By Marianne Chapman
Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a multi-part series profiling Delta Blues Rice, Mississippi-grown and artisan milled rice products produced on a multi-generational family farm operated by brothers Hugh Arant and David Arant, Sr. alongside the next generation, David Arant, Jr. Read part one in the series, My First Taste of “Real” Mississippi Rice.
In Their Own Words
There’s more to the Delta Blues Rice story than rice packaged in a brown bag. In their own words, Mississippi Delta farmers Hugh Arant and David Arant, Jr., two of the three owners of Arant Farms in Ruleville, Mississippi, served us a taste of what makes their rice so special, a glimpse into their daily farm operations and a peek into the business side of their new farm-to-table rice production, Delta Blues Rice.
EY: How long has your family been farming this land, and why do you choose to continue farming today?
Hugh Arant: As near as we can tell without digging through a bunch of old papers, 1924 was about the time our grandfather came to this land from Montgomery County, Mississippi. We continue to farm it as our legacy and heritage. We care about this land, and we want it to continue to be an asset of which we can be proud. Plus I’m about too old to start doing anything else anyway. But seriously, I guess it’s the second oldest profession out there, and it means so much to our way of life here in this country.
David Arant, Jr.: My great-grandfather began his farming career on this property. I was a civil engineer in Jackson for six years and enjoyed my job. It was interesting, and I learned a lot, but I realized I needed to be home in the country raising my family. I was very restless in an office job. I always liked being outside and working with my hands, and farming provides that opportunity. My interest and abilities are well suited for farming, and I wouldn’t want any other job. One of my favorite aspects of the farming profession is that it is constantly evolving and changing. No two years are the same due to weather, commodity prices and various other factors, so I am always learning something new.
EY: Tell us a little bit about your farm today and what role you play in the farming operation?
Hugh Arant: Our farm is a diversified operation where we grow different crops so as not to put all of our eggs in one basket. Some years the price of corn might be depressed, but the price of soybeans or rice could be better which can help to overcome any monetary shortfalls that might occur with corn.
We are like any other business, we need to make a profit to stay viable. Over the years I think that rice has been our most consistent crop. I like to say that rice is what got us where we are. But it is still vital that the other crops tote their load as well.
Since David, Jr. has returned to the farm, he has taken a lot of the load off of me. He now focuses on the planting, irrigation and harvesting aspects more so than I do. I guess my main function now is in the finances and marketing of the crops. I’m the one who pays the bills, does payroll for the labor, works with the bank, etc. We have a marketing advisor to whom I talk almost daily. Sometimes when markets are moving, he and I might talk multiple times a day. There is a lot of help out there that allow us as farmers to concentrate on the planting and growing of the crops — or in other words, the things we do best. This help can come in the areas of advice regarding weed control, entomology, seed variety selection, fertilization, irrigation, tillage and marketing.
David Arant, Jr.: Our farm began in 1924 with 300 acres, and it has steadily grown over the years. We grow corn, soybeans, and rice. All of our land has been graded and can be irrigated. We utilize some zero graded fields for all of our crops which helps us conserve water and reduce fuel costs. We also utilize a large amount of surface water for irrigation purposes. We have been blessed to have several large drainage ditches and lakes on the property that allow us to collect rainfall and irrigation runoff and pump it back into the fields for irrigation purposes.
My job is to do anything that needs to be done, but mostly I work with corn and soybeans from planting, spraying, and irrigating to all combine [harvest] operations. I also oversee the rice milling and packaging. I work with GPS technology on the farm, and I do our yield and variety mapping. My job is also to learn all the other responsibilities my dad and uncle carry out, so that I can perform them in the future.
EY: Describe a typical day in your life on the farm, and is it true that all farmers are “morning people?”
Hugh Arant: I don’t know if there is such a thing as a typical day. It’s kind of like typical weather – is there such a thing? Normally, we all meet at the headquarters around 7 a.m. to quickly plan the day. Usually we continue the jobs that we and the labor were doing at the conclusion of the previous day. Then you’ve got to be ready to react to any situations that might arise. These could be like an equipment breakdown that has to be handled before the tractor and worker can go to the field, a farm worker who didn’t show up for work, etc. The list of things is unlimited. Once we get the labor situated, then the three of us will start our duties.
