Jay Fulbright has been growing lettuces, peppers, herbs and more in high tunnels for over 20 years.

 

SUSTAINABILITY AND LONGEVITY

Arkansas Natural Produce keeps it fresh for over two decades

By: Michael Roberts   Photography: Brian Chilson

The year was 1995, and Jay Fulbright of Arkansas Natural Produce needed a change. “I was a regular truck farmer, selling to grocers,” he says. “The problem with that is, when I had a good crop, everybody else did, too, and prices were low—and if it was a bad year, prices might be great but I wouldn’t have much to sell.” His solution? Baby lettuce, grown in protected greenhouses, a crop that was, at the time, an extremely niche product in Arkansas. Within a few short years, Jay and his wife, Deanna, were supplying specialty lettuces and other greens to popular restaurants like Brave New Restaurant and Trio’s in Little Rock. He still counts both as loyal customers over 20 years later.

Covered high tunnels provide extra protection for sensitive crops like baby lettuce, edible flowers and holy basil.

These days, the Fulbrights operate multiple greenhouses tucked away in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains outside Malvern. The unusually hot June has required the use of shade cloths on top, while others have sides open to the air. This flexibility translates into a repertoire of over 20 varieties of salad greens, as well as a variety of peppers, herbs and edible flowers. “Almost everything we grow spun off of our spring mix,” Jay says of his method of selecting what crops to grow. “Some of our chefs wanted mixes with more arugula or baby spinach, and we’ve developed an Asian mix that has a lot of spicy greens.” This diversity has resulted in Arkansas Natural Produce becoming a mainstay in both restaurants and on the shelves of specialty stores like Whole Foods, Terry’s Finer Foods and Stratton’s Market in Little Rock.

Clockwise from top left: Bell and poblano peppers thrive in Arkansas Natural Produce’s greenhouses along with cucumbers and a selection of edible flowers.

Stepping into one of the farm’s greenhouses is like entering an emerald wonderland. The air is filled with the spicy aroma of basil and sweet peppers carried on a breeze stirred by constantly blowing fans. Growing its produce in high tunnels allows Arkansas Natural Produce to supply its customers year-round. “The greenhouses give us a more protected environment,” says Jay, “although we still have to use things like ladybugs to fight aphids.” The greatest challenge the Fulbrights face is the rocky, quartz-heavy soil, something they compensate for by growing their crops in deep rows of rich, dark compost. The result is row after row of thriving produce, tended by the farm’s five employees. 

In the difficult world of specialty crop farming, the success and longevity of a farm like Arkansas Natural Produce is inspiring. Working with chefs and specialty food stores not only allows farms to take the measure of what the public is looking to eat, it allows experts like Jay and Deanna Fulbright to educate and introduce people to new and exciting foods, elevating the food scene across the state. It’s a testament to what hard work and determination coupled with an ability to understand changing food trends can accomplish—and a perfect example of why eating local is so important.