Arkansas Farmer’s Storybook Tale Spans Famine, Feast, and Faith

    A principled man: One of the most esteemed producers in Arkansas, Bruce Bond’s shadow connects two farming worlds.

    A storybook in the flesh, Bruce Bond bridges farming’s past and present. Hand-weeding and herbicide, 3-bushel beans and 3-bale cotton, boll weevil and Bt, famine and feast.

    Born to the mountains and blessed by the Delta, Bond’s unlikely path in agriculture is lined with hardship, hairpin curves, abiding faith, and a crossroads choice of family over finances. He is a study in contradiction, steeled by an inner Woodrow F. Call—humble and polite to a fault, yet a man not to be pushed or bossed. Pared down, the consummate farmer.

    “I never forgot the words of my daddy,” Bond says, his accent dripping heavy southern molasses. “He told me repeatedly, ‘Son, whatever you do, go make’em a hand today.’ Yessir, that’s how I’ve tried to live my life.”

    And then some. Welcome to an American tale.

    A Long Shadow

    Tucked in the pocket of southeast Arkansas’s Ashley County, Bond grows 2,000 acres of cotton, soybeans, and corn on level land outside Lake Village, roughly 20 miles north of the Louisiana line and 25 miles west of the Mississippi River’s Greenville Bridge.

    Clockwork. Every morning, Bond wakes to pitch black, reads a chapter from the Good Book, and eats breakfast beside his wife, Linda. Cooler in tow, packed with a ham sandwich or chicken salad—Linda’s standard—he exits the farmhouse via the carport, walks 15 paces to a white pickup, and within minutes is checking a series of irrigation wells, working by headlights.

    By afternoon, alone in a row of sunbaked soybeans, Bond’s year-old trucker hat casts a 74-year-old shadow—as in 270 diagonal miles to Franklin County and the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas, to the birth of a farm boy in the bull’s-eye of a technological earthquake.

    The Future Knocks

    Born as the youngest of three brothers to Aaron and Edith, Bond was raised beside the banks of the Arkansas River on a 157-acre row crop, cattle, and dairy operation purchased in 1942 for $3,000 and paid off in four years. Before his fifth birthday, Bond would know the comforts of indoor plumbing and electricity—luxuries within his geography only a generation prior. (Bond was too early for sweet air; Aaron and Edith would not acquire air conditioning until 1966.)

    Aaron Bond, NW Arkansas

    Bond spent a childhood milking twice daily—morning at 5 a.m. and evening at 6 p.m. Stored overnight in stainless steel cans nested in a water tub, the milk was hauled in a 1950 Ford truck to a local cottage cheese plant by the three Bond boys (big on muscle, but lean on driver’s licenses), who shepherded the precious payment check back home.

    During Bond’s childhood, mechanization was on the move and mule barns were on the fade. A few old-timers still clung to steel wheels, but Bond learned to drive John Deere A and B model tractors, and operate pull-type, three-row combines.

    In the 1950s, prior to the advent of Walmart and a population boom, northwest Arkansas commerce was connected by pig trails. In Bond’s world, bright lights flashed 45 minutes west in Fort Smith, with its stockyard as the big draw (technically situated across the Arkansas River in Oklahoma). “They had different commission companies there every day of the work week and we could sell our cows anytime,” Bond explains. “Behind the stockyard, there was an alley, and you would pull in and unload calves where the buyers walked up and down. That was all big city to me.”

    Into high school, in addition to the guiding hand of his father, Bond was molded by the kindness of a farming neighbor, Homer Hall, and the patience of an FFA teacher, Bob Adams. However, the economic limits of small farm life dictated a change of course for a young man who wasn’t aware of agriculture jobs beyond farming. Bond eyeballed a college degree in the hopes of securing $100 per week pay.

    “Maybe I could be the first of my family to go to college? In the high school library, I stumbled over a catalogue and read about a forestry major. In my mind, forestry was outdoors, growing something, and hard work—I was interested immediately,” Bond notes. “All I knew for sure was I wanted to cut my own path, not go where everyone else did, and not do what everyone else did.”

    Independence and principle. That’s Bruce Bond.

    Jason and Aaron Bond

    In the fall semester of 1965, Bond enrolled at Arkansas A&M College in Monticello—almost as far as a bird could fly from Ozark and still stay within the borders of Razorback land. Corner to corner across the state, he arrived a day early to an empty campus and spent a night of echoes alone in a 300-resident dormitory.

