It should come as no surprise that the values of the Benton County Farm Family of the Year are centered on a love for family and agriculture, but that love does not completely disguise the challenges agriculture is facing in northwestern Arkansas.
Kevin and Jacque Smith and their daughters, Jacey, 14, and Kylie, 9, of Decatur, Arkansas, were recently recognized as the 2019 Benton County Farm Family of the Year. The Smiths operate five broiler houses and also raise commercial cattle and meat goats and have previously been awarded the Excellence in Agriculture award from Arkansas Farm Bureau and as a 2017 Farmers’ Almanac Farmer of the Year.
“We get 135,000 chickens five-and-a-half times a year,” Kevin said, adding they also have about 30 head of cattle and just as many goats. Overall, they market about 4 million pounds of chicken each year. Kevin and Jacque both grew up on farms — Jacque on an Oklahoma cattle ranch where they also raised wheat and soybeans and Kevin on a cattle and poultry operation in northwest Arkansas.
“We wanted to raise a family with a similar lifestyle to what we were both blessed with growing up,” Jacque said.
In addition to raising broilers for Tyson and their livestock, Kevin is the area operations manager for QC Supply in Lincoln and Jacque is a federal programs coordinator with the local school district.
“Benton County is the No. 1 poultry county in the state and the No. 1 beef cattle county in the state, and we’re involved in both of those things,” Kevin said. “We’re very involved in our community. We try to give a lot of our time back to the community and to the farmers, as well.”
Jacque added, “We also try to support the youth in the county to promote agriculture.”
Kevin is the president of Benton County Farm Bureau, and Jacque is active with the local 4-H club, Farm Expo and Moms on the Farm organization and also serves on the Benton County Women’s Committee.
Active 4-H and FFA members Jacey and Kylie show goats and will show heifers for the first time this year— a LimFlex for Jacey and a commercial heifer for Kylie.
Jacey said being involved in 4-H and FFA has allowed her to learn through hands-on experiences and she enjoys raising and caring for her animals.
Kylie added, “My favorite thing about the farm is learning all the lessons — like if we mess up, we need to keep going and how to treat our animals if we have a farm when we get older.”
Both girls have shown at the Benton County Fair, and now that Kylie is 9, she will get to show at the Arkansas-Oklahoma Fair and the Arkansas State Fair with Jacey this year.
Jacque emphasized the importance of the values the girls are learning through the farm.
“I think the girls know how much work is involved for us to earn a living,” Jacque said. “It makes us all more humble and down to earth.
“I think it’s something they’ll appreciate when they get older,” she added.
The girls also get a front row seat to a part of agriculture that many never experience — a part ripe with misconceptions from the general public.
“I would say the biggest struggle we’re facing right now is public perception and urbanization,” Kevin said.
“Most people would pretty well categorize us as factory farmers, and we’re not,” he continued. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Jacque added, “We produce a mass quantity of birds each year. People think of a quantity that size and link that to a factory setting but we’re the furthest thing from that.”
Benton County’s population is rapidly expanding, affecting everything from land values and availability to the prices of utilities. As the state’s No. 1 county for agriculture, this poses an enormous challenge.
“Land values are to a point that there’s no opportunity for expansion,” Kevin said. “With the current public perception of farmers and the urbanization of Benton County, I think that creates a very difficult challenge for all of us in the ag business in Benton County.”
Kevin stated a nearby farm was listed for about $2 million, at a rate of $14,000 per acre. At these prices, he said it just doesn’t pencil out to build chicken houses or farm that land.
As the area around Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville becomes more developed, Kevin said he sees the urbanization driving a rise in input costs in regard to fuel and electricity.
“The area has become a metropolitan area and we’re beginning to pay metropolitan prices,” he explained. Because raising broilers requires electricity 24/7, they can’t avoid paying a premium with the current on-demand pricing system like other businesses do with night shifts.
Despite the birds being housed indoors, they still struggle with Mother Nature like farmers raising crops and other livestock.
“As the temperature fluctuates, our profits really fluctuate, and so nothing is guaranteed,” Jacque said.
“Benton County is still a good place to be,” Kevin said. “It’s not too hot or too cold… We’ll go through five or six years of what it’s supposed to be and then we’ll ride the rollercoaster again.”
Looking to the future, Kevin predicted solar will be the “next big thing in the chicken world.” With all the rooftop space, solar panels would be a solution to some of the energy issues as well as providing a possible source of additional income for poultry farmers. However, more work needs to be done to make lighter solar panels that poultry houses can support.
“There’s a drive out there for it,” Kevin said, “but it’s just starting.”
Kevin and Jacque encouraged their fellow farmers and ranchers to promote agricultural education through support for local extension, 4-H and FFA programs.
“We all have the bumper stickers and T-shirts that say ‘No Farms. No Food.’ but that’s real,” Kevin said. “It’s probably not real in my lifetime or the girls’ lifetime but it’s real.
“The family farm is a dying breed,” he continued. “We’re lucky that we’re in a section of the country that still has a lot of family farms.”
Jacque encouraged others to promote agriculture to clear up misconceptions.
“We have a voice and we can advocate for ourselves and other farmers in the area, but our voices are often drowned out by larger companies and their marketing ploys,” Jacque said, adding she sees education as a way to ensure the longevity of the agricultural industry and the science behind it.
Overall, the Smiths are positive as they look at the opportunities they have been given.
“The brightest spot I see is we get the joy of raising our family on the farm,” Kevin said. “It’s a hard-working lifestyle but we’re blessed to be able to live out here and do as well as we have and to just be out here on the farm.”