Field, Farm and Game
Photography by Ashlee Nobel and Janet Warlick
Arkansas can easily be considered a haven for fishermen and hunters: There are more than 600,000 acres of lakes; nearly 10,000 miles of rivers and streams; and 3.2 million acres of public, huntable land in Arkansas. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission owns and manages 356,000 acres of huntable land.
According to Keith Stephens, chief of the commission’s communications division, largemouth bass are the most pursued fish in our state.
“This is one of the more difficult fish to catch — it’s the ‘trophy fish,’ and a lot of tournament fishermen fish in Arkansas, from the small local tournaments to the large BASS or FLW [Fishing League Worldwide] tournaments,” he said.
The commission’s website, agfc.com, lists nearly 30 species of fish that make their home in the state’s waterways; and the state has a number of fishing programs, including those for the family and community-at-large and, specifically, black bass and trout programs.
Of course, when it comes to hunting, duck is king. “Arkansas is known as the mallard capital of the world,” Stephens said. The World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest & Wings Over the Prairie Festival in Stuttgart is evidence of the popularity of duck hunting in our state. Held each year since 1936, the population in the town of 9,200 swells to more than 40,000 as duck enthusiasts — those entering duck gumbo cooking contests and duck calling contests, as well as the Queen Mallard Pageant and other activities — gather to celebrate all things duck and to kick off duck and waterfowl hunting season. This year’s festival will be held Nov. 21 through 28.
“There are more than 100,000 duck hunters in the state. And while we have fewer deer, we have more than 500,000 resident and non-resident deer hunters,” Stephens said.
Deer hunting in The Natural State has been prominent since before the 1900s. In fact, in the 1920s, the deer population had dwindled to about 500; however, with aggressive conservation and stocking efforts and regulations, the animals rebounded and by the mid-1980s, the numbers swelled to more than half a million. Today, Arkansas’ herd is estimated to be about 1 million.
“Deer hunting is one of the state’s most popular hunting seasons. There’s a whole culture of families gathering to hunt. People really look forward to that time of year,” Stephens said.
This year’s deer hunting season began Sept. 26 for archery hunters; for muzzleloaders, it begins Oct. 17; and for those who hunt with modern guns, on Nov. 14.
Stephens said the sustainable and local food movement has also impacted their numbers. “Hunting for game and fishing has become more popular as more people want to know where their food is coming from and want to eat naturally.”
THE NEW URBAN LANDSCAPE
Chris Hiryak, founder of Little Rock Urban Farming, agrees with Stephens. “More people are interested in where their food comes from. People are more health-conscious, and I’ve seen younger families doing a lot of research; they want to provide the highest-quality food to their children.”
He’s mentored a number of people, some who’ve gone on to earn degrees in agriculture. Another has established a nursery, and still others have created their own private gardens. He said, “More and more people are starved culturally for ‘real’ experiences, and they cannot do that through a computer screen. Others are drawn to doing something with their hands and bodies. Gardening is a good way to experience the outdoors without going far from home.”
Two individuals who apprenticed with him established Natural State Horticare. Kyle Melton and business partner Andrew Kenley opened the business three years ago and now offer backyard organic farming services, teaching clients to compost and to establish garden beds of various shapes and sizes.
“Andrew and I fell in love with farming,” Melton said. “We had nice office jobs, but we wanted something different. Initially, we went into landscaping, but our true passion is gardening, and we thought others would enjoy it as well. We’d like to have this as the largest part of our business.”
They’ve gotten quite a few clients as a result of people passing by a garden space they manage at Kavanaugh Boulevard and Harrison Street in Little Rock. “People are interested, and our word-of-mouth business is growing. We hope to see this continue,” Melton said.
They’re poised to pass their love for gardening on to the next generation — they are in the planning stages of monthly gardening lessons for the students at Little Rock’s Rockbridge Montessori School and will soon help the school build garden beds.
Pulaski Heights Elementary School established its garden three years ago. According to principal Lillie Carter, the garden is used in the school’s science curriculum. “Each of the 322 kindergarten to fifth grade students has an opportunity to participate in the garden in some fashion. For instance, the kindergarteners do a ladybug release, and the older students cook several times a year.” The school also has an outdoor kitchen.
The produce and flowers grown in the school’s garden are sold, and the money is used toward the next year’s plantings. “Parents have the opportunity to purchase the produce, and we also sell the items at [a nearby] farmers market,” Carter said.
“Many of the children have never seen a farm or a garden prior to working in the garden,” said Tracy Richardson, secretary at Pulaski Heights. “They grow tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, onions, carrots, beets and all types of greens, including kale.”
Agriculture is big business in Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Agriculture Department, it accounted for $20.1 billion of value added to the state’s economy in 2012, with more than 13 million acres of farmland, which included more than 7 million acres of crops.
Nationally, we rank first in rice production, our top agricultural export, thanks largely to Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods Inc.; second in the production of broilers (chicken); third in cotton; and 10th in soybeans.
Northwest Arkansas puts our great state on the map as three of the nation’s key businesses operate out of the region: Tyson Foods Inc., the United States’ largest poultry processor; Wal-Mart, the world’s largest food retailer; and J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., one of the largest transportation logistics companies in North America.