    “Forestry? Forestry?” Bond questioned. “What was I thinking? I missed my parents that night like I couldn’t describe, but I had to do this.”

    Two-hundred miles from the farm for the first time in his life, Bond broke down in the empty dorm, unaware the future was knocking: The boy from Ozark was on a winding road to a life in Delta rows and a crop he’d never seen.

    The Devil’s Anvil

    Momma always knows.

    At the prodding of his mother, Edith, Bond braved the doors of the Baptist Student Union and ran headlong into his future wife, Linda Pamplin, a farm girl from nearby Lake Village. It was a collision of sparks. “We started talking,” Bond says, “and Linda says she grew up on a farm. Do what?”

    Every weekend, Linda was picked up by her mother, Lorene, for a weekend trip home to the farm, and presented a new hand-cut and hand-sewn dress. As Bond and Linda connected, he was welcomed at the Pamplin’s Delta farm, and encountered a universe of agriculture unlike anything he’d seen prior—an endless vista of flat row crops on some of the last ground cleared of timber in southeast Arkansas.

    Adding to the impact of Bond’s Delta introduction, he saw cotton bolls for the first time in his life. In Bond’s youth, the cotton door generally had already closed in northwest Arkansas, although his parents were heavily experienced with the white fiber. (Aaron and Edith had married on Friday, Dec. 12, 1935: The previous Wednesday, they finished handpicking cotton, and on Thursday, they killed hogs, and on Friday, they wed. Bottom line—there was no ceremony until cotton harvest was complete.)

    Cotton in Arkansas Delta

    Linda’s father, Earl Pamplin, took an instant shine to his son-in-law-to-be, and became a massively influential figure in Bond’s life. “I drove a tractor for Mr. Earl, and we hunted together. He knew that me and Linda were getting serious. But I still didn’t dream to farm because I was on the forestry road. I was a forester—or so I thought.”

    Married in their junior year, Bond and Linda tied the knot at the cusp of the perfect job storm. Georgia Pacific (GP) and International Paper were primed for major growth across the South and job openings were popping.

    “Mr. Earl supported and encouraged me, and one day while we were talking, he brought up farming: ‘You go try forestry, and the farm will be here if you change your mind.’”

    In 1968, degree in hand, Bond signed with GP as an assistant forester. In 1970, GP expanded in east Texas, and Bond gained a major rung on the career ladder as a timber buyer with a move to Lufkin, Texas.

    Promotions. Jobs. Opportunity. Simoleons. “I was doing the best I could to make more money and I loved getting out and meeting landowners and negotiating prices. Soon, I was responsible to keep loggers moving and get timber out,” Bond describes. “It was hectic in Texas, but I was successful.”

    By 1973, the Bonds had one daughter, Susan, with a son—Jason—soon to arrive. The forestry career path was solid, but financial progression came at a cost: A persistent void couldn’t be filled in the Lone Star State.

    “We lacked the peaceful life of farming beside family—which we’d both grown up with,” Bond describes.

    In 1973, USDA took the shackles off rice and cotton and removed strict acreage controls, enabling farmers to plant either crop at will. At the Lake Village farm, inside the tight quarters of a deer stand, Pamplin, 49 at the time, knocked again, offering Bond a start. “Farming is going to be good for the next few years,” Pamplin said. “Now may be the time if you want in.”

    Bruce Bond's Home Farm

    With 300 miles between heart and tongue, Bond was unsure how to answer. “What was best for my wife and kids? We were driving from Lufkin to Lake Village once every five weeks, and driving to Ozark once every six weeks just to see our folks. I knew this was the time to get close to family and farming. We loved Texas; Linda was teaching school and loved Lufkin. She also loved her momma.”

    The die was cast. “Let’s go home and farm,” Bond says. “Best decision I ever made.”

    However, in the near-term, Bond was headed for a trial by fire. Southeast Arkansas was about to get hammered on the devil’s anvil.

    47 Days

    When Bond began farming alongside Pamplin, the pair ran five disks across 2,500 acres. Fast forward almost five decades later and Bond is minimum till with one disk sporadically used over 2,000 acres. By today’s ag standards, Bond began in 1974 with quasi-primitive equipment. Two-row pickers and 16’ combine headers were the norm. (Bond drove his first cabbed, 2-row picker in 1974; no air conditioner or heater.) Module builders hit the market in 1972, but Bond and Pamplin remained on cotton trailers.

