Old Crow General Store
Bringing Farm-Fresh Food to Downtown Benton
By Benjamin Harrison
The newly-opened Old Crow General Store in Downtown Benton hosts a permanent food truck and honey and produce from local farms.
Before he became a farmer, Damon Helton had completed five tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The natural next step upon returning to the homeland, it seemed, was selling tactical equipment and apparel to the military.
“I thought I was a big man,” he says, “because I was Diamond on Delta or whatever. I flew a hundred-thousand miles a year. It was great money, but I wasn’t home. Jana (his wife) was raising the kids, and I lived out of a suitcase. My quality of life sucked.”
In 2012, Damon left his sales job, and the Heltons—taking what they refer to as a leap of faith—purchased their farm, established the foundation of a house, and began peppering the property with livestock and infrastructure. Two years later, they settled into their new home, and in October 2015 they opened shop on the Old Crow General Store down the road, on the outskirts of Benton, off Highway 5.
In a mere three years, and with guidance from other farmers in the regionsuch as Rex Barnhill of Barnhill Orchards, Damon has settled into the farming lifestyle. “When I first started,” he says, “I was like, ‘Hey man, why's my cow got runny eyes?’ I had no idea what I was doing.”
Jana, Damon’s wife and the matriarch of the Helton family, discovered Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group through a client at her workplace in Little Rock. From there, she discovered Armed to Farm, a National Center for Appropriate Technology program that provides sustainable agriculture training to military veterans.
“We were the only people from Arkansas that were picked,” Damon says. “It was on campus [in Fayetteville]. We stayed in the dorms, and we were there for a week of training. That really gave us the kick in the ass to kind of run with it.”
The interior of the Helton’s first store off Highway 5 near Hot Springs Village.
From their experience with Armed to Farm, the Heltons discovered the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and they felt they’d found a support network that would allow them to fully embrace their newfound role in the sustainable agriculture and local food movements.
But, as with most growers, the tricky local food market has a way of wearing down a farmer. “Farmers markets are great,” Damon says. “But, you know, your calendar’s cut in half, you only get six months. I was doing everything I could to generate income, but it was futile.” Fuel costs were through the roof, and Damon was in the meat grinder.
Then one day, the lightbulb moment came. He looked out over the dash of his white dually Dodge Ram, across the intersection of Highway 9 and Hot Springs Highway, at the old white abandoned Shell station. It had sat empty for a decade, save numerous short-lived enterprises that had passed through. He called Jana right then and told her, “We're gonna open up that store across the street.”
The closest grocery store is 25 miles away, and Old Crow General Store had Hot Springs Village to help jump-start the business. Roughly 80 percent of the Heltons' sales are from the community of about 15,000 people nestled roughly 5 miles down the road.
Many of the residents there are not native to Arkansas, but they do possess a greater degree of expendable income than most of Benton’s population, as well as an appreciation for high-quality food. “If we were just kind of left to our devices and just the community,” Damon says, “we probably wouldn't have been able to see it through.”
Hot Springs Village is the largest community of retired veterans in the United States. So the Heltons are a natural fit, not just for Damon’s military background, but also for the charm and energy with which he seems to fill his role as a sustainable and local food aficionado.
When Damon first arrived in Benton, using words like organic and sustainable, he was considered unconventional, to say the least. “They told me, ‘You ain’t gonna make no money,’” Damon says. “‘Can’t do it.’” But the Heltons are still around, in spite of those who didn’t think he would last even one year. But now, Damon says, local residents are a little more curious about what he’s up to.
Not satisfied only with carrying the message of sustainability to local folks, Damon also takes his knowledge—and pork chops—to local schools through the Farm Bureau’s program, Ag In the Classroom. “These kids,” Damon says, “have no idea where this stuff comes from. I say, ‘Hey, do you know where milk comes from? Do you know where beef comes from?’ And they’ll look at you and say, ‘Yeah, I grocery shop with my mom.’”
Suffice it to say, Damon has his hands in a lot of cookie jars. Farmer, entrepreneur, educator, advocate, family man, community builder. “I work harder than I've ever worked,” he says. “But I'm happier than I've ever been.”
Jana Helton opens the Old Crow General Store in downtown Benton.
“We think agriculture really is the answer for veterans,” Jana says. “Because it makes them exhaust their minds. You'll never get them behind a desk. They have to be outside and just exhausting themselves physically, and that really was like a saving grace for him.”
Two months ago, with the success of the store on Highway 5 under their belt, the Heltons expanded operations to downtown Benton, 25 miles away, with their farm conveniently centered between the two stores.
The new location is up and running, with an unnamed red food truck serving the already popular Philly Beef Steak Sandwich. So far, Damon has sold out every day. His military buddies have suggested he title the food truck Dirty’s, a nickname he earned as the only Arkansan, or country boy, in his Army platoon. It’s yet to be determined. The sign to the building still reads Main Street Station, but it does assuredly house Old Crow General Store, as well as a Loblolly ice cream parlor.
“Phase three of all this,” Jana says. “We bought two historic buildings on the square [in downtown Benton]. We'll eventually have a farm-to-table restaurant.”
Hot Springs is a popular destination, and just west is the Ouachita National Forest. “We’re at this convergence,” Damon says. “Everything’s coming this way.” And with the recently slated $138 million widening of I-30, urban dwellers in Little Rock and its surrounding areas who venture west to either of these popular travel destinations have along the way, in the Old Crow General Store, what the Heltons hope will become an iconic food stop.
“Know your farmer. Know your food.” That’s the mission statement of Old Crow General Store. “That’s what the store was for us,” Damon says. “Any car that goes by, chances are it's a farmer.” But the Heltons have just about every reason in the book to be where they are and doing what they’re doing. Violet, one of their four children, had eczema until the family started raising and eating their own whole foods.
As a veteran, as someone who wants to stay close to his family, wants to nurture the land and expend energy and the anxieties of the past into its soil, who desires a connection with his community and to a positive movement, for things to be in their rightful place, Damon Helton is on the right track. “The word sustainable,” Damon says, “just, well, that makes sense. Let's do that.”