Greg Wheeler was able to leave his career in banking to become a full-time broiler producer
The most common entrance into farming is starting out by using family land, then inheriting it and perhaps later adding to it. Another is coming from a farming family but having to purchase or more often leasing land with land acquisition coming later. This is a story of a couple with no farming background pursuing one man’s dream of being a farmer.
Greg and Paula Wheeler were both raised as city kids and started dating in high school. As a teenager, Greg worked in a grocery store his father managed. He had an outgoing and generous personality fostered by being raised with the belief that helping others was important. This belief was further developed by Greg becoming a Boy Scout which was also his only way to be involved in outdoor activities.
After graduation from high school in 1988, Greg worked for a bank but chafed under the routine and set time restraints.
“Greg didn’t like dressing up with a tie and being cooped up all day,” Paula said with a laugh.
In May 1990, Paula’s parents, Jesse and Faye Parker, moved to Combs, Ark., to a farm they purchased. Greg helped with the cows, which he found far more to his liking than servicing bank machines.
He also remembered his own father Winston being a diabetic, severely limited in activities and passing when Greg was only 19. The event lay heavy on Greg’s heart, and he knew he wanted to be the kind of parent who had enough scheduling freedom to attend whatever events his eventual children chose.
Meanwhile Paula was attending college and graduated in 1993 with a University of Arkansas bachelor’s degree in business education. The couple married and purchased a house in Fayetteville. Ark., while Greg continued working at the bank. Paula began her educational career in the Elkins School District, where she has worked for 25 years and now serves as district curriculum coordinator.
Everything changed in 1995 when Paula fully supported Greg’s dream of becoming a farmer. The couple credits Paula’s father as a pivotal influence in making that decision.
One day, Jesse drove Greg around the countryside pointing out various chicken operations and talking about the people who manage them. Confessing confusion at the purpose of the drive, Greg clearly remembers being told that if others could figure out the chicken industry, they could too. Shortly after, the couple received a Small Business Administration loan to purchase a 78-acre farm in Combs with two older chicken houses, hay ground with insufficient drainage for cattle and several rundown outbuildings.
Because the couple work during the day, Greg would check the chickens before work, Paula would check the chickens after work, and Paula’s father would look after the chickens during the day.
Then in 1997, Greg left Arvest Bank to start farming fulltime. Because two chicken houses provided insufficient income, he worked at various other odd jobs to provide for what soon became a family with the birth of their first child Gavin in 1998. Four years later, Westin was born and it was time to make a major decision about the direction of their lives. The determined couple decided the existing houses were too old to keep upgrading, and began construction of four new 43-feet-by-500-feet broiler houses in 2005.
“Making money in the chicken industry works best if you run an even number of houses,” Greg explained. “One reason is both baby chicks and feed are delivered in trucks that carry enough for two houses. The other is that half of the proceeds are needed to pay off the loan, with one-quarter devoted to utilities and the last one-fourth to serve as personal income. With four chicken houses, I could make a living.”
The technology difference between the old houses and the new was astounding. Most people view the computer system as the technology improvement. The truth is technology touched every part of the production system, including insulation, ventilation and lighting. In their first month of production, the Wheelers didn’t know lights were supposed to be kept on at night, but still had the most productive flock in their group for that month.
Then in 2013, one house was destroyed by heavy snow, ice and fire. Unwavering in their desire for their family to be an agricultural one, they persisted with a cleanup and rebuilding that took almost a year and a half before returning to full production in 2015.
The Wheeler operation is truly a family one. Everyone chips in, including Paula who works in the chicken houses and mows during the summer in addition to handling household responsibilities. Son Gavin, a senior at the University of Ozarks in communications and business administration with a minor in religion, fondly remembers a dog named Eric following him when he picked up chickens. If he missed one, the dog would sit by the dead chicken and not move until Gavin came back to get it.
“The way it worked was that dad was the boss, Eric was the middle manager, and I was the laborer,” chuckled Gavin.
Younger son Westin, who may pursue meteorology or wildlife management after high school graduation, remembers being told to be careful of the new door slamming due to the ventilation system. One day the door swung open violently, but a very young Westin hung on only to be thrown in the air.
In spite of being completely family-centered and attending all of the boys’ events as he vowed when he was a youngster, Greg makes time to be a fireman and is in search and rescue, as well as serving as a board member for multiple local associations, and volunteering with Boy Scout Troop 460.
Considering this family’s agricultural success, determination, persistence and community involvement, being awarded the Madison County 2019 Farm Family of the Year is definitely deserved.