Family’s farming roots run five generations deep

20 Aug

This story, published in August 2012 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was awarded First Place in the freelance writing category in the Arkansas Press Association’s 2013 contest.


GRADY, Ark. — Fifth-generation farmer Jody Hardin calls his family’s heritage “the glue we can’t unglue.”  Hardins have lived in Grady and farmed the fertile alluvial soil of Lincoln County in southeastern Arkansas since the 19th century. Today, Grady’s Main Street is home to two Hardins — Jody and his uncle Ed Hardin, the town’s mayor. They live as neighbors a short stroll from City Hall in wood-frame houses that have been in the family for generations. Jody’s parents, Randy and Debbie Hardin, live within walking distance on Old Highway 65, next door to his grandfather, E.C. “Ned” Hardin.

“In Grady, we are rooted deeply into the land and our family heritage. It’s a huge source of pride,” Jody says. “We’re building on what our ancestors have built.”

SINCE THE 1890s, FARMING HAS SUSTAINED THE FAMILY, whose members have also been civic leaders, politicians, innovators in agricultural business and mentors for other farmers. Now the fourth and fifth generations are carrying on their heritage by promoting sustainability of small and medium-size farms that grow food to sell locally. Each generation has reinvented, reinvested and reimagined the concept and practice of farming. Through sheer will and a love of the land, they’ve persevered and held on during years when drought, heavy rains or hail destroyed all or most of their crops, leaving them with debt and little else. They lived off the land through the Depression and two world wars. They kept their business alive even as family farming gave way to corporate farming, and when staying in agriculture meant being dependent upon government subsidies and policy.

“This is a tough struggle,” says Randy Hardin, who successfully sought to keep his farm independent of government subsidies by switching from cotton to food crops in the 1980s. “You have to work practically seven days a week. You’re never without pressure or the stress of it. Nothing is guaranteed. Every year, you have to put out all this money and risk and there’s nothing to guarantee you’ll get it back.”

THE HARDIN FARMERS OF TODAY are 44-year-old Jody, his brother, 27-year-old Josh, and their father, Randy, 63. Randy’s father, E.C. “Ned” Hardin, 94, has retired although he’s always available as an invaluable source of knowledge. Randy’s brother, 69-year-old Ed Hardin, isn’t involved in farming, but as Grady’s mayor continues the family’s heritage of civic leadership. Since the early 20th century, Hardins have served on the Grady City Council and as school board members. They’ve donated land for the high school’s football field and provided a building for the Optimist Club’s annual fish fry. Ned Hardin and his wife ran the county’s revenue office for 20 years. Ned’s brother, Joe Hardin (who died in 1992), was an original member of the Arkansas Farm Bureau and served as president from 1948-55. He also ran for governor against Orval Faubus in 1960.

When Jody Hardin testified before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in March on behalf of small farmers and sustainable agriculture, he was simply following the example set by his great-uncle Joe. “Uncle Joe spoke 32 consecutive years to the Senate Agriculture Committee,” Jody says. “He affected farm policy. We’re trying to follow in his footsteps to make a mark on. My dad has ended up being a mentor for beginning farmers. He’s helped a lot of people be successful. Now me and my brother, Josh, are helping young farmers. We’re kind of taking the baton in teaching, educating, mentoring.”

Jody, who started farming with his father since 1983, is known throughout Arkansas as an advocate for small farmers and for his stance that farmers’ markets are for farmers, rather than non-farmers who resell produced purchased wholesale. In 2008, he founded Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, which requires that its members verify they are the source of their products. A co-founder of the Argenta Market in North Little Rock, he serves as its local food coordinator. Jody raises fruits, vegetables and grass-fed beef and beefalo, heritage hogs and goats, and herbs on 20 acres at Grady. In pursuing and advocating direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, Jody follows the footstep of his father, who changed the family farm’s production from cotton to food in the 1980s.

agriculture“My dad has been through harder times than even the Depression,” says Jody. “What he’s gone through to keep the farm alive is a story in itself. He’s about broke his back … He carried $4 1/2 million in debt through the ‘80s.”

