|Barnhill Orchards lettuce fields in Lonoke County. David’s Burgers of Arkansas contracts with Barnhill Orchards, and only Barnhill’s lettuce is used on David’s Burgers.|
By DEBORAH HORN
Donna and James Waggle of Ward make a “special trip” at least once a week to Barnhill Orchards’ Farm Corner Market near Sandhill Road and Hwy. 89 in Lonoke County.
They don’t mind the approximately 30-minute drive—if traffic’s not bad—because Donna Waggle says, “Their strawberries are awesome, sweet and juicy.”
James Waggle says they’ve tried others’ strawberries but swears, “These are special.”
Ekko Barnhill, second-generation Barnhill farmer, says, “We have people who come from around the state and outside the state who buy our strawberries.”
The Waggles don’t limit their purchases to berries, Donna Waggle says she always looks forward to their tomatoes, both red and green.
Fried green tomatoes are one of their favorites, she adds.
“It’s great to have a market like this,” Donna Waggle adds. About the produce, she and her husband agree, “We love it all.”
That Monday afternoon in early June, the outdoor market was featuring huge, ripe blackberries, lettuce, eggs, squash, onions, new potatoes, cucumbers and more.
During strawberry season, Ekko Barnhill says the parking lot is always full, with as many as 150 customers a day. Of course, their cantaloupes, pecans, peaches, blackberries and blueberries are just as popular.
A SWEET HISTORY
Rex Barnhill, who is responsible for getting the produce to the sorting/drying shed and a second generation Barnhill farmer, says family farming is great but it’s a hard way to make to a living.
“It’s very labor-intensive,” he says.
The farm was started on roughly 60 acres in 1980 after Lt. Col. Bob Barnhill retired from the U.S. Air Force. He served 28 years as a pilot and geophysics scientist.
He says he wasn’t interested in a regular job; instead, he traded his uniform for a tractor.
Bob Barnhill says both he and his wife, Carlotta Barnhill, grew up “in the country.” Her family farmed rice near DeWitt and his father was a catfish fisherman at Corning.
Bob Barnhill claims to be a world-class catfish fisherman.
The couple bought farmland in Lonoke County because the soil is a sandy loam that’s known for its ability to produce “the sweetest fruit,” he says.
Ekko Barnhill says, “Starting from scratch, our family cleared the land to plant seedling pecans and peaches.”
After which, the first vegetable plants were planted.
Carlotta Barnhill is now known as “The Chicken Lady” because she cares for about 150 laying hens.
IT'S GOTTA BE FRESH
Decades before hipsters made it cool to shop at farmers’ markets, Bob Barnhill worked the ones in central Arkansas. He still sells at three markets every week in Little Rock, while his daughter and granddaughters head to North Little Rock and Cabot to work markets.
Now just selling at the markets isn’t enough to stay in business.
As Bob Barnhill makes his way toward the small barn on the hill north of the produce shed, he talks about the importance of remaining competitive.
“You need to be savvy,” he says, stopping in front of a greenhouse next to the barn.
Technically, he says it’s not a greenhouse but a high tunnel. It covers about one-quarter acre and allows for early and late production of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other vegetables. He has a second, smaller tunnel nearby.
“It gives you an edge over the competition,” he says with a chuckle.
Ekko Barnhill is responsible for marketing and sales so her job starts after the fresh produce is trimmed, washed and packaged or readied for market.
Even with the growing popularity of farmers markets and fresh produce, Ekko Barnhill agrees with her father. She’s been integrating technology into their operation.
For example, earlier in the day, Ekko Barnhill produced a short video starring Bob Barnhill’s granddaughter, Tori Barnhill, and the chickens.
“Our customers love it.” As well, Ekko Barnhill adds, “They want to know where their food comes from.”
Cell phones have replaced landlines, and instead of trucking fresh produce to various restaurants around Central Arkansas, Ekko Barnhill says she texts photos to their buyers. A few minutes later, the restaurateur texts back an order.
Little muss, no fuss, she says.
They sell to a number of restaurants in Central Arkansas, including The Root Café, South on Main, Community Bakery, Mylo Coffee Co., Terry’s Finer Foods, ZAZA Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co., Trio’s Restaurant and they produce the lettuce for David’s Burgers.
Jack Sundell, The Root Café owner says Barnhill Orchards is one of their best suppliers.
“We love working with them…They have some of the best strawberries in the area.”
The Little Rock restaurant on Main Street also relies on their cold-weather, high tunnel crops to keep their diners happy.
“All their produce is top quality and always tastes great,” he says.
He likes their delivery style, too, saying they communicate by text and send pictures.
Today, the Barnhill family farm and orchard has grown to about 250 acres with more than half the acreage in production at any given time. It’s become one of the region’s top fruit and vegetable suppliers.
Ekko Barnhill says to this day, “All of the produce is hand-picked and hand-sorted to ensure only the very best quality produce goes to our customers. Quality produce is our hallmark signature.”
MILLENNIALS, PUT DOWN THE IPHONES
Despite their success, the family is thinking about the future and hope that all or part of the third generation will consider returning to the farm.
For now, granddaughters Tori and Madison Barnhill work on the farm through the summer while attending college.
Tori Barnhill has earned academic and volleyball scholarships to Ouachita Baptist University and will start classes this year, while Madison Barnhill goes to the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. She a sophomore.
Ekko Barnhill says, “There’s nothing like farm work to straighten a kid out.”
They usually hire a couple of teenagers to help out each summer and she says, “We tell them to leave your cell phone in the car.”
They focus on the job at hand, she says.
In addition, Ekko Barnhill says they’re reaching out to area kids though their Farm to School Partnership with Cabot and Lonoke school districts and the Exceptional Schools in Cabot and Lonoke.
She says they’re also developing a week-long summer program for kids that would allow them to participate in farm-related activities.
Already they offer farm tours to home schooled children, Scouts and restaurant owners.
“Kids think vegetables are grown behind Walmart’s,” she half jokes.
The family also feels it’s important to help the community.
They give gift baskets for silent auctions, free strawberries to Cabot’s Special Olympics, and fresh produce to local pantries like the ones at Hope’s Closet & Pantry, Renew Church and First Baptist Church, all in Cabot. They host a strawberry pick for veterans.
A FINAL NOTE
As proud as they are of their produce, the family is prouder of their collective military service. In all, six Barnhill family members have served a total of 117 years, Ekko Barnhill says.
In addition to Bob Barnhill’s service, his children also served. Rex, Rob, Jeter and Ekko Barnhill served in the Army. Son, John Barnhill, served in the Navy.
Rob Barnhill’s sons, Craig and Bryant Barnhill, served in the ROTC.
Last year, Barnhill Orchards was honored as Homegrown By Heroes.
The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Veterans Affairs program recognizes farmers who have served their country and are now serving the community, Ekko Barnhill says.