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Dedicated and determined at Barnhill Orchards 

Bob Barn­hill. - RETT PEEK
  • Rett Peek
  • Bob Barn­hill.

This story is sponsored by Arkansas Farm Bureau.

To cen­tral Arkansas farm­ers mar­ket vis­i­tors, Bob Barn­hill of Barn­hill Orchards in Lonoke is a fix­ture, as is the diverse selec­tion of fruits, veg­eta­bles and nuts that is avail­able from the farm almost year-round. Barn­hill and his wife Car­lotta started Barn­hill Orchards in 1980 with 60 acres, and the busi­ness has grown to encom­pass nearly 300 acres today. The farm remains a fam­ily oper­a­tion, with Barnhill’s chil­dren Rex and Ekko work­ing along­side their par­ents daily to grow the excel­lent pro­duce for which the farm is famous.

“If it can grow well in Arkansas, we try to grow it,” Barn­hill says as he maneu­vers one of his farm’s three golf carts among the var­i­ous cul­ti­vated areas of the farm. There are the two high tun­nels, bar­ren now but with rows sculpted into per­fect plateaus of soil in antic­i­pa­tion for a win­ter crop of broc­coli and cau­li­flower, three patches of yellow-and-white sweet corn in var­i­ous stages of matu­rity, a late-summer tomato crop of heat-resistant hybrids, pur­ple hull peas, okra, sum­mer and win­ter squash and a patch of let­tuces that Barn­hill claims aren’t grow­ing as he’d like despite their fluffy, light-green tops bristling from the soil. Each new row is full of thriv­ing pro­duce in var­i­ous stages of growth, a bal­anc­ing act that Barn­hill describes as “grow­ing just enough to sell with­out waste.”

Any­one pass­ing through all that bounty would be tempted to say that the Barn­hill fam­ily has quite a farm, but the row crops tell only part of the story. In another area of the farm, behind the farm­house, a grove of pear trees stands heavy with green-gold fruit, and pecan trees dot the land­scape all around. Just up the road from the main farm, a peach grove is full of lus­cious red-and-orange fruit, and the patches of black­berry and blue­berry bushes, while not pro­duc­ing now, stand as a promise of deli­cious things to come.

Grow­ing such a wide selec­tion of crops requires seri­ous plan­ning and logis­ti­cal con­trol, and the Barn­hills are ded­i­cated to using the most sus­tain­able prac­tices pos­si­ble to pre­serve their land. A large rain-fed pond pro­vides most of the water for the farm, sup­ply­ing water to a series of irri­ga­tion and drip-tape lines to keep every­thing lush and green. The fruit and nut trees pro­vide more than just crops to sell; the root struc­ture of each tree also serves as ero­sion con­trol, keep­ing the soil that the fam­ily works so hard to care for in place year after year.

Pride for the land on which he lives is an impor­tant part of Bob Barnhill’s char­ac­ter, and it is some­thing he has expressed not only by farm­ing, but by serv­ing his coun­try in the United States Air Force. While he grew up on a farm near his native Corn­ing, he says with a laugh that he was “away from farm­ing for many years.” Those years saw him com­plete a degree in math­e­mat­ics and chem­istry from Arkansas State Teach­ers Col­lege (now UCA), par­lay­ing that degree into a com­mis­sion in the Air Force to study meteorology.

Rex Barn­hill moves through the corn - RETT PEEK
  • Rett Peek
  • Rex Barn­hill moves through the corn

This inter­est and train­ing in weather pat­terns led Barn­hill to fly mis­sions over hur­ri­canes and typhoons in a B-47 bomber, track­ing storms and help­ing lay the foun­da­tion for mod­ern weather report­ing and pre­dic­tion. When the Viet­nam War esca­lated, Barn­hill traded his weather-spotting B-47 for a combat-ready B-66 bomber, fly­ing a total of 157 com­bat mis­sions in ser­vice to the coun­try he loves. It’s this same sort of fear­less deter­mi­na­tion that keeps him going year after year, even as he down­plays his achieve­ments with an hon­est and com­pelling humility.

The elder Barn­hill is not the only mem­ber of the fam­ily to have served in the armed forces. Between him­self, his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, the fam­ily has a com­bined 135 years of ser­vice, each instilled with the dis­ci­pline and problem-solving skills needed to be suc­cess­ful in both the armed forces and the farm­ing business.

As for that busi­ness, it’s never been bet­ter. Barn­hill Orchards’ 35th year in oper­a­tion finds the farm main­tain­ing a thriv­ing pres­ence at the Hill­crest Farm­ers Mar­ket and Ber­nice Gar­den Farm­ers Mar­ket in Lit­tle Rock, the Argenta Farm­ers Mar­ket in North Lit­tle Rock and the Cabot Farm­ers Mar­ket in Cabot. In addi­tion, the farm oper­ates its own on-site farm store that Barnhill’s daugh­ter Ekko plans to expand in the com­ing year into a com­mu­nity hub full of fresh pro­duce, farm-prepared jams and jel­lies, and antiques, and the farm also pro­vides an online farm bas­ket pro­gram sim­i­lar to a CSA. Barn­hill Orchards pro­duce can also be found on the menus of Lit­tle Rock restau­rants like The Root Café, South on Main, Com­mu­nity Bak­ery, Natchez, Mylo Cof­fee Co., Terry’s Finer Foods, the Coun­try Club of Lit­tle Rock, ZAZA, Trio’s and David’s Burg­ers. The farm also works with the farm-to-school pro­gram to pro­vide food to schools in both Cabot and Lonoke.

Cre­at­ing a sus­tain­able farm busi­ness for his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren has always been impor­tant to Bob Barn­hill, but serv­ing his com­mu­nity is just as impor­tant. The farm con­ducts tours for local stu­dent groups, pro­vides straw­ber­ries for the Spe­cial Olympics, holds an annual straw­berry pick for vet­er­ans, and pro­vides food to area food banks and churches. Grow­ing amaz­ing food, car­ing for the land, sup­port­ing his fam­ily and giv­ing back to the community—these are the things that make up every sin­gle work­day for Bob Barn­hill, and although he treats each as sim­ply a mat­ter of course, the peo­ple of Arkansas are lucky to have him on the local food scene, and luck­ier still that future gen­er­a­tions of Barn­hills stand ready to main­tain and grow Barn­hill Orchards through hard work, sus­tain­able prac­tices and a love of the peo­ple around them.

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