Farm Fresh and Family Fueled
by Josh Williams
photography by Amanda Shelley Ledbetter
Many people dream of being something glamorous or adventurous when they grow up: Movie stars or athletes or astronauts or scientists. Some kids dream of being doctors. Some dream of being military heroes. On the other hand, many people know very little about what they want their future to resemble. Not too many people dream of becoming farmers and restaurateurs; that’s hard work. Damon and Jana Helton weren’t absolutely sure about their career paths either. However, they did know that family, country living and sustainable farming were things they strived for and also felt were within their reach. The Farm at Barefoot Bend and the Olde Crow General Store are the fruits (and veggies) of their labor and love.
Damon and Jana had always been hard workers and people of character; bringing four kids into the world one has to be. Damon spent four years on active duty in the Army, where he served in the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Special Operations Command. He served five deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and during this period in his life, he laid the groundwork for the future of his family. After his service, Damon worked jobs at a tactical goods store and as a regional sales manager selling boots to the military. Jana, a numbers whiz, works as the financial director of Gastro-Arkansas, a 10-physician medical practice in the Little Rock and Conway area. They have both been very successful as a couple, but they longed for more family time with their kids. The Heltons remember days from their respective childhoods when they spent time learning the ways of farming from their grandparents. They both were taught the value of being self-sustaining. They were taught that with some integrity, some elbow grease and some respect for family values, they could live the life they wanted and provide something that would benefit their community and the rest of the world.
The Farm at Barefoot Bend, nor the Olde Crow General Store, would be possible without the help of several supporters, both on local and national levels. Farm Credit, Homegrown by Heroes (a new program of the national Farmer Veteran Coalition that encourages veterans to pursue farming and offers training) and Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative (a farmer-owned and operated cooperative that produces pasture-raised livestock in Arkansas and that is committed to the highest level of sustainability by sharing responsibilities) have been instrumental in assisting the Heltons in realizing their dream. According to an article by Jill Robertson in Farming with Family and Friends, Damon said, “When you’re talking to a lender [Farm Credit] and telling them ‘I’m not going to make any money for two years because I’m going with grass-fed beef’, there has to be someone there who understands that market. Farm Credit’s ability and willingness to do that really made it possible for us to explore a viable cattle operation.”
Since realizing their dream of owning and operating a sustainable farm, the Heltons have now taken the next step forward in their journey: They have opened the Olde Crow General Store. This old-style convenience store/café features fresh goods from local vendors, and of course, the fresh meat and produce from the Heltons’ own farm.
The moment one walks into the Olde Crow General Store, an “old-fashioned feel” floods the senses. It’s a quaint, 5-table eatery stuck in time, from the corrugated tin on the walls and the vintage Coca-Cola vending machines, to the remnants of a cord of firewood and twenty-pound pumpkins in the corner. The café is located at the junction of state highways 5 and 9 in Benton, Arkansas (which may be considered in the middle of nowhere). Staying true to their Arkansas roots, the Heltons have sourced everything in the store locally. “Everything, and I mean everything is all natural,” Damon reiterated: Deli meats from Petit Jean; peanuts, olives, okra and blueberry preserves from Wright’s Firehouse Produce; beeswax lip balm from the Goodman Girls; Nettie Joe’s “Gran oh laa”; spaghetti sauce from Grower’s Gift; and those are just a few vendors. The beef is grass-fed. The chickens are pastured. The pork is forested.
Damon said, “We’re starting some daily and weekly specials where we feature recipes from locals like a chicken and dumplings or something of that nature.” To go along with the deli sandwiches and fresh stews, at the beginning of 2016, breakfast fare will be added to the menu. All the classics, from farm-fresh eggs and local bacon, to homemade biscuits and gravy will be offered. The business model that he and Jana built is designed to fully utilize the local economy, taking an inside-out approach. “I had a customer come in the other day,” Damon said, “and she started talking about her jelly. I asked her, ‘Want me to sell some for you?’. She almost couldn’t believe it. I told her ‘I’d love to help you out. I’m not promising to help you retire, but I’ll help you get your product out to the public–maybe help you get a new pair of shoes or a mani-pedi.’”
After Damon’s hearty laugh, it was easy to see why he’s been so successful. His affable demeanor and his respect for his neighbors and his surroundings are envious qualities. He’s a man who loves his family, his neighbors and his country. The recent attention the Heltons have gained as successful farmer veterans is allowing them to spread the word among other vets. Damon said, “I’m honored to be associated with the development of a lending program specifically designed for our soldiers and their families.” The Farmer Veterans Coalition says only 16% of America’s population lives in rural areas, yet 40 percent of the men and women serving in the U.S. military come from rural communities.
“The people here are the coolest part,” Damon beamed. “The scenery pulled us here, but the people are keeping us here. The most rewarding part of the whole thing is that the people of this community accepted us right away. I’m from Little Rock, but this is home. The great thing is that it’s always been here, right underneath our noses.”
The Olde Crow General Store is located at 17202 Hwy 5 in Benton, AR. Call (501) 794-2393 for more information.