    Chemical application was relatively straightforward: “When I arrived, we put out Cotoran pre-emerge behind the planter,” Bond remembers. “We put out Treflan with the do-all and put out DSMA twice over the top twice, seven days apart, and that would suppress johnsongrass and cocklebur. It’d turn the cotton stalk dark, dark brown, and that delayed fruiting. We’d start picking about October 15 and we’d finish picking in December.”

    Cotton ready to pick

    “Handpicking was still at least part of the setup,” Bond continues. “Kids were picking cotton off the ends when I arrived in 1970s. With the old 2-row 299 cotton picker, when you turned around, the heads would run backwards when you clutched it. Sometimes, it was hard to get lined up on the rows and you’d miss some cotton. So, kids would pick ahead of the picker. Handpicking cotton lasted longer than people think.

    Over three consecutive years, Bond learned the cotton and rice ropes on the patient tether of Pamplin, and in 1977, Bond cut loose to farm solo. “I could never be where I am today without Mr. Earl,” Bond says. “I rented some ground he was already on and he sold me some equipment and we went to Delta Production Credit and he cosigned. That was my real start.”

    Unfortunately for the fledgling Bond, the bank was open, but the sky was closed. From 1976-1978, Ashley County was parched, a brutal hurdle for dryland farmers. Pamplin had started growing rice in 1975 and put in a few wells, but all other crops were dryland.

    Bond gained false assurance in 1979, a year characterized by ample moisture and solid yields. “I grew 40-bushel beans in 1979 and I thought that was big-time. You could have thrown cotton seed on concrete and still made 2 bales of cotton,” Bond says. “I thought I’d arrived; I thought I was old and wise.”

    The promise of 1979 spurred Bond to double his acreage and upgrade to 8-row equipment—and sweat as searing temperatures returned in 1980. Bone dry turned to burnt over. Starting toward the end of June, southeast Arkansas experienced debilitating heat—47 consecutive days of 100-plus temps. Bond cut 3-bushel soybeans.

    “It was so bad one of my neighbors joked he had to prime his combine before he went to cut. I’ll never forget cutting all day and dumping into a bob truck at 3 p.m. just so we wouldn’t have so much left sitting in the combine at night.”

    Only a few years into his row crop career, Bond was in a pressure cooker. “It was a financial eye-opener for me. I only had a few wells and didn’t have the means to irrigate anyway. I knew I had to figure this out or I’d be done. I was looking at 90-cent cotton and $9 beans, but that’s not really the point when you’re barely producing a crop.”

    Father and Son: Bruce and Jason Bond

    Mercifully, the weather chain broke in 1981 and scorching temperatures subsided. Bond assumed a change in fortune. Instead, the bottom fell out of the market. Once again, he was spiraling. “A total double whammy,” he says. “It took us 11 years to get over 1980-1981.”

    “I wasn’t questioning the Lord, but I was thinking I might have made a mistake,” Bond recalls. “When I’d think about going back to forestry, I could hear my daddy’s voice, ‘If you get into farming, get in. Don’t get in and get out.’ I carried that attitude. You have to figure out how to make things work because bad years are always coming.”

    Monkeys and Coconuts

    After the brutal beating of 1980, Bond obtained a Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan, but he didn’t receive money from SBA on the year’s crop until July 1981. Bond managed to cover his crop loan, but he couldn’t pay his equipment note.

    “In 1981, the Deere dealership wanted me to write them a check and they said they’d hold it. No sir. I told them I’d pay as soon as I was able. But 1981 turned out just as bad as 1980 and we didn’t make any better crop. This time, SBA wrote me a letter and said I qualified for half of what I got in 1980. It took me 11 years to pay back SBA. I liked to have never gotten a loan from them and I used equipment as collateral.”

    Bankruptcy and a gavel were commonplace on U.S. farms during the era, but Bond refused to bend. “From my daddy to Mr. Earl to me, we always pay our bills. If we owe you, we pay you. Maybe I don’t know how and I have to do without, but I’ll pay. That was the pattern set for me and the pattern I follow.”

    Stalked by extreme weather and an anemic ag economy, irrigation became salvation. Conventional thought on many operations cast irrigation as a financial black hole, but Bond declined the crowd’s advice. “For a lot of guys, the attitude was irrigation would not work enough to pay,” Bond explains. “I was young and ignorant enough to try and learn. Forty years later, I know irrigation pays.”