FARMERS IN THE DELTA
“I really think people are interested in and really want to know where their food comes from and how it’s raised. There’s a real consciousness in the poor production standards that existed for years. Now the public is aware of that and issues like animal welfare and the ethical treatment of and the health of animals and our environment are in the forefront,” said Elizabeth Quinn, communications manager for Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative.
Grass Roots is a livestock cooperative comprised of eight “full” farms, run by experienced farmers, and five apprentice farms, whose owners are being mentored by the owners of the full farms. Christine Weingartz has a master’s degree in animal science and serves as the co-op’s livestock specialist. She grew up in a small dairy community in Michigan and has lived in Arkansas since 2011. She said, “I have definitely seen a growth in the number of small farms. You can see it in the number of farms represented at our local farmers markets. I’ve also noticed younger people starting farms.”
Steve and Jeff Dettelbach fit the bill. The brothers, both in their early 30s, were reared on a small farm, and, along with their families, established Dettelbach Farms Inc. in 2013. Steve Dettelbach serves as manager for the farm, where they raise certified naturally grown produce and livestock, including grass-fed lamb and GMO-free, pastured poultry.
“We are a sustainable farm,” he said. “For us, we wanted to get away from not knowing where our food comes from. Our slogan is ‘Growing Local Agriculture,’ and that’s our goal: to give people the option of eating local.”
Knowing the origin of their food, as well as the manner in which it was raised, is also important to the Dettelbachs. That’s why they’re growing naturally and raising grass-fed and grass-pastured livestock. He and wife Ashley have four children, ages 4 to 11, and living and working on the farm allows the couple to spend their days with their kids — also something that is very important to them.
He’s a board member of Grass Roots and participates in the group’s Herds-to-Home program. “The co-op produces grass-fed beef and forestry pork, [a method that many refer to as a return to the techniques used years ago], but we couple that with modern advancements to make the most of our herd.”
He also said he’s seen the demand for his livestock increase significantly — he sells almost all of his livestock through the co-op — and this year, according to Dettelbach, he’s on target to sell more than 10,000 chickens. Next year, they plan to raise beef.
YOU’VE BEEN SERVED LOCALLY
The local food movement began 25 years ago but picked up steam about 10 years ago when the term “good food” was coined. According to a study by researchers at Michigan State University, small- and mid-sized farms began to sell “differentiated products through specialty retailers, food co-ops, food service companies and directly to consumers,” sparking renewed interest in how food is grown and who is growing it. About that time, the popularity of restaurants serving local goods, referred to as farm-to-table or farm-to-fork, began to grow. What was once considered part of the 1960s and 1970s hippie culture is now commonplace.*
For Capi Peck, chef and co-owner of Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock, serving locally produced food has been the norm from the very start, nearly three decades ago. She’s delighted with the abundance of local, small farmers.
“There are definitely more choices than those that existed 29 years ago. I hear people say the family farm is dying — I don’t agree,” Peck said. There was a time that she had to spend half the day on Saturdays travelling to farmers markets to get fresh produce for her restaurant. And while she still goes, largely to meet new farmers and to discover new varieties, a number of farmers now deliver their goods to Trio’s twice a week.
“This surge began about three years ago,” she said. “There’s been tremendous growth in the number of family farms and the diversity of the things they grow and offer. For instance, Tanner Farms grows 20 varieties of peppers. Barnhill Orchards grows three or four varieties of eggplant. And the sorts of greens that are grown today are very interesting. I’ve learned all about new ingredients that I’d only seen on TV. The farmers are curious. They’ll grow a row of something to see if it works and how it tastes. They’re pretty imaginative.”
Peck said many of the farmers she’s met are in their 20s. “They’re very entrepreneurial as well. They use Facebook and social media to reach people and increase their business. They do a lot of self-promoting.”
Peck lists on her menu the farms from which she gets food. She said, “Sometimes there are as many as 10 different farms.” Her customers often ask about the farms, “especially now that people are so interested in where their food comes from.
“It’s definitely more work to source locally from so many [vendors], but I like to support our local economy. The food tastes better, and I think our customers appreciate it.”
“It’s really a no-brainer to use what’s fresh … after all, Arkansas is ‘The Natural State,’” said Jeffrey Owen, chef at Little Rock’s popular and eclectic restaurant Ciao Baci. “We have an abundance of everything you can think of here.”
He said he’s built good relationships with the farmers at the farmers markets and, as a result, has a great amount of respect for them, the work they do and the produce they raise.
“I like to use locally grown food to showcase the great things Arkansas produces, and getting the food locally makes my job easier as the food simply tastes better,” Owen said.
This year, many of the vegetables he’s served have been from a very local source: the Ciao Baci garden itself. They grew and harvested tomatoes, squash, zucchini, eggplant, okra, sweet potatoes and herbs.
“We’ve incorporated these into our menu throughout the summer. It’s really become a bragging point for us. For instance, I can say, ‘That caprese salad? We just picked the tomatoes and basil, or the ratatouille with fish, two-thirds of the ingredients came from our garden,’” Owen said.
The garden also solves another problem. It’s pretty, which, he said, makes it easier on their neighbors’ eyes as Ciao Baci is tucked away on a mostly residential street in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock.
Not one to waste good food, Owen has canned several items for use this fall and winter. “We’ve made tomato sauce and paste, several varieties of pickles, and jams and jellies for our cheese and charcuterie boards.”