A Life on the Land
A Family Affair
By Dwain Hebda Photography by Katie Childs
Joe Thrash leans his arms on the kitchen table and takes a sip of coffee, his eyes gazing out a back wall of windows at the bare field in back of the house. The soybeans are behind this year due to all the springtime rain, and there’s more in the forecast.
Thrash, a third-generation farmer, has been here before through decades of working the land, so he’s not overly concerned, but he’s not built for sitting still, either. He’d much rather be out in the field, out on a tractor, just out there.
“I guess farming is more than just a way of life. It’s a passion,” he said. “Nobody’s going to punch you in the side every morning and say you’ve got to get out of bed and go to work. You’ve got to be self-motivated. You’ve got to like what you do. It’s up to you to get it done. You’re not punching a clock every morning with your ticket stub at the office.”
Another sip, another glance at the naked Faulkner County dirt. He shakes his head.
“Most of my office is behind a steering wheel,” he said.
Thrash farms 1,200 acres of row crops out here on his familial land—the vast majority of it in soybeans—with the help of his second son, Austin. Soybeans and the carrying forth of the family business are about the only things father and son hold in common with Joe’s father and grandfather, so much have agricultural methods and technologies changed.
“We’ve picked up no-till, conservation tillage, we’re using GPS and soil mapping and yield mapping,” Thrash said. “Lots of technology is in farming that wasn’t back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And we have new (soybean) varieties that are much better than we had back in those days. The average soybean crop was 30 bushels per acre; we’re easily averaging 45 and 50 these days.”
Soybeans loom large in Arkansas’ economy. Occupying more than 3.5 million acres, it’s the largest row crop in the state and makes Arkansas the 10th leading producer of soybeans in the nation and fourth in terms of soybean usage. Impressive rankings, considering the number of producers, nearly all of them independent, family operators have remained stagnant at best.
“We’ve always grown soybeans here on the farm. It just fits our climate, fits our soil conditions. It’s a rugged crop I guess you could say,” Thrash said. “It can grow from all extremes on our farm from our sandiest ground to our heaviest buckshot ground. They’re a crop we know well and know what it takes.”
Arkansas’ soybean farmers harvested 175 million bushels last year, which amounted to a record 51 bushels per acre. About half of the state’s annual yield is exported, which demands a considerably broader market view by today’s producer compared to previous generations.
“Back in the day, you’d listen to the farm reports to see what the prices are doing. Now, I pull my phone out and I’m looking at it anytime I think about it,” Thrash said. “What are the markets doing right now? Are they up or are they down? What’s the trend? What’s happening in China? It’s a worldwide market.”
One of the reasons for soybeans’ global demand is the versatility of the crop. An important source of protein around the world, the largest percentage of soybeans is used in animal feed, but billions also consume it every day as edamame, a component of baked goods, as tofu, soy milk or vegetable oil, among others.
As well, countless soy-based industrial and consumer products are on the market from inks to cleaning supplies to carpet backing and adhesives. Soy often replaces petroleum products or other harmful chemicals in commercial applications, and more uses are being developed all the time. In fact, it’s likely most Americans can’t get through their day without encountering soybeans in some form.
“These muffins over here, they’ve got some soybean of some sort in them, whether it’s the cooking oil or something in the baking powder,” Thrash said. “My pickup truck I drive out there, the foam in the seat or part of the dash is made out of some part of the soybean. And the fuel we run in our tractors and pickups is, too. We run a 20 percent blend of biodiesel in all our equipment.”
Innovation is spurred through investment by the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board (ASPD), of which Thrash has been a governor-appointed member for six years. The board’s mission is to improve sustainability of the crop, foster public education and promotion of soybeans. Funding for such efforts comes from the soybean checkoff, a federally mandated assessment that collects a percentage of soybeans sold.
Thanks to an Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board investment of checkoff dollars, the University of Arkansas has made great strides in plant biology research. Thrash pointed out these advancements have not only upped yields but improved pest and disease resistance, which allow producers to grow a healthy food source in a healthier way.
“With the genetically enhanced plants we have these days, we can keep from having to use 10 or 15 different chemicals throughout the season,” he said. “We may just use one or two through the season for our weed control and insects. Lots of years we won’t spray for insects at all; our plant is designed to resist those insects. We’re using a lot less (chemicals) than we did in the past.”
Such improvements have become steadily more critical as the worldwide population continues to outstrip many countries’ ability to produce sufficient food. With less than two acres of agricultural land worldwide for each of the 7 billion people on planet Earth, matters of efficiency and productivity are universal priorities.
“Everybody’s got the ‘26.2’ sticker [from running a marathon], you know,” Thrash said, waving at a red oval on the refrigerator. “Well, mine’s my ‘155’ sticker with a tractor on it. One farmer feeds 155 people.”
It’s a responsibility that Thrash takes very seriously, gets him antsy to get a crop in the ground and what brings a note of pride to his voice talking about the life he loves in the up years and the down. Like all farmers, there were years that almost broke him; years the weather, the markets or Lady Luck turned their backs on him. Yet he returned, like the warm Arkansas sun after a wet spring, to begin the process anew as witnessed time and again by Renee Thrash, Joe’s wife of 31 years.
“It taught me that Joe is not going to come out of this very easily, ever,” she said of the lean years. “You’re in it for the long haul, and you’ve got to figure out how to do it. A bad year, you know, it’s nothing you did that messed things up. It was just a really bad year.”
Renee pauses, considering, before adding, “That probably made us a lot stronger, and it made me look at things differently. We stuck together and grew that way. You just make a decision of this is where we’re going to be, and you’re just going to keep at it and keep going.”
His coffee gone, Thrash folds his hands and pairs a smile with a shrug.
“A farmer is the eternal optimist, I guess. You know, next year’s going to be better than this year,” he said. “So, you take your lumps and you keep going on. But as far as way out in the future, you never know. You just have to be optimistic that it’s going to keep getting better.”
“They’re not making any more land. What we’ve got is what we’ve got. You’ve got to keep it and maintain it and improve it.”