Tag Archives: family

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 (hardinfarmsandmarket.com). 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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Holy Sews: Tiny layettes comfort grieving parents of stillborn children

26 Feb

 “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried” — Regina Binz


    On the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, Regina Binz and a friend visited hospitals in Northwest Arkansas to offer them something she wished she’d had the year before, when her son, whom she named Ryan Henry, died in her womb 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

(Holy Sews photo)

    During the months since his death in 2007, Binz had been working through her grief by designing an outfit suitable for miscarried and stillborn babies, who are unimaginably tiny and fragile.
    She had refined her concept and created a tunic open on the sides, which could be placed over a baby’s head, then secured with a ribbon. Fetuses in early stages of development are simply too delicate and small for typical baby clothing. Even doll clothes don’t work because they have small arm and head openings, plus fasteners that could tear a baby’s gossamer skin.
    After much trial and error, Binz had a prototype for a workable garment. Her goal was to make and donate them to hospital delivery units so they would have something pretty, soft, durable and small in which to wrap the little ones before showing them to their parents.
    Her first stop was Mercy Medical Center in Rogers, Binz recalls. “We took our stuff in to show them. The nurse at the desk looked at us like we were crazy and she said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Then she told me they had a mother delivering a stillborn baby at that moment and they needed the tunic right then.”
    Binz had been planning to keep the prototype, but handed it over — with an unexpected feeling of gratitude — after hearing the nurse’s words. Being able to offer such a gift to another mother was a balm to her grief. It also meant she was on the right path with her plan for the garments. Until that point, she had been ambivalent — she needed to find an outlet for her grief but she also knew she needed to focus on raising her daughter, Torrie, then 7 years old.
    “When I found out that mother was having a boy, it was like a moment of affirmation. The sense of affirmation and liberation is hard to describe.”

Handmade layettes by Holy Sews volunteers

 Since that day, Binz and the group she founded, Holy Sews, have made and furnished 700 to 800 layettes — each one with a tiny tunic, blanket, knitted cap (petite enough to fit the narrow end of an egg) and miniature teddy bear — to 32 hospitals in the state.
    The group meets once a month at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church in Little Rock, where Binz lives, to cut, sew and embellish layettes. Many of the women have lost babies themselves, while others just want to help. The ecumenical group of volunteers spends an afternoon cutting, sewing, assembling and packaging the layettes.
    On a Sunday in October, the parish hall at Holy Souls was filled with the jackhammer-like sound of sewing machines and cheerful chatter. Binz pointed to a blue gown for a baby born prematurely on a stand next to a smocklike tunic about one-third the size of the gown.
    “This is what my son was wrapped in,” she says. “That was humongous, but that wasn’t on my mind when they brought my son to me. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll make clothes for all the babies of the world.’”
    Her son weighed 3 ounces and measured 7 inches, barely the length of her hand. Binz and her husband, Kevin, wanted to see their son so the nurses brought Ryan to them wrapped in a regular-size hospital blanket.
    “My son was handed to me with his head folded over like it might break off,” Binz says. “It was very startling. That’s what I kept in mind when I was working on the tunic and blanket. I wanted to make something that would support the head so that wouldn’t happen to another mother.”
    With that in mind, she worked on her design, discarding idea after idea until she was sure she had created the ideal garment.
    “I sewed and I cried and I sewed and I cried,” Binz says. “It’s a simple design, but it took me forever to get right.”
    Among the first mothers to receive the Holy Sews layettes was Megan Garrison, who gave birth to stillborn twins Bella (6.8 ounces) and Paschal (7.2 ounces) on April 10, 2009. The boy and girl were 21 weeks old. Babies who die after 20 weeks of pregnancy are considered stillborn, while those who die earlier are termed miscarriages or “pregnancy loss,” according to the National Stillbirth Society.
    “As soon as I got them, I was so touched,” Garrison says of the layettes. A video montage of photos shows the twins first wrapped in white washcloths, then dressed in blue and pink tunics with matching caps and blankets. One photo shows Garrison smiling and holding both babies.

