 acres. He put his first crop in a government warehouse when cotton was a nickel a pound. The price dropped to 4.5 cents a pound the next season, so he sold both crops and put his money in the bank. Two weeks later the bank went under and he lost everything. In a journal he kept religiously each year, the entry simply stated: “Hell and destruction. Plenty of corn.”
After returning from World War II, Leroy Isbell, with $90 a month from the GI bill, started growing rice on 240 acres of land he cleared on Snake Island, Ark. When Leroy Isbell’s long-time friend, Walter Birdsong retired, he sold 1,000 acres of his land to Leroy Isbell for $250 an acre. “People told my dad he’d never be able to pay for the land, but he sat on a pile of coffeebeans pulled from the rice fields that year and put pencil to paper and, based on projected yields, figured it all out,” states Chris Isbell.
When asked why they thought they were selected to be the 2018 Arkansas Farm Family of the Year, Judy Isbell looked at Chris and simply said, “Maybe it’s because of the diversity this farm has seen and continues to create.”
They were the first farm in Arkansas to utilize “zero grade practices” which require 30 percent less water. They were in a small group of farmers who produced and marketed the world’s first carbon credits created through rice production. “We also grow 100 acres of what is considered the world’s king of sake rice — Yamadanishiki. The largest sake company in the U.S. is bottling and selling it under the brand name ‘Sho Chiku Bai,’” says Isbell.
Because the Isbells view and do things differently, they never say no to visitors, requests, or new ideas. Greyhound buses carrying Japanese visitors once frequented their farm. They employ “alternate wetting and drying (AWD)” flooding practices which conserve 20 percent less water. “Between zero grade and AWD, we’re now using 50 percent less water,” explains Isbell.
“When you go from a farming operation whose ancestors cleared hundreds of acres so they could farm to our 3,000-acre operation today that grows widely popular Japanese rice varieties, you hear a unique and very special story you just don’t hear about often,” adds Judy Isbell.
As Chris Isbell walked up to the microphone to accept their Arkansas Farming Family of the Year award, he thanked everyone in attendance and reiterated something he had heard long ago: “If you look at farming as a lifestyle, you’ll go out of business. If you look at it as a business, it’s a really good lifestyle.”
For Chris and Judy Isbell and their close-knit family, farming is a lifestyle that fits the different way they all seem to view each day — and each day is in perfect focus to them.