Luke Alston of Mena, Ark., gave up a stable career as a Farm Bureau insurance claims adjuster to pursue his dream of farming. He returned to his family’s farm where his great-great grandfather homesteaded in 1897.
At his Holly Springs Homestead farm, he built eight broiler chicken houses and established a successful agritourism enterprise featuring an on-farm market, a corn maze, pumpkin patch, pick-your-own crops and other attractions.
As a result of his success as a diversified farmer, Alston has been selected as state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
For six weeks every autumn, he hosts “Fall Fun on the Farm” featuring his corn maze, pick-your-own pumpkins, hayrides and live music. Later in the fall, he offers Fraser fir Christmas trees for sale.
Alston currently farms about 80 acres of rented land and 362 acres of owned land. His large acreage crops include round bale silage and pasture.
On a smaller scale, he grows pick-your-own specialty crops. Some of these include strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, pumpkins and muscadines. He grows a variety of produce crops such as tomatoes, sweet corn, watermelons, peas, lettuce, greens, herbs, asparagus, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, okra, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, turnips, and beets. Stalks of field corn are harvested for fall decorations along with square hay bales.
His orchard crops of peaches, figs, apples, persimmons and plums will be in full production during 2020, and his muscadine vines will be in production during 2019. He also raises honey bees and cut flowers, including sunflowers. He’s increasing his bee hives to meet demand for locally grown honey.
Alston strengthened his marketing by joining the Arkansas Grown, Arkansas Made, Farm to School and Farm to Institution programs, and by completing produce safety training. To meet the needs of the additional buyers, he increased his plantings of greens, tomatoes, watermelons and pumpkins.
Alston also grows plots of rice, wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, peanuts and other crops to teach visitors about the diversity of agriculture in Arkansas.
He grows broilers in his 50-by-500-foot chicken houses for Tyson Foods. Each house has a capacity of 37,500 birds, and he produces six to seven batches of chickens each year.
Litter from the broilers fertilizes his land and provides income from sales to other farmers. “There is a strong demand for litter,” says Alston.
At one time his family had a registered Angus herd, but they sold most of the cattle as his father’s health declined. Alston later sold most of the commercial cows but kept a select group of heifers to produce beef he could sell at the farm’s market. He also raises Hereford cross pigs for pork sold at Holly Springs Homestead Market.
He established a commercial kitchen to process fruits and vegetables. The kitchen will also provide breakfast and lunch to customers who visit the farm. Alston also hopes to expand sales homemade breads and pastries from the market. He also hopes to add a small dairy to produce fresh milk and cheese for the market.
His newest enterprise is a “farmstay” vacation rental. Up to eight guests can experience farm life by staying in a renovated farmhouse available through Airbnb.com.
Prior to planting his corn maze, he grows spring oats, planted in March and harvested as round bale silage about 60 days later. He also cooperated with Arkansas Extension in testing spring oats.
Though he farmed most of his life, he didn’t farm full time until he decided to raise chickens. He was going to build four houses. He ended up building eight after seeing that chickens would allow his wife Deedee to work full time on the farm.
The houses were approved in 2014, but there were construction delays. “Our faith was forged while building the chicken houses,” says Alston. This delay meant that he had no income, so he improvised by developing his agritourism and commercial vegetable enterprises.
The delay also prompted Alston to offer custom farming services. He still brings in extra income by providing cutting, raking, and baling for hay and round bale silage. He also provides mowing, litter and lime spreading services. Occasionally, he provides artificial insemination services for other cattle producers.
“We left good corporate jobs that most folks would have kept,” says Alston. Deedee left her long term position as chief operating officer for a community health center to work on the farm.
The daughter of a logger and fur trapper, Deedee is the farm’s chief financial officer and handles marketing and accounting while also working with the crops, cattle and poultry. Luke and Deedee are a team and treat the farm as a business. “She’s a forward thinker like no other,” Luke says.
Both Deedee and Luke enjoy hosting visitors. Luke recalls one 93-year-old woman who enjoyed her first ever hayride on their farm. As active members of Faith Missionary Baptist Church, the Alstons give God credit for their success.
Luke is president of the Polk County Cattlemen’s Association and chairs the Polk County Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers organization. He’s on the board of the Polk County Farm Bureau and serves on an Extension advisory committee. He is a member of the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association, a 4-H parent volunteer, a public speaker for Extension and a graduate of the Young Cattlemen’s Leadership Class. He’s also a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and was a member of the American Angus Association.
Deedee chairs the Polk County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee. She is a Master Gardener and a member of the Polk County Beekeepers. She served on advisory committees for Mena Middle School and Acorn public schools. She helped start a home economics club for young women interested in canning and fresh foods. She serves as an election poll worker, is a public speaker at service clubs, and is superintendent of the crops division at the Polk County Fair.
Deedee has been active in Arkansas Women in Agriculture. She is a member of the Arkansas Beekeepers Association. She is on the board of the Arkansas Agritourism Association. She also served as a 4-H parent volunteer and is in the Young Cattlemen’s Leadership Class. She has also been a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association since 2013.
Luke and Deedee have two teenage sons, Ryan and Drey. Ryan is pursuing a medical degree and is a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. At home on weekends, Ryan helps manage the chickens. He also owns cattle, runs the cash register at the farm’s market and occasionally produces a signature dish of homemade crepes in the Holly Springs Homestead kitchen.
Drey has completed eighth grade and was a top student in his school’s agriculture classes. Drey developed his mechanical skills during his seventh grade when he was homeschooled. In a blacksmithing club, he forged hardware used in the farm’s attractions for children and in a new greenhouse. Drey looks forward to playing football and being in FFA as a ninth grader. He also owns cattle and also helps in the poultry houses. He’s raising a show calf and aspires to be a John Deere diesel mechanic.
Maddison Stewart, social media specialist with Arkansas Farm Bureau, is the state coordinator for the Farmer of the Year award in Arkansas. Alston was nominated for the honor by Carla Vaught, Extension agent in Polk County, Ark. Vaught admires Alston’s devotion to agriculture and how he and Deedee left successful careers to become dedicated, innovative farmers. “They do nothing without researching it first,” says Vaught.
As Arkansas state winner, Alston will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 29th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous Arkansas winners include Michael Simon of Conway, 2007; Brian Kirksey of Amity, 2008; Orelan Johnson of England, 2009; Bill Haak of Gentry, 2010; Michael Oxner of Searcy, 2011; Heath Long of Tichnor, 2012; Phillip DeSalvo of Center Ridge, 2013; Andy Gill of McGehee, 2014; Nathan Reed of Marianna, 2015; David Wildy of Manila, 2016; and Mark Morgan of Clarksville, 2017.
Arkansas has had two overall winners, Kirksey in 2008 and Wildy in 2016.
Alston’s farm and the farms of the other nine state finalists will be visited by a distinguished panel of judges during the week of Aug. 6-10. The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009; and John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia ag economist from Athens, Ga.