Doll-size knitted caps are part of each layette

Being able to see her babies, hold them and examine them — “they have all your features already” — was a “nice closure,” Garrison says. And seeing them dressed like other babies instead of wrapped in a piece of cloth used for bathing is a measure of comfort during an immeasurably painful loss.
    Treasure Grier, a nurse for four years in the labor and delivery unit at the UAMS Medical Center, says having the layettes on hand is a blessing for the nurses, who must present the stillborn and miscarried babies to devastated parents.
    “We love them, we love them, we love them,” she says of Holy Sews tunics. “They’re easy to place on the babies, they’re beautiful and we feel like we’re giving parents a pretty baby. That’s important because they don’t always look as beautiful as parents would hope or expect.”
    She said parents are always appreciative. “We’ve never had anyone respond negatively” to seeing their baby in a tunic and cap. “It creates a beautiful memory and we send it home with the family,” Grier says. “For the parents, it’s a tangible thing that their baby wore, their baby held.”
    Sometimes the babies are cremated or buried in the layettes at parents’ request.
    The need for the layettes is greater than you might imagine, Grier says, explaining that a week earlier, there were six pregnancy losses within two days at the hospital. “It’s never-ending. All we can do is try to make it easier on the parents.”
    Money for Holy Sews’ supplies comes solely from donations — sometimes from people who have received layettes but also from people who just want to help. Holy Souls church also provides funding, Binz says. Each layette is blessed by a Catholic priest before being given to a hospital.
    Word has spread about the project and Binz is mentoring four women in other states who want to begin Holy Sews programs. “Every day, I send them an e-mail. I’m trying to use that as an opportunity to write a procedure manual,” she says.
    Binz says the project has healed her and is doing the same for the other mothers involved. And she’ll always remember the day the healing began.
    “I never met that mother at Mercy Hospital, but I always think about her the day after Thanksgiving. After that day, I could move again. I became excited about Christmas again. I was liberated.”

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2011, Family section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A fine edge

20 Feb

Some of the finest knife-sharpening rock is found in the Ouachitas

By Rhonda Owen
    PEARCY — My father always said that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because the extra pressure needed to cut something with a knife that has lost its edge increases the chances of the blade slipping. So he kept his knives — pocket, kitchen, hunting — micro-sharp, testing their edges by shaving hairs on his arm.
    He had a lot of knives, so it seemed like he was always sharpening one. I recall the biting whisper of steel on stone as he drew a knife toward him, covering the length of the blade with each sure swipe.
    Focused and flowing, the act of sharpening knives seemed like a type of meditation, a Zen-like ritual. Of course, he’d laugh at that, but no doubt he’d agree there was a certain satisfaction in the repetitive task.
    Sadly, I never asked him to teach me how to sharpen a knife. I don’t know why; perhaps I thought he’d remember the time I sliced a forefinger trying to whittle with my Brownie knife and worry that I might cut myself more deeply. Maybe I was simply respectful of his reverie, or so I’d like to think.

This four-sided sharpener features four grades of Arkansas stone. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 My father was old-school, keeping a finely honed edge on his blades with natural sharpening stones that he bought in Hot Springs. While he occasionally acquired other types of whetstones, he preferred the Arkansas stones because “they were the only good ones.”
    Using a whetstone as my father did takes more time and skill than using sharpening products popular today — electric grinders, rabbit-ear ceramic rods, manmade diamond stones, two-sided V-shaped devices that let you pull the blade through carbide and ceramic surfaces, to name a few. These are favored by the kitchen variety of knife users; sportsmen, woodworkers and knifemakers still hone the edges of their blades with stone, although not all use novaculite.
    Sharpening a knife with an Arkansas whetstone is a natural for Arkansans because the state’s generous deposits of novaculite put it first in the country for production of silica stone abrasives, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The dense white-to-grayish-black microcrystalline quartzite stone quarried and cut in mines west of Hot Springs is valued as a premiere sharpening material throughout the world.
 “The Arkansas stone is the only stone on the market that actually polishes as it sharpens,” says Richard Hall, owner of Hall’s Arkansas Oilstones at Pearcy. Hall mines all grades of novaculite from a quarry he leases from the federal government in the Ouachita National Forest in Montgomery County. He says novaculite removes less metal from a knife, or whatever’s being sharpened, than a manmade stone does.
    “Arkansas stone” is a term recognized by hunters, butchers, master knifemakers, cooks and others all over the world, says Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., also at Pearcy. Kirschman has been in the business of mining and cutting novaculite for personal, commercial and industrial applications since 1976.
    “Arkansas stone has been used for probably centuries and is well known for sharpening capabilities,” says Lin Rhea, blacksmith and knifemaker at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. “Among stones in general, the Arkansas has the best cut and qualities. We’ve got Arkansas medium soft, Arkansas translucent, black novaculite surgical … I prefer using it because it’s natural and because I learned to sharpen with it growing up.”
    Hall says he and Kirschman are among only a few businesses still mining their own Arkansas stone today, but at one time there were at least 10. Hall deals in whetstones of all sizes — from “bench stones” that are 4 to 12 inches long to pocket stones that are 3 to 4 inches long.