“THE WORST YEAR I EVER HAD WAS 1980,” Randy recalls. That’s the year he thought he’d really lose the farm. “There was a drought. We had high temperatures and we didn’t have irrigation. We had to mortgage all of our land.” He feared that was the end of the family business, just as his father, Ned, had in 1962 when a hail storm wiped out his cotton crop, and like his grandfather, E.C.Hardin Sr., believed when a fire gutted his cotton gin in the ‘40s. Well, maybe the fire was in  the ’50s, say Randy and his father,  who agrees with his son that there’s so much family history to keep up with that specific dates elude them.

Back to 1980. “We were in pretty bad financial shape and I was looking for some way to do things to get away from government payments,” Randy says, referring to agricultural subsidies paid to farmers to supplement their income and manage supply and demand. “If the government takes the payments away, the farmer is broke.” The solution, Randy says, was food crops. The family had always raised food for themselves, but not to sell. To bring his to fruition, he says, he traveled the country researching how to grow vegetables and learning about seeds, fertilizers and other issues specific to vegetable farming, which he says is entirely different from raising crops like soybeans and rice. Each vegetable and fruit has unique needs, and every year there are new developments in seed varieties and farming techniques to keep up with.

TODAY, THE HARDINS FARM AND MANAGE 1,000 ACRES at Grady while also harvesting about 1,400 acres of pecan trees in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. “We farm about 750 acres of soybeans and rent the rest to neighbors,” Randy says. “I have about 100 acres planted in vegetables.”

While bumping along in his pickup truck along narrow roads winding through the farmland surrounding Grady, Randy points out 15 acres of watermelons, eight acres of cantaloupes, 40 acres of sweet corn, 25 acres of purple hull peas, three acres of squash and two acres of cucumbers. The crops are planted in neat, virtually weed-free rows watered with a drip irrigation system. “We’ve had to put up this electric fence to keep out the coyotes and ‘coons from eating them up,” he says, gesturing toward wire strung along the melon patches. “We have several varieties of watermelon. We have icebox, seedless and some bigger watermelons that get to 30-40 pounds.”

Some crops are sold to wholesale produce dealers, but most are sold directly to consumers through Hardin Farms and Market Too on Arkansas 165 at Scott and other enterprises. A picking schedule is posted on the market’s web site ( Customers check it and call in orders for produce, such as bicolor (white and yellow) sweet corn, and they’re contacted the day it’s picked, Randy says.

But produce wasn’t the only answer. To keep the farm a profitable operation, Randy followed in the footsteps of the first savior of the Hardin farm — great-grandmother Bettie Hardin, who took over the farm in 1898 when her husband died leaving her alone to support five young children, among them Ned’s father and Uncle Joe.  “She operated the farm,” Ned says. “She was the manager and my daddy was the manual labor. She raised hogs and chickens. She raised corn and we ground it up into cornmeal. She bought my father a cotton gin.”

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WAS THE BONDING AGENT that got the family through the Depression,” Randy interjects. “She did everything imaginable. She sold stuffed pillows, chickens and hot tamales. She did sewing and took in boarders. She soaked corn cobs in coal oil to build a fire with. She kept the shucks to make tamales with. She plucked the feathers off of chickens and geese to make pillows.

“She saved the farm.”

Like Bettie Hardin, Randy has found that diversification can keep the farm running through good times and bad. “It’s hard, almost impossible, to live just off the farm. We have what I call ‘creative financing.’ We have a sawmill. We have pecan harvesting.  We have a catering business, a restaurant and a market, a commercial kitchen. We work constantly just to survive.”

BUT THERE ARE REWARDS.  “I love to watch the crops grow. I love the marketing end of it when things are going well. And there’s being your own boss. When you make another crop, then you’re proud you’ve succeeded and it’s one more year you’re able to stay here. You’re defying the odds. In this business, when you’ve made it another year and paid your debts and had enough to live on, then you’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”

Jody agrees, saying, “We ask ourselves all the time, ‘Why do we stay, why do we struggle so hard?’ But there’s not a chance we’re leaving. It’s our heritage.”

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