    Pivot Irrigation

    After 1980, Bond began watering every year. Moving 30’ aluminum pipe sections became the single most labor-intensive aspect of the farm—six days a week. He only had enough pipe to cover a half mile across the farm, creating musical chair madness. “Our standard in 1980-81 was to start at the end of a field and when we got five joints watered out, pick them up and move to the next field.”

    If repetition is the soul of memory, then Bond’s shadow and son, Jason, will never forget the grinding logistics of pipe irrigation. “We never had enough pipe,” Jason describes. “Later, we had a pipe trailer with stands that held about 66 joints and you needed two guys to pick up one piece. That meant five guys to move pipe: one driving the tractor and four picking up pipe. Every day except Sunday.”

    “There were so many leaks when you got to the end of a run,” Jason adds. “Water would go everywhere unregulated and it was far from precise.”

    In January 1982, coming off two consecutive tough years, Bond obtained his first pivot and motor for $80,000— projecting a yield increase to 900 lb. cotton, up from 600-700 lb. (Even an ankle-smashing 400 lb. per acre was frequently in the cards.) The bank reacted with disbelief. “I already had my crop loan for 1982. I went and told my banker about the pivot and he threw his hands up the air, and told me, ‘The auditors are going to go crazy.’ Well, let’s just say I didn’t know what an auditor was and I didn’t care.”

    Pivot rolling, Bond was among the first southeast Arkansas producers to pay off his crop loan in 1982. “I remember back to 1977 and some of that ground producing 270 lb. cotton,” Bond says. “I’m talking about ground that later produced over 1,500 lb. with irrigation.”

    In 1987, Bond latched onto the technological magic of polypipe—massive roles of polyethylene that appeared to the uninitiated eye as agriculture’s version of giant Slip-N-Slides.

    Polypipe irrigation

    Young Jason was in junior high and clearly recalls polypipe’s debut. “It was learning from scratch. We were kind of like a monkey with a coconut. That first year, we rolled it up by hand and tried to reuse it the next year. Of course, the holes didn’t match up with the rows, but we sure tried. Regardless, we were done moving pipe six days a week.”

    Steadfastly faithful, Bond climbed out of a 1980s farm hole. “We cut expenses to the bone, but being thrifty only goes so far. My attitude then was just like now: Every year, right or wrong, when I go to get a crop loan, I tell my banker, ‘I think this will do me, but if it doesn’t, I’ll be back.’ If I think my crop needs it, I’m spending money. We need to poison, we poison. We need water, we water. The crop dictates what we do because we can’t save anything in the long-run if the crop has needs.”

    “No Sir”

    Despite Bond’s career success in agriculture, he draws a clear line of demarcation: Technological advance at any cost is a bridge too far. 

    In 1995-1996, Bt cotton hit center stage, heralded as a “must” for producers. In Monroe, La., 1,000 regional growers gathered for an industry update on the advantages of Bt technology. The meeting, intended as a promotion, disgusted Bond.

    “There was a guy with an accent from far away that told us they’d prosecute us to the fullest extent of the law if we saved a single seed. Honestly, I thought there was going to be a killing. It got so hot in the center of the room due to the sheer arrogance we faced. Talk about rubbing us the wrong way. I’ll grow what’s best for my operation according to my farm—not what is dictated.”

    Cotton round bales

    Southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana contain an insular, common culture—inside looking out. Bluntly stated, regional farmers buck against herding. “We don’t take to pushing,” Jason says. “Farmers anywhere in the U.S. don’t take to pushing, but particularly here according to our shared history. My daddy fits the mold precisely. You don’t push him.”

    “Jason is right,” Bond says. “We don’t mind switching varieties, but we make the switch on our own.”

    Further, in 1997, Roundup Ready (RR) cotton hit the market. Bond declined to grow RR cotton until 2003, the same year he moved from 8-row to 12-row equipment. “Monsanto came down and said, ‘Yall are going to grow RR cotton.’ No sir. I’ll grow conventional until the best option on my farm variety-wise is RR cotton. No company is going to tell me what to do.”

    Technology divides Bond’s two lifetimes in farming and the fault line runs through at least three benchmarks, Jason contends. “Go back to the 1990s and you’ll see a complete cultural shift in farming just a decade later. I attribute that to Bt, boll weevil eradication, and Roundup Ready. More land, less labor, less equipment, and the erosion of a local Delta economy are all a byproduct of these agricultural advances,” Jason contends. “Those three factors have been gigantic, and you could throw in irrigation as a fourth. These things shifted the landscape of farming.”