David, Sr. will be concentrating on the rice crop. How is the water in the fields? Do we have insects in the rice that might damage the plants and the grain? Do we have a field that needs some fungicide applied to help on the disease pressure, and do we have a field that needs some weed control work, and is it time for fertilizer to be applied? David, Jr. will be looking at the irrigation that went on during the night in the corn and soybeans. He’ll get other fields set up and ready for water application for the rest of the day and then for the night. My day might start consulting with David, Jr. on the irrigation and what I can do for him there. Usually about the middle of the morning I’ll go to the office, check emails for consultant and marketing reports, go through that morning’s postal mail and handle any financial matters that need my attention.
Our days go like this most of the time, and all the while we’re reacting to things that just happen. I’ve always said that people like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, John Grisham – people with these vivid imaginations – could not dream up some of the crazy and dangerous things that happen on a farm every day.
David Arant, Jr.: Work typically begins at 7 unless we are irrigating, and then it might begin at 6:30 because we need to go check things before the workers arrive. Usually work is done by 6 p.m. during the summer, but during planting and harvest, it could go as late as 9 or 10 p.m.
In the mornings, everyone arrives at the shop at 7 a.m., and we get everybody going on what they need to do for the day. Jobs range from driving tractors to planting the crop, spraying the weeds, grading the land, and driving a combine to harvest a crop. There are always odd jobs to do such as fix tires, weld a broken piece of equipment, haul fuel to tractors, or mow grass. The day-to-day operations vary greatly.
I would say most farmers are morning people, but I do enjoy the times when I get to sleep a little later than normal. After church, Sunday afternoon naps are a fixture in our house – unless we’re irrigating. If that’s the case, I have to go check the fields to make sure they’re watering properly.
EY: What are the greatest challenges you face as a farmer today?
Hugh Arant: There are many challenges including the weather, government regulations, input costs (seed, chemicals, fuel, etc.), and equipment costs. John F. Kennedy is credited with the saying, “The farmer buys retail, sells wholesale and pays the freight both ways.” It seems that we’re on the bottom of the food chain and everything flows downhill. Our greatest challenge is something we can do absolutely nothing about: the weather. We are totally at its mercy, but it’s been that way since time began.
David Arant, Jr.: Right now our main concern is low commodity prices. For the past few years, farming has been profitable, but now it will be much harder to make ends meet. Many people have the misconception that all farmers are wealthy. That is not necessarily true. It takes a ton of money to make a crop, and then we have to get it out of the field. A single bad weather event like a hurricane or a rainy harvest season can make that promising crop look really bad and not profitable at all. Farming is one of the riskiest professions there is because the farmer doesn’t set his crop’s sales price, and he doesn’t have any control over his seed, fertilizer, chemical, or fuel costs.
Another long term concern is labor shortages. We have two employees who are in their 30’s, but the rest are closer to 60. We have a great bunch of guys working for us, but we need to be training the next generation. We are actively looking for people who can work with technology and who are willing to work.
EY: Consumers today have a renewed interest in the origins of their food, and the “farm to table” movement seems to be gaining continuous momentum. What do these consumer trends mean to you as a farmer – and how do they impact how you farm?
Hugh Arant: In our rice milling venture, this is critical. For virtually all of our crops we cannot add value to what we harvest from the field. We can’t crush soybeans and get soymeal and soy oil. We cannot process corn to get the products that are sent on to the consumer. We can do something with our rice, and that’s try to move it to the table and enhance the price we receive.
David Arant, Jr.: To me, “Farm to Table” means that the person consuming the food has knowledge of where his or her food comes from and knows that it hasn’t been through 10 different retailers or processes before it gets to the dinner table. In the best cases, the consumer personally knows the grower of his or her food. It also suggests a transparency in farming.
Personally these trends excite me. In Jackson, my wife and I supported many farm to table operations and saw the benefits of eating locally grown and sustainable whole foods. When we moved back to the farm, we wanted a way to implement some of these practices on our farm, and we wanted to share a quality rice product with others. Typically the corn, soybean, and rice farmer grows his crop and sends it to the elevator and is done with it. By milling and marketing our own rice, we are able to be a part of this exciting movement. In order to give our consumers the best possible products, we are researching different varieties of rice to grow and different methods to grow the rice that might be valuable to the consumer and the environment. We are also looking into farming other specialty products that we could offer directly to consumers.
Many people think that traditional agriculture and the “farm to table” movement are at odds, but our operation shows that they can coexist. With our rice operation, we have eliminated the middle man to give the public the rice that we work so hard to grow. We are true farmers who labor daily to care for our crop and steward the land, and we are a family farm doing it on a larger scale.
