The Rockstar Rice Farming Family of Arkansas
Mark Isbell heads up a Knorr® Landmark Farm in Arkansas, but his family’s farming roots travel back through generations of innovation, perseverance and effort poured into the soil.
Collaboration and innovation are two reasons the Isbell family rice farm in England, Arkansas has succeeded for four generations of farmers. In that time, they’ve earned worldwide recognition, have become one of the farming families that proudly supply Knorr® with rice and stand as a Knorr® Landmark Farm today.
Mark Isbell is the face of the rice farm, communicating its sustainability and business stories. Come harvest time though, he’s out in the field like the rest of the family.
And they’re a large bunch:
His father Chris keeps everything moving forward, whether that means driving the combine during harvest or experimenting on new, efficient farming practices. Mark’s mother Judy handles bookkeeping and keeps everyone well fed, which sometimes means literally chasing down moving tractors to deliver lunch.
Cousin Shane works on planting and harvesting, and can fix any machine on the farm. Beyond the Isbells themselves, Mark’s brother-in-law Jeremy manages the farm’s irrigation while serving as the man in the fields surveying the crops.
It’s a family affair, but this all-hands-on-deck approach is needed during the much-loved but ever-hectic harvest time. Chris Isbell calls it the “harvest dance,” since everyone plays their choreographed part to make sure all of their hard work winds up on a plate eventually.
Today, the Isbell farm is running like a well-oiled machine (Mark’s handy cousin Shane would know), and stands proudly as an agricultural role model thanks to their top-notch sustainability practices, which fall right in line with the Unilever goal of reducing environmental impact. But it took decades of work and generations of persistent innovators to get here -- and things weren’t always easy.
Hell, Destruction and Plenty of Corn
Mark Isbell’s grandfather started the Arkansas farm as they know it today. Before him though, Mark’s great grandfather was a subsistence farmer during the Great Depression and left behind a long family line of farmers and a lesson in perseverance.
Mark’s great grandfather grew cotton on the side for extra money, and one year the harvest price fell to a scanty 5 cents per pound. Thinking long-term, he put that year’s crop in a warehouse and awaited next year’s hopefully higher price. It turned out to be 4 cents. Disappointed, he sold both years’ cotton harvest and put the resulting money in a bank.
Then the bank collapsed in the Great Depression.
In the yearly ledger, the entry for that year read only “Hell and destruction and plenty of corn,” since that was the only crop the family was left with after they’d lost everything.
But this didn’t stop the Isbell family’s farming. Mark’s great grandfather persevered on his farm, which not only continued to support his family, but led his son and the next generations of Isbells to take up the profession as well.
This lesson in perseverance became a part of the family’s DNA, but so did another equally-important practice that helped the farm flourish.
Innovation Through Generations
Leroy Isbell, Mark’s grandfather who passed away at 90, started the farm with help from the GI bill after World War II by hand-clearing tree-covered land.
Leroy’s first innovation was zero-grade rice farming. In Arkansas, rice was normally grown in contoured levees or terraces, allowing the land to hold a specified amount of water at varying points across a field. But Mark’s grandfather pioneered a technique on flat, table-top farmland, which allowed for much more water-efficient farming using 30-50% less water compared to conventional levees.
What’s more, Leroy created this technique and successfully carried it out without modern measuring tools like laser levelling equipment, not available until the late 70s . Inventing this remarkably efficient practice earned Leroy Isbell (and his son Chris) Rice Farmers of the Year in 1996 , and eventually led to his induction into the Arkansas Agricultural Hall Of Fame -- no small honor in a state that’s more than one-third farmland.
This zero-grade technique is now recognized the world over, and each year draws curious farmers to the Isbell property, where the practice originated.
Southern Hospitality Brings International Acclaim
“I’m inquisitive. I like to experiment with things,” Says Chris Isbell of his farming mentality. Most recently, that’s meant helping Mark and his son-in-law Jeremy adopt even more water efficient farming practices. Through his career, it’s earned him a reputation as a man who didn’t want to farm like anybody else:
This inquisitiveness coupled with Southern hospitality and a dedication to quality once brought Chris Isbell international acclaim. While in California for a meeting of U.S. technical rice workers (the PHD side of agriculture) Chris saw a Japanese man standing alone, so started a conversation.
The man told him about quality requirements for Japanese rice, premium prices, and how sushi and sake rice could only grow in Japan.
Chris welcomed this challenge. After extensive study and experimentation, he’d produced his own rice of exquisite, sushi-quality rice in Arkansas.
After (finally) finding a willing Japanese rice tester, his product was declared top-notch. Chris became the first American to sell high-quality rice to Japan. Since then, he’s done at least 50 interviews with Japanese media, and his son Mark grew up feeding rice to Japanese tourists attracted by Chris’s innovation and commitment to quality.
Sustaining A Legacy
“I’ve always seen my father as an innovator,” says Mark, who grew up on the farm “that influences me in ways to look into the future.”
Mark has always had an eye towards tomorrow, as he oversees the communications of the farm — a necessary task when many are looking to you for leadership in innovation and sustainability – a big responsibility since rice makes up 20% of all meals in the world. “We’ve always tried to be as efficient as possible,” says Mark. “It’s only today that there’s a word for ‘sustainability’.”
His brother-in-law Jeremy helps employ alternate wetting and drying of the soil, which means letting a field dry out completely after flooding it. Just one such drying a season stops the anaerobic state of the soil’s bacteria, which may halve the production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Mark also works with researchers from the University of Arkansas on a multi-year measurement study, and monitoring a control field to find out exactly how much this process helps.
Besides pioneering this practice, the Isbells use cover crops to improve soil health and reduce fertilizer usages, while also employing no-till farming, which means leaving more natural plant matter on top of the soil to prevent erosion and reducing CO2 emissions by plowing less. Other farmers supplying Unilever ingredients also use this method, but the Isbells were pioneers.
Part Of The Plan For The Future
It takes a great deal of dedication to sustainability, quality and responsible farming to become a designated Knorr® landmark farm , but the Isbells have long been leaders in both. The Isbell Farms are one of our premiere suppliers, providing rice for Knorr® Rice Sides and new Knorr® Selects, and share both the Knorr® commitment to sustainability and the Unilever goal of sustainable sourcing. Unilever knows we need everyone’s help in preserving the planet in order to create a more sustainable future, and with partners as dedicated as the Isbells, we’re confident this is a challenge we can overcome.