    Father to Son

    There is an unspoken irony to Bond’s reflections on agricultural technology: His son is among a handful of the most highly respected and influential weed warriors on the planet. Jason, the farm boy from Ashley County, is on the frontline of agriculture’s forever war against herbicide resistance, as a weed scientist at Mississippi State University, stationed at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville.

    In the 1990s, prior to the explosion of Palmer amaranth, some Delta farmers often fought a running battle with spiny amaranth—stickerweed. When gin trash burns were outlawed, compost piles became concentrated sources of weed distribution, and stickerweed took full advantage. Three times yearly on an especially nettlesome 62-acre field, Bond and Jason walked the rows, chopping for stickerweed, i.e., Prowl at pre-plant and post-direct was no match for spiny amaranth. During high school, weary of the incessant chopping vigil, Jason threw down his hoe, walked to the turnrow, and spouted a prescient declaration: “There’s got to be a better way.”

    Jason Bond, MSU Weed Scientist

    Mirroring his father, Jason intentionally bounced far from home for education, landing at Louisiana State University, and eventually at the University of Arkansas, where his PhD cast him at the blade’s edge of vital Palmer amaranth research at a time when the agriculture industry was floundering against a leviathan weed with phenomenal chemical-resistance capacity.

    The life trajectory of father and son has close parallels—self-reliance and a distrust of convention. “I think God put Jason in Palmer to study it,” Bond says. “Jason had looked at Palmer for four years at the University of Arkansas, and he looked at it as close as anyone from 2000-2004. Today, he knows Palmer as much as anyone. As a father, if I can have my son chopping pigweeds and it pushes him into a career—so be it.”

    A Satisfied Mind

    Bill Gates farms beside Bond. Literally, Gates’ U.S. farmland expansion is separated by a single ditch from Bond’s ground and is a sign of agriculture’s perpetual change. From his unique vantage point split between two eras, Bond isn’t bullish on agriculture’s next wave. “The future? I’m afraid farming won’t have the individual touch,” he warns. “I see more farming conglomerates coming, where it’ll be cheaper to hire farm managers and haul in the labor. People don’t realize farming is not pride in owning the land; it’s personal pride in raising the crop.”

    Almost 50 years after Pamplin took a chance on a son-in-law who had never eyeballed cotton, Bond has justified Pamplin’s faith and attained a remarkable level of success as one of the most esteemed producers in Arkansas.

    Earl Pamplin, Arkansas Farmer

    However, the farm dream is always borrowed and must be returned. Bond is no different. “When I’m gone, I hope people remember that I worked at it,” Bond says, his words choked by emotion. “I want people to know I made a hand at it, just like my daddy always told me. I made the farm where I farm better.”

    Far above financial gain, Bond knows he followed the will of the Lord. “Every struggle has been worth it. I had a good thing in Texas and a good career path, and although we wanted to move close to family, it had to be God leading us first. I never would have started farming unless I knew God was in it.”

    Every Sunday morning, Bond and Linda pull out of their farmhouse driveway, roll onto gravel, and head into town for church service. Invariably, as they pass their clean soybean sea, Bond asks Linda the same question: “Do you think Mr. Earl would be proud of the beans we’ve got here?”

    Bond is supremely grateful for his lot. “Do you know how hard it is to start farming? Until I was older, I didn’t realize all the burden it put on Mr. Earl to get me started. I understood some of it, but I didn’t realize all of it.”

    Bruce Bond in soybeans

    In Pamplin’s late 80s, his body began to fail—a shell of the farmer who roamed the rows for eight decades. Devoted and determined, Bond was frequently at Pamplin’s side as caregiver, returning a portion of the love received across a farming lifetime. Physically incapacitated, Pamplin often was watched by Bond through the night—bathed, dressed, and fed.

    “I remember one time, close to the end,” Bond recounts, his voice quivering and dropping in tone. “One morning, I was helping him, and he looked at me in a classic Mr. Earl way, and said, ‘Bruce, I can’t thank you enough for helping me.’

    Pamplin’s soft words reduced Bond to tears and instantly stripped life to its most basic graces. Bracing himself against an emotional train wreck in the moment, and stunned by Pamplin’s sincerity, Bond’s unscripted response flowed from the deepest core of gratitude.

    “It’s all mine, Mr. Earl,” Bond gently insisted. “The privilege is all mine.”

    As in life, as in farming for Bruce Bond.

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