A block of quarried novaculite is cut into smaller pieces by a diamond saw. Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., says the pieces are then processed into whetstones. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 Kirschman’s novaculite products include whetstones (among them two-, three- and four-sided honers), but he also produces flints for antique flintlock guns, triangular and cylindrical sharpeners for getting into small spaces, black stones used by gemstone companies in Germany for testing gold karat weight, small wheels for polishing diamonds and larger wheels for sharpening tools such as axes.
    His biggest market is the dental industry, for which he makes tiny triangular rods for polishing dental instruments. Companies that make dental equipment buy only the whitest of the translucent novaculite “because it symbolizes purity,” Kirschman says.
    Novaculite has been in use for centuries and longer, he says. Prehistoric American Indians fashioned it into tools and weapons. Arrowheads uncovered in areas throughout Arkansas are made of novaculite from the Ouachita Mountain range. Early settlers used the stone to sharpen woodcutting tools.
    According to Kirschman’s web site, “mining records indicate that settlers … began mining in the early 1800s near Magnet Cove in Hot Spring County” and mining has remained constant since 1885.
    Most working quarries today are in Garland, Hot Spring, Montgomery and Saline counties, but ridges of whetstone quality novaculite are primarily confined to Garland and surrounding counties.
    All grades of novaculite from Arkansas are technically Arkansas stone, but the term refers specifically to the most fine-grained novaculite, Kirschman says. A second category of Arkansas novaculite is the coarser and less dense “Washita stone.”

Stacks of novaculite wait to be cut and processed at Dan’s Whetstone, a family-owned operation at Pearcy, Ark. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

   White and black novaculite are the most prized, but the opaque stone is found in many colors (often within the same piece of rock) — pink, gray, rust, blue-black and brown.
    “If two grades of stone are the same color, the general public has a difficult time determining the difference,” Kirschman says, explaining that color typically isn’t tied to variations in hardness or grade of a stone. He also notes that the terms quality and grade aren’t interchangeable when referring to novaculite. In fact, most of the terminology used to describe novaculite isn’t clear to people outside the industry.
    “Grade is the texture, while quality can mean either workmanship or natural variations in the material. We have classifications of grades of the different qualities. People don’t realize there isn’t a lot of difference in the grain size from a coarse stone to an extra fine stone.”
    What determines the quality of a stone is not the size of the grains within it but “density and specific gravity” or the compactness of the grains and the void between them.
    An enlargement of a microscopic picture of the surface of novaculite looks like a piece of quartz — craggy and pitted, with points of all sizes. Without magnification, however, the surface appears smooth.
    All those pits and points are what shave and capture tiny bits of metal removed when sharpening a knife, Kirschman says.
    “An Arkansas stone is a maintenance stone because it doesn’t take off a lot of metal in a hurry. By the same token, it doesn’t deface and scratch a knife up. It actually polishes as it abrades.”
    Novaculite also is unique in that it doesn’t wear down or hollow out with consistent use, he says. But to maintain its surface, it needs to be oiled with a light mineral oil with each use. If treated right, an Arkansas stone lasts for generations.
    “You’d be amazed at how many people have their daddy or grandfather’s Arkansas stone and are still using them.”

    Here are steps and advice for honing a knife using an Arkansas stone — also called an oilstone because it requires oil — provided by Lin Rhea, Dan Kirschman and Richard Hall.
    “The single most important thing is the consistency of the angle of the knife,” Hall says.
When sharpening a general purpose knife (most knives), the knife edge should be held against the stone at a 22 1/2-degree angle. A thin filet knife should be sharpened at a 15-degree angle.
    Kirschman’s whetstones are mounted in wooden frames that provide a guide for the most common angle. Hall describes how to establish an angle without a guide:
    “Lay your knife flat on the stone, then look at the width of the blade from the sharp part to the top part. You want onethird of that blade off the back of the edge of that stone. Then lift the back end of the knife about one-fourth of an inch. At that point, you can get your pointing finger on the edge.”
    Once an angle is established, pull the knife right to left across the stone, moving the knife so that the length of the blade is sharpened with each swipe. “Start closer to the handle of the knife and cover the entire stone and entire length of the knife blade,” Kirschman says. Pull 10 times on one side, then flip the knife to the other side and pull it across 10 times. The point is to sharpen the edge evenly on both sides of the blade.
    Always apply honing oil to the stone before use (honing oil is usually included when you buy a stone).
    “Oil will float the microscopic pieces of metal that come off with every stroke. It floats them up and away and allows the stone to cut better,” Rhea says.
    After finishing a sharpening session, wash the oil off of the stone with soap and water.
    When sharpening a knife, you can either use only the medium grade of novaculite or use medium and fine. The medium stone will sharpen the knife; use the fine stone next to refine the edge.
    Anytime you sharpen a knife, you’ll establish a “burr,” which is “a little foil edge waiting to be removed,” Rhea says. The average knife user probably wouldn’t finish polishing the knife to remove the burr (which would come off during normal use) but knifemakers and others would do so using a third tool — a leather strop that has been coated with a polishing compound.

A version of this article originally appeared Dec. 11, 2011, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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