Damon Helton’s pasture-raised cattle are just one of his many responsibilities. Damon also raises pastured pork and free-range chickens.

 

FROM SERVICE TO SOIL

One Arkansas veteran found his calling as a farmer

By: Michael Roberts   Photography: Matthew Martin

With 160 acres of timber and pasture, there’s always somewhere Arkansas’ first certified Homegrown by Heroes member, Damon Helton, needs to be. Right now, it’s chasing off a couple of farm dogs who have decided there’s nothing more delicious in the world than a bowl of feed laid out for the small flock of ducks he’s recently added to his Farm at Barefoot Bend in the small central Arkansas community of Crows. Damon, along with his wife and four children, have been farming this plot of land outside Hot Springs Village for two years now—which is also the sum total of years the former Army Ranger has been a farmer.

“Farming is harder than being a Ranger,” Damon says, a bold statement from a man whose service took him to both Iraq and Afghanistan. “You have to do it all on your own. You can’t tell a chicken to ‘suck it up.’ But I really enjoy all of it.” He feels that agriculture is a natural fit for veterans. “We’re used to getting up early, used to discipline. And we’re used to getting dirty.” 

Damon’s pigs live on acorns and grass, giving their meat a lean, delicious flavor that is prized by foodies everywhere. 

Damon and his wife, Jana, decided to get into farming once Damon’s time in the service was up. Neither of them grew up in farming families, so the choice meant learning an entirely new way of life literally from the ground up. “Having children, I worry about what they’re eating,” Damon says of his dedication to using certified naturally grown farming methods. “And there’s just something about raising kids in the country that I find appealing.”

The Heltons’ first step in learning to farm came when they discovered the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Work Group, commonly known as Southern SAWG. The group’s focus on providing education and outreach to farmers was instrumental in developing their farming philosophy, from learning sustainable agricultural practices to developing plans for the business side of farming. The lessons learned from Southern SAWG inspired the Heltons to move beyond just farming their piece of land into creating relationships across their community.

To this end, the Heltons purchased an old store known as Crow Station just a mile from their farm, rebranding it in 2015 to the Olde Crow General Store. The initial concept for the store was to operate an old-style mercantile full of farm supplies and convenience items, a plan that has evolved greatly over the store’s short existence. 

The Olde Crow General Store (left) has become a hot spot in central Arkansas for people seeking sustainable, local produce and meats (right).

“We discovered that people could get a lot of the things we sold anywhere,” Damon says of the sundries the store originally carried. “What they were hungry for was delicious, local food. And so we transitioned into making Olde Crow into a place where people could get farm-fresh meat, eggs and produce.” 

Step into Olde Crow today, and one thing immediately draws the eye: a series of shiny, stainless steel freezers advertising grass-fed beef, pastured pork and free range chicken from both the Heltons’ farm and the Grass Roots Farmers Co-op, an organization of Arkansas farmers to which the Heltons belong. Branding from the co-op and from Arkansas’ Homegrown by Heroes program lines the walls, and when Helton mentions also being part of the Foodshed Farms initiative from Heifer USA, it’s clear how serious he is about fostering a sense of connection between his fellow farmers.

Balancing the store and the farm is a never-ending job, but it’s one that Damon takes to with relish. “We get people from Hot Springs Village who come in and ask where the meat is from. When I tell them it’s from a farm a mile away—and that they’re welcome to come visit—people are amazed. And they come back,” he says. On any given day, the store is full of those newly minted regulars and first-time visitors perusing the store’s products, then settling in with a piece of homemade pie or cobbler. It’s clear that Olde Crow is more than a place to shop; it’s a destination and food hub all in one. And Damon Helton is right in the middle of everything, talking to customers he’s met for the first time like they were family.

“I love what I do,” says Damon. “At 2 a.m. out in the rain, I still love it. Feeding your family feels so good. Feeding my community feels good. So I feel good at the end of the day.” And for everyone who knows the value and joy of eating local, lovingly raised meat and produce, getting a part of that good feeling is as simple as a visit to Olde Crow.

Olde Crow General Store is located at the junction of state Highways 5 and 9 in the community of Crows, between Benton and Hot Springs Village.

For more information, visit facebook.com/oldecrowgeneralstore.