An old tractor sits outside the a milk barn at JV Farms. The barn was built by the grandparents of current owner Jay Lee.

 

FARMING FOR FUN AND LIFE

Hot Spring County’s JV Farms does it right

By: Denise Parkinson   Photography: Denise Parkinson

As Arkansans fall deeper in love with all things homegrown, it’s clear that farmers are the new rock stars here in the Natural State. That certainly describes Jay and Valorie Lee, the duo behind JV Farms in Bismarck. The couple recently received a fantastic present for their 20th wedding anniversary by being named Hot Spring County’s 2016 Farm Family of the Year by Arkansas Farm Bureau. This well-earned recognition comes after years of researching and developing the best possible sustainable practices and products from their hilltop oasis in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.

“Because we spent summers with our grandparents, we learned the ways of farming early,” Valorie explained on a Friday afternoon over chilled juiced watermelon with a touch of lemon zest—invigorating and refreshing on a hot day. Friday afternoons are a great time to visit JV Farms, especially the milk barn, where folks can sign up for the farm’s monthly meat share and receive discounts on eggs, produce, berries or special order cuts of pork, chicken or beef. Getting to know your local farmer is the first step toward culinary enlightenment, and JV Farms is all about sharing the love.

“What makes us unique is the way we have a hand in the process from beginning to end,” Valorie observes. “Our livestock are raised from birth here on the pasture, we mix and make our own feed, and the corn for our livestock is grown by the same family we worked for [before we launched JV Farms]. In addition, our animals don’t have to travel far to be processed.” 

Jay and Valorie Lee sell their homegrown meat at the Bernice Garden Farmers Market in Little Rock.

Hogs at JV Farms live a fine life, nourished by spring-watered mash from nearby Superior Bathhouse Brewery in Hot Springs, where JV Farms bratwurst is on the menu. Their artisanal meats can also be sampled at DeLuca’s Pizzeria Napolitano and Itz Gud Fud of Hot Springs as well as Caddo Valley’s Little Penguin Tacos. The Lees travel weekly during the growing season, selling their tasty wares at the Hot Springs Farmers Market and the Bernice Garden Farmers Market in Little Rock. It’s all part of their mission to spread the gospel of good food.

“We wanted to eat the way our grandparents ate,” Valorie said of the healthy food she and Jay produce. But it wasn’t always so: Before launching the farm, Jay was working in insurance sales and saw his weight climb to 400 pounds. Valorie’s own health was also in jeopardy. “I was up to 300 pounds—I ’ve lost 110 and counting,” Valorie says. Their new way of life brought newfound vitality while subtracting unneeded weight.

From left to right: Goats are available for petting and milk. JV Farms is a mixture of old farm facilities and new, cutting-edge greenhouse for seed-starting.

The two met as young FFA students, showing cattle, sheep and pigs at area county fairs. They married while Valorie was a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and went on to manage cattle ranches in Texas and Arkansas. The Lees came home to Hot Spring County with the goal of working for themselves by jumpstarting Jay’s family farm, a historic homestead dormant since Jay’s grandparents ceased their longtime dairy operation. 

“We wanted to eat the way our grandparents ate.” 

—Valorie Lee

After years of experimenting with various crops and livestock, from goats to cattle and everything in between, the farm’s remarkable rebirth is an inspiring tale. Today, there’s a healthy balance of goats, cows, pigs, rabbits, chickens and produce, with a greenhouse for seed-starting, a no-till garden patch (“Our favorite,” Jay says) and oodles of blackberries. “We found that blackberries use less water and are hardier than blueberries,” Valorie says.

The farm’s 1960s-era milk barn, built by Jay’s grandparents, has been restored to a processing area with the goal of housing classes in food preparation. This on-site test kitchen is also the epicenter of annual Thanksgiving potlucks that display a bounty guaranteed to restore one’s faith in the Natural State’s capacity for deliciousness. 

“There’s support in the community for classes,” Valorie says, “from raw foods to juicing to lard rendering. Lard rendering provides a healthy alternative to hydrogenated oils—it’s like the difference between real butter and margarine.” Valorie’s Facebook archive, “Dirty Farm Girl,” displays her feisty wit along with a wealth of information about the benefits of raw and whole foods, farm living and the “quest for health.” Despite droughts, storms and heatwaves, JV Farms is flourishing thanks to the vision of two young people who traveled back to the farming future to create a fine, full life.