In the past 40 years, the United States lost more than a million farmers and ranchers. Many of our farmers are aging. Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming, and more and more of our farmers are looking elsewhere for their primary source of income."
Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture
With family farms failing at an alarming rate, the Walker family of Cecil is a welcome exception to this trend. Mike and Debbie Walker were recently named 2013 Franklin Country Farm Family of the Year.
The Walker family farms approximately 1,100 acres, raises 48,000 turkeys at a time 3 ½ times per year for Butterball, runs 300 "Mama cows" and their calves, and ran a busy dairy operation until 2000. In addition to this workload, their sons, Dustin and Preston own their own farms.
Bucking the trends, the Walker family has managed to maintain a family farm tradition started more than 150 years ago. "Farming has been in both sides of our family, since seems like forever!" said current family patriarch Mike, whose father, grandfather, great grandfather and great-great grandfather were all farmers as were Mike’s mother’s family down to her great-great grandmother. Mike Walker was raised near Ozark and his wife Debbie Roe Walker was raised on a farm consisting of a chicken house and beef cattle and her grandfather was a row crop farmer in Mulberry area so Debbie also comes from a long line of Franklin County farmers.
Mike said he always wanted to keep the Walker family legacy alive and be a farmer. "When I was just a young teen, my Dad broke his foot, so I started doing his chores at the dairy farm. I guess I did a pretty good job so my Dad let me buy 10 cows and it just went from there. My son Dustin also started young, working on his grandma’s farm when he was only 8-9 years old and Preston followed in his footsteps," said Mike.
The Walker boys and their families still help around the family farm and run their own farms as well. Dustin bought a chicken farm in Cecil with three chicken houses and 20 acres in 2000. He raises 5 flocks a year averaging 55,000 birds a flock for OK Foods. He married Natalie in 2007 and she and their three children also help on the farm. Preston attended the Tulsa Welding School after High School. He married Leilani in 2002 and we turned the 28 acre chicken house farm over to them and he built two more houses, said proud mother, Debbie.
"We couldn’t do anything without our sons," said Debbie, a hard working farm wife, mother and grandmother who works alongside her men doing daily chores, maintaining a large vegetable garden and doing a lot of cooking and canning in their comfortable country kitchen. The Walkers also built their own home along with Walker’s brother BobbyDale who was the main carpenter.
These days, Dustin’s daughter Peydon, age 9 and Preston’s son Zachary, age 7 also pitch in with farm chores, and even Dustin’s youngest children Lyndee age 6 and Rylan age 4 help out. "We always pay the grand-kids for their work, even the little ones. I think it’s important for them to learn that hard work has rewards. We don’t want to work them too hard so they learn to hate farming, like some farm raised kids do. But starting them out early helps them realize that farming can be a good business, so hopefully they can carry on for the next generation."
Some people get into farming because they think it is easy and an inexpensive way to live, but that is very far from the truth, agreed the Walkers. "Boy Howdy, with all the work and the money we have to spend to keep farming, we could have retired years ago, but we can’t imagine doing nothing else," said Walker. "I didn’t know what tired was in the dairy! Now we still work seven days a week with the birds and running cattle, but I’m not that young anymore," said Mike.
Last year, the Walkers were named the top (Butterball?) turkey grower out of 75 growers in Ozark Complex and were also named a top turkey producer in 2011. Turkey farming can be more profitable but it’s also a lot more work, said Walker. "We were one of the first five farms in the area to be "all in and out", he added.
The Walkers have a modern operation where up to 48,000 young turkeys start out in two houses ending up in all four during their 12 week growth cycle. Once the houses are empty they must be totally cleaned and emptied of all litter, then left empty for 2-3 weeks to kill any remaining bacteria and disease, explained Walker. "Cleaning is very labor intensive," he added.
Their beef cattle operation is a mixed herd but run mostly black bulls except for one Charolais bull. "I’m telling you what; I really love those big yellow Charolais calves. They bring in pretty good money, too," said Walker.
Good News for Farmers
Despite the sluggish economy, farming is actually a very good business to be in today, said Eric Branscaum of Arkansas Farm Credit Services. Branscaum and USDA Farm Service Agent Linda Baker interviewed the Walker family as a potential candidate for the 10 county District Farmer of the Year Award. If the Walkers win this award, the family will be in the running for 2013 Arkansas Farmer of the Year.
"Agriculture is one of the few bright spots in the US economy because land prices and commodity prices are increasing and beef products are going to continue to rise," said Branscaum "So many farmers were forced to sell off their beef herds because of drought conditions these last few years and a lot more herds were sold last year because the farmers could not feed their cattle, so it’s going to take awhile to replace the supply," he explained.
Eric also said that Walker was "wise to maintain a diversified farming operation, since farmers that have a variety of operations limit their financial risks."
Walker agreed. "Yes, it’s a lot more work, but I sure feel sorry for the farmers who had to sale their cows these past two years."
"Sometime I look back and feel sorry for my kids that they have to work so hard, but it’s a good way to raise kids and if you work at it, it’s a good living," said Walker. "I’m never going to sell (the farm), I’ll just give it to my boys and they can take it on."
It’s no wonder the Walkers were chosen Franklin County 2013 Farm Family of the Year. The adage, "once a farmer, always a farmer" fits the family perfect!
Note: Since 1947, the Arkansas Farm Family of the Year Program has served as a vehicle to recognize outstanding farm families throughout the state. According to Franklin County Cooperative Extension Service agents Cindy Hamm and Michael Sullivan, the objectives of the Arkansas Farm Family of the year program are to give recognition and encouragement to farm families who are doing an outstanding job on their farm and in their community, to gain recognition of the importance of agriculture in the community and state and to disseminate information on improved farm practices and management.