EY: Why do you farm rice? Why is rice important?
Hugh Arant: We farm rice because our land is better suited for this crop. Most of our land has a heavy clay content. Clay soil retains water better than sandier loamy soils. Since rice is just a water grass, it needs the moisture to survive and produce. We continue to grow rice, and we have made improvements that make the growing of rice more efficient in the workings of our farm. We feel that diversification is critical in today’s farm economy which is part of the world economy. Rice is a very important part of our crop mix and meets the aim of spreading our risks around three crops. Rice is considered to be a minor crop in the number of crop acres planted in the USA. Only about three million acres of rice are planted in six states, mainly in the south, with California being the exception. When you compare that number of acres to the numbers of corn and soybean acres, it is indeed a minor player. But for the areas of the south which grow the crop, it is a major economic factor in the local communities.
David Arant, Jr.: Rice has always been an important crop on our farm because it allows us to rotate crops to help improve the soil. After the rice is harvested, the leftover rice straw provides valuable nutrients as it decomposes in the soil. The harvested rice fields are also valuable for migrating waterfowl that are very abundant during the winter months.
Rice also helps to counteract the volatility of farming because it allows us to diversify our operation and spread out our risk with different crops.
EY: Milling your own rice has been an Arant family hobby for a long time. What attracted you to artisan milling in the first place?
Hugh Arant: It’s been fun over the years to mill our rice and give it to friends who have all raved about it. We thought it might be fun to sell it as well. It’s been a lot more work than we envisioned, and there is plenty more work in our future. We have been hoping that should the business succeed, it might be a vehicle to get another son or daughter to return home and run it. We’ve got to get this next generation interested in moving back to the farm. The average age of a farmer nationwide is fast approaching 60 years. The country and especially the Delta needs new ideas and new people in agriculture to keep our food supply the best in the world.
David Arant, Jr.: We wanted to mill our own rice in order to have a different market for our farm produce. We have bought and cooked other rice, and it is never as good as our home-milled rice. We wanted to give others the opportunity to enjoy a superior product. Many people think of rice as just rice, but there is a difference. Our rice is identity preserved, meaning that each package of Delta Blues Rice contains only one variety of rice. The variety is what gives rice its flavor. When you mingle varieties, the flavor becomes nondescript. The rice we sell to the public is the rice we serve to our family. It is a product we are proud of and one that has nourished our family for generations.
EY: Take us being the scenes of your start-up artisan milling operation at Delta Blues Rice. What have been the greatest highlights for you so far in this journey to deliver truly direct-from-the-farm rice products to the marketplace?
Hugh Arant: David, Jr. has been the real moving force in this effort. He is computer and internet savvy. Being this way has allowed us to look into different ways at milling rice and delivering it to market. The monetary outlays are more than we envisioned at this time, but we knew start up costs would startle us a bit. Our new equipment is giving us a much better looking product on the plate, and we have been able to keep the good taste that is so important. It’s a great highlight to hear that those in the business world like our product and plan on selling it to their customers. Just being a Mississippi locally grown product is not enough. It’s got to deliver to the customer what he wants. We think we can do this now and into the future.
David Arant, Jr.: If I would have known the amount of work and money it would take to get this project off the ground, I might not have pursued it, but I am glad that we did. There has been so much to do to get started: facility permitting and approval, regulatory knowledge, equipment procurement, and packaging design, all before a product gets to market. Getting a product to market has been very tough, but I have enjoyed learning something new and stepping outside of my comfort zone. I have also enjoyed working together as a family to accomplish something new.
>>This is the second in a series of stories profiling the story of Arant Farms and Delta Blues Rice during September, which is National Rice Month. Click here to read the first story in the series, My First Taste of “Real” Mississippi Rice. Learn more in the next two installments when we visit the farm during harvest season and share one of the Arant family’s favorite rice recipes.
Buy Delta Blues Rice Long Grain Rice or Rice Grits here in the Eat Y’all Store, now available in both 1 lb and 2.25 lb packages. Delta Blues Rice is perfect for your pantry or gift-giving. Pay attention to the “milled date” when you receive your package, because you’ll find it was just a few weeks ago – and we think that’s pretty cool.
– See more at: http://www.eatyall.com/2014/09/in-their-own-words-on-farming-milling-rice/#sthash.fAChVh97.yqQJjnSG.dpuf