Delicious food and community service are the hallmarks of Barnhill Orchards

By: Michael Roberts   Photography: Rett Peek

To central Arkansas farmers market visitors, Bob Barnhill of Barnhill Orchards in Lonoke is a fixture, as is the diverse selection of fruits, vegetables and nuts available from the farm almost year-round. Barnhill and his wife Carlotta started Barnhill Orchards in 1980 with 60 acres, and the business has grown to encompass nearly 300 acres today. The farm remains a family operation, with Barnhill’s children Rex and Ekko working alongside their parents daily to grow the excellent produce for which the farm is famous.

Bob and Carlotta Barnhill pack hybrid tomatoes, and Rex Barnhill picks ears of sweet corn. 

“If it can grow well in Arkansas, we try to grow it,” Barnhill says as he maneuvers one of his farm’s three golf carts among the various cultivated areas of the farm. There are the two high tunnels, barren now but with rows sculpted into perfect plateaus of soil in anticipation of winter broccoli and cauliflower, three patches of yellow-and-white sweet corn in various stages of maturity, a late-summer tomato crop of heat-resistant hybrids, purple hull peas, okra, summer and winter squash and a patch of lettuces. Each new row is full of thriving produce, a balancing act that Barnhill describes as “growing just enough to sell without waste.”

Anyone passing through all that bounty would be tempted to say that the Barnhill family has quite a farm, but the row crops tell only part of the story. In another area of the farm, behind the farmhouse, a grove of pear trees stands heavy with green-gold fruit, and pecan trees dot the landscape all around. Just up the road from the main farm, a peach grove is full of luscious red-and-orange fruit, and the patches of blackberry and blueberry bushes, while not producing now, offer a promise of delicious things to come. 

Growing such a wide selection of crops requires serious planning and logistical control, and the Barnhills are dedicated to using the most sustainable practices possible to preserve their land. A large rain-fed pond provides most of the water for the farm, supplying water to a series of irrigation and drip-tape lines to keep everything lush and green. The fruit and nut trees provide more than just crops to sell; the root structure of each tree also serves as erosion control, keeping the soil that the family works so hard to care for in place year after year. 

Pride for the land on which he lives is an important part of Bob Barnhill’s character, and it is something he has expressed not only by farming, but by serving his country in the United States Air Force. While he grew up on a farm near his native Corning, he says with a laugh that he was “away from farming for many years.” Those years saw him complete a degree in mathematics and chemistry from Arkansas State Teachers College (now UCA), parlaying that degree into a commission in the Air Force to study meteorology.

This interest and training in weather patterns led Barnhill to fly missions over hurricanes and typhoons in a B-47 bomber, tracking storms and helping lay the foundation for modern weather reporting and prediction. When the Vietnam War escalated, Barnhill traded his weather-spotting B-47 for a combat-ready B-66 bomber, flying a total of 157 combat missions in service to the country he loves. It’s this same sort of fearless determination that keeps him going year after year, even as he downplays his achievements with an honest and compelling humility.

Rex Barnhill checks a pear, lush squash fields and a ripening winter acorn squarsh almost ready to pick.

The elder Barnhill is not the only member of the family to have served in the armed forces. Between himself, his children and grandchildren, the family has a combined 135 years of service, each instilled with the discipline and problem-solving skills needed to be successful in both the armed forces and the farming business.

As for that business, it’s never been better. Barnhill Orchards’ 35th year in operation finds the farm maintaining a thriving presence at the Hillcrest Farmers Market and Bernice Garden Farmers Market in Little Rock, the Argenta Farmers Market in North Little Rock and the Cabot Farmers Market in Cabot. In addition, the farm operates its own on-site farm store that Barnhill’s daughter Ekko plans to expand in the coming year into a community hub full of fresh produce, farm-prepared jams and jellies, and antiques, and the farm also provides an online farm basket program similar to a CSA. Barnhill Orchards produce can also be found on the menus of Little Rock restaurants like The Root Café, South on Main, Community Bakery, Mylo Coffee Co., Terry’s Finer Foods, the Country Club of Little Rock, ZAZA, Trio’s and David’s Burgers. The farm also works with the farm-to-school program to provide food to schools in both Cabot and Lonoke.

“If it can grow well in Arkansas, we try to grow it.”

– Bob Barnhill

Creating a sustainable farm business for his children and grandchildren has always been important to Bob Barnhill, but serving his community is just as important. The farm conducts tours for local student groups, provides strawberries for the Special Olympics, holds an annual strawberry pick for veterans, and provides food to area food banks and churches. Growing amazing food, caring for the land, supporting his family and giving back to the community—these are the things that make up every single workday for Bob Barnhill, and although he treats each as simply a matter of course, the people of Arkansas are lucky to have him on the local food scene, and luckier still that future generations of Barnhills stand ready to maintain and grow Barnhill Orchards through hard work, sustainable practices and a love of the people around them.