Chris Isbell

Curiosity, innovation, and sustainability are the hallmarks underlying the success of Isbell Farms, a six-generation family enterprise with 3000 acres of rice production in Humnoke, Arkansas. Chris Isbell, Judy Isbell, Mark Isbell, Shane Isbell, and Jeremy Jones form the company’s partnership that has three other full-time employees. They do business as Zero Grade Farms.

In the early twentieth century, a couple of generations of Isbell’s grew cotton and harvested timber for railroad crossties. When Chris’s dad, Leroy Isbell, returned to Lonoke County from his WWII Navy service, he used his GI bill income to pay for his first crop of rice. Intent on increasing yield and efficiency, he water seeded his rice crops and pioneered zero-grading of rice fields, allowing his fields to drain water more quickly in four directions rather than the sloped direction found in traditional rice levee systems. The result was a 30 percent reduction of water usage.

This conservation method is now applied on 100 percent of Isbell Farms acreage that produces its special varieties of Japanese and sake rice, as well as its staple long grain rice. In recent years they have focused on naturally cross-pollinated (hybrid) rice that produces more grain with fewer inputs of water and fertilizer, making it more eco-friendly. Isbell Farms has on-farm storage and markets to mills as well as brokers.

Using the expertise of researchers at the University of Arkansas, Arkansas State University, and Cornell University, Chris Isbell applies AWD (alternate wetting and drying) as well to many of his acres, thereby reducing water usage by another 20 percent.

He explains, “When our rice is flooded 100 percent, it is grown big enough to shade the ground. Then we let it dry until the soil is exposed, giving oxygen to the roots of the plant. In this way microbes do not change organic matter into methane, which causes greenhouse gasses that stay in the atmosphere for thirty years—worse than carbon dioxide.”

Over the last six years, the University of Arkansas has installed Eddy towers that measure methane emissions in real time. These combined applications have improved sustainability and have resulted in a reduction of methane by 62 percent. Isbell Farms has also been a pioneer in the field of producing and selling negative carbon offsets or credits. In 2017 Microsoft Corporation purchased those carbon credits. As Isbell says, “Sustainability is the same thing as survivability. If it’s sustainable, it should make you money.”

When others refer to sustainability, Isbell prefers to use the word “stewardship.” For his family’s efforts in this environmentally critical area, Isbell Farms was awarded the 2016 Commitment to Quality Award from the American Carbon Registry. It also has a GOLD ranking in the SAI sustainability platform. As a business they are committed to transparency, collaboration with the research community, and safety and respect for their workers, their local community, and their consumers.

In his continuing quest for crop health and efficient farming practices, Isbell has received a grant to study the use of algae in collaboration with the University of Arkansas. Isbell says, “After fighting algae for years, we noticed rice seeded into algae could be encouraged to emerge from algae after drainage. Upon rooting through the algae, the rice would then be protected from grass and weeds by the thick algae mulch, thereby possibly reducing or even eliminating the use of herbicides.”

Additional benefits would be another large reduction of water use, carbon emissions, and methane emissions with no loss of yield. This is possibly a viable alternative to current organic rice production which is “far too impractical due to its extremely high volume of water use,” according to Isbell. He adds, “Further studies will be made to test if blue green algae, which fixes nitrogen, can benefit the rice plant.”

Being a lifelong student of agricultural science, Chris Isbell discovered years ago, through an exchange with a Japanese businessman in California, that premium sushi rice, known as Koshihikari, was grown at the same latitude as his native county. Accepting the challenge that “Koshi” could not be grown outside of Japan, Isbell obtained the coveted seed and planted a few acres of the variety.

He says, “It wasn’t the easiest to grow or harvest, but we managed. Then, after some considerable effort, we found a trading company that would sell it both here and in Japan. When we marketed our Koshi rice to the Japanese, they put our family picture on the package and the first order sold out in two weeks!”

Isbell Farms also grows 100 acres of Yamada Nishiki, the world’s premium sake rice. It’s not suitable as table rice, but is considered to be the best rice for making sake, according to Isbell. He adds, “It has to be milled down to the center of the grain in special mills; the one we use is in Minnesota, where sake craft breweries are springing up just like the recent trend in craft beer. And we work with Takara Sake in Berkeley, California, the largest sake company in the US. Using Isbell’s rice, they have earned the Gold award for sake in this country. It’s sold under the brand name Sho Chiku Bai Dai Ginjo.

