Couple says they were always drawn to farming

Californaians Jim Isbell and Karen Spinner moved to Fayetteville, Ark., in 2012 while retaining their California jobs. The couple has two children, daughter Molly, who is 8, and son Hunter, who is 6. Jim is an implementation manager for a telecommunications company, while Karen develops marketing plans for large corporations, but there was always a draw to farming. 

“Part of my education is in history and I have this romanticized view of owning a farm, similar to those hundred years ago,” Jim said. “I want the lifestyle as much as sustainability and being morally responsible in my methods.”

Jim never lived on a farm, though his mother Eve and stepfather Gary had a few chickens. Karen had no background in agriculture, but was as captured by the same idea as Jim. 

When they began their search, they thought perhaps 5 to 10 acres would be enough but soon realized they needed more land to fulfill the vision. Eve, a realtor, became aggressive in searching and found a location of two connected properties with an old home built in the 1930s. She took them by truck through many trails developed by the previous owners. When Karen saw the wonderful trails, she knew this was the place and jogs the trails every day.

The land has a few strips of black dirt, but it is mostly a sandy loam with just enough soil to produce quality grass. Through the years of ownership, they have slowly worked to rehab the land, which includes fertilizing and getting rid of stubborn plants like blackberries. They have experimented raising many different breeds of chickens and kinds of livestock, including cattle, pigs, goats and sheep. Because the goal was to use machinery as little as possible, chicken and cattle proved to be the most doable.

“I never expected to become as passionate about chickens as I am,” Jim explained. “Arkansas is a rural state which means chickens are allowed in many towns as long as no roosters are around to disturb neighbors. Our customer base is made up of people who want to know where their food comes from and to raise chickens as part of that process with some being rural and some more urban.”

The farm has and continues to experiment with different heritage species. Swedish Flower hens are their current dominant breed because they are hardy and popular with customers. Currently, Heritage Acres supports 30 to 40 hens and 10 roosters. The chickens are raised in “chicken tractors,” movable enclosures that require no machinery. The enclosures are 8-feet-by-4-feet, with six birds per tractor. Each has a four-way nesting box with protection from rain and sun provided by corrugated sheeting. Jim puts a little feed on one of the 4-foot sides and pulls the enclosure daily, thereby exposing the feed. The chickens stay and eat and are at the other side of the enclosure when Jim manually pulls it exactly one enclosure width. The chickens are not allowed to brood, and the eggs are harvested daily and put into an incubator.

Jim has another 10 of the enclosures with other breeds he is experimenting with. A current project is the challenge of producing a barred Silverudd’s Blue by crossing it with a barred breed in order to produce an autosex chicken, one where males and females have different coloration patterns. So far, Jim has been able to produce a blue barred bird, but the bar is muted and very difficult to see. One advantage is that the cross is consistent and has hybrid vigor. Right now, the cross is an F1, and the many in-town residents who want chickens want hens because of noise ordinances. 

Another of the couple’s interests are heritage Chocolate turkeys. They purchased their starters from Jake Jersey in Hindsville, who maintains a wide variety of heritage breeds. They have eight to 10 breeding hens and four toms. They are also in enclosures, but these are larger and stationary, with hay used as bedding after October so the soil is naturally improved by the turkeys. Nearby walnut trees draw the Japanese beetles, caterpillars and June bugs, tidbits the birds aggressively scratch through the hay to find.

Heritage Acres’ marketing strategy ties nicely with their philosophical dedication to using gentle and moral environmental use as much as possible. While they sell a few chicken eggs and no turkey eggs, they prefer to control the hatching themselves so customers receive live animals rather than taking a chance that some eggs won’t hatch. Their preference for both chickens and turkeys is to sell hens rather than hatchlings, pullets or poults because the birds will have gone through at least two different seasons and produced eggs, which means those birds are hardy and dependable. Their website specifies pricing for different aged birds.

Jim’s image of the 100-year-old farm is reinforced by a herd of 15 to 20 naturally horned Piney Wood cows bought from Jeff Brown in Mississippi. They have five or six bulls not used for breeding but raised for processing. Unfortunately, coronavirus slowed everything down and will sort itself out eventually with the backup being finding processing. Jim is highly appreciative of B & R Processing in Winslow and uses them for the Piney Woods and for a few pigs they raise for personal use.

“Every farmer has to make compromises in what he would prefer to do as opposed to what is most essential from a practical standpoint because we do have a world to feed and have not yet developed a technology to avoid using fossil fuels,” Jim said. “Consequently, I do occasionally use a tractor but as little as possible and never use antibiotics.”

While Heritage Acres is a business, it is more importantly a lifestyle choice. Watching his children hearing the incubated chicks on their front porch through the door and eagerly awaiting to hold the small birds makes everything worthwhile for both he and Karen.

“As young as our children are, I can already see how this lifestyle has affected them,” Jim asserted. “They understand far better than most children their age the concepts of life and death, the value of each life and the responsibility of treating each life gently.”


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