Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame Honors Homnoke Rice Farmer Chris Isbell

    Chris Isbell (USA Rice)

    LITTLE ROCK, AR – Chris Isbell, who was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame last week, has been contributing to agriculture since he was a child. He was born and raised on a rice farm in England, Arkansas, where his father, Leroy Isbell, pioneered Zero Grade technology in Arkansas in the late 60s, and since that time, the spirit of innovation has been alive and well at Isbell Farms.

    Chris grows small test plots each year in the field he likes to call his “play pretty patch.” You can find him there every morning during rice pollination season, crossing varieties to be tested for taste, resilience, disease resistance, yield, and other important characteristics.

    One of those varieties in his test patch was Yamada Nishiki, a premium Japanese variety used to make Japanese saké. It is said that the best Yamada Nishiki is grown in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan. One day, while looking at a globe, Chris realized that Hyogo’s and his farm’s latitudes were almost identical so Chris kept this rice in his supply, and when a call came in asking if Isbell Farms had Yamada Nishiki available, the answer was “yes.”

    For 15 years, Chris sold small batches of Yamada Nishiki to Takara in Los Angeles. Around 2017 the market for saké rice began to grow and in 2020, when COVID-19 shut down Japanese exports, Chris was ready. He now sells rice to saké breweries around the world.

    Just this year, Origami Saké opened in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Using the state’s amazing hot springs water, combined with Japanese rice grown in Arkansas, this new saké market was all made possible by agriculture and, at the helm, the innovative thinking of Chris Isbell.

    Chris works closely with researchers from the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University. His motto is, “we never say no because you never know when you might learn something new.”

    Another favorite motto of his is “when you know to do better, do better.” Those aren’t just words, that’s what Chris believes, and that’s what he does because that’s what his daddy taught him, and that’s what he has taught his children as well. His forward way of thinking and willingness to share vital information with other farmers helps increase agriculture’s ability to continue feeding the world. And that’s a farmer’s primary job, according to Chris Isbell.

    Chris could easily have decided to farm his land, grow conventional varieties, play it safe, and have a good life doing it. But instead, he made agriculture a place to learn, a place to experiment, a place to dream.

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