Being an avid reader and researcher, Isbell is a lifelong experimenter with his own cross varieties of rice. “We’re always breeding for taste,” he says, “even it if takes almost a decade for that first bite.” Another innovative area of focus is the installation of a new 300 kilowatt solar field consisting of 946 solar panels hooked up to the grid. Isbell says, “When net metering is done, the meter runs backwards. The amount of energy produced is subtracted from the total electric bill. The electric coop that Isbell Farms uses gives a penny for penny rebate up to 11 cents per kilowatt hour. We’re also planning a pilot plant for bio gas, using straw to produce methane, which goes back into the natural gas line clean.”

For Chris Isbell, the key ingredient to this long-term recipe for success is family. At the ceremony presenting the Arkansas Farmer of the Year award, he accepted humbly by saying, “We have the best crew you can possibly imagine, and it’s our family.” Judy Isbell, his wife of forty-four years, does all of the bookkeeping for the farm and spends a lot of time dispensing meals to visitors from all around the US and the far reaches of the globe. They’ve arrived from Russia, Japan, Uruguay, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and more recently, Cuba, a country both Chris and Mark Isbell have visited over the last few years.

Judy also helped start their local non-traditional church, Stuttgart Harvest, where she plays keyboard to Chris’s guitar in the band. Chris comments, “We wanted to build a safe place for people to worship God, a place to attract those who may have stopped going to church for one reason or another. We simply welcome everyone to be part of our Christian community and contribute, if they like, to a number of outreach programs we maintain.”

Son Mark handles the business side of the operation, making sure the farm stays in compliance with things. Dad Chris notes, “His contribution to all aspects of the business is invaluable. And since he has a master’s degree in technical writing and teaches speech and writing online at the University of Arkansas, we know that our website information and correspondence are going to be correct, clear, and eminently readable.”

Both Mark Isbell and Jeremy Jones, Chris and Judy’s son-in-law, are graduates of the Rice Leadership Council and travel extensively, contributing their expertise and leadership to a number of industry associations. Jeremy manages much of the irrigation of the fields during the growing season and oversees the drying and storage of the rice after harvest. He is currently serving on the Asia Trade Policy Subcommittee and the Sustainability Committee. Daughter Whitney Isbell Jones oversees the Children’s Ministry at Lonoke Baptist Church.

Nephew Shane Isbell has been working on the farm since he was fourteen and took over his father’s sickle business, specializing in cutting lodged or fallen rice. Shane and his wife, Lisa, have continued to operate this enterprise for twenty-four years, now with the help of their sons, Colton and Nathan. Every partner is a Patron of AgHeritage and a member of the Farm Bureau. Shane has his dad’s talent to visualize and build, modify, or repair anything on the farm.

Chris Isbell adds, “Our three full-time employees, Carl Hill, Oscar Gonzalez, and Emilio Cham, are essential contributors to daily farm operations. Carl has been with us since the early 1980s and is considered an honorary family member. He plays an integral role in crop irrigation, land preparation, and many other important tasks.”

As for ongoing challenges, Isbell has to wonder what’s coming next. He says, “Since our soil is low and heavy clay, not so good for anything except growing rice, I have to wonder how we will continue to stay competitive in an era of trade wars.” On a philosophical level, the Lonoke County native who grew up on a farm and never left says, “I’ve learned that you can’t depend on immediate results to be happy or satisfied. Immediate gratification is not an attainable reality in agriculture. Your answers may come four or five years down the road by circuitous routes.”

Chris Isbell was nominated Farmer of the Year for Arkansas by the Lonoke County Farm Family of the Year committee. Committee member Josh Cunningham is the Ag Lending Officer for AgHeritage Farm Credit Services. He comments, “The Isbell’s represent what the family farm really is. Besides being remarkably innovative, they are consistently generous in their efforts to educate others about their challenges as well as their successes.”

As the Arkansas winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Isbell will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Isbell is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous Arkansas winners include Michael Simon of Conway, 2007; Brian Kirksey of Amity, 2008; Orelan Johnson of England, 2009; Bill Haak of Gentry, 2010; Michael Oxner of Searcy, 2011; Heath Long of Tichnor, 2012; Phillip DeSalvo of Center Ridge, 2013; Nathan Reed of Marianna, 2015; and David Wildy of Manila, 2016; Mark Morgan of Clarksville, 2017; Luke Alston of Mena, 2018.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit Isbell Farms, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.