On one of the first warm Saturdays this spring, a steady stream of cars could be seen coming in and out of BoBrook Farms near Roland. The caravan, made up mostly of families, was here for a drive-thru scavenger hunt that wound through the acreage, although more than a few also stopped at the farm’s on-site River Bottom Winery to grab a bottle or two at a makeshift stand outside the tasting room.
It was an impressive showing considering it was one of the first events the farm had organized via social media as a way of generating traffic in the age of coronavirus. And it was an apt representation of the never-say-die attitude of Karen Bradford, co-owner of the farm.
“I have lived within a five-mile radius of here my entire life,” Bradford said. “We are first-generation farmers on this land. We started the farm 25 years ago. The winery has been around seven years. The wedding venue has been around about 10 years, our pumpkin patch, 11 years.”
Save for a childhood friend who pitches in at the winery on weekends, operations are entirely in the hands of family members including Karen, her husband Bobby and – here and there – the couple’s two grown children, the farm’s namesakes, who also live here.
“The farm is so volatile as far as steady income, I can’t afford to hire anybody full-time,” Karen said. “During the pumpkin patch I’ve got a bunch of buddies that’ll help us if I get in a bind, but mostly it’s all family – my in-laws, my out-laws, my nieces and nephews. It’s fun. It’s not hard to get people to come help me because we have a big fun time and after we’re done, we drink a bunch of wine.”
The familial nature of its regular and sometimes workforce means BoBrook Farms didn’t lay anyone off during the coronavirus lockdown, but many other questions have emerged about the oncoming season. Bradford’s primary outlet for her farm products – the Little Rock Farmers Market held in the River Market – hasn’t opened as scheduled this year and has remained mum about when that situation will change.
The farm traditionally hasn’t raised enough of a given crop to offer a you-pick-it option, save for in the on-premises peach orchard, a service introduced last year. Even that feature is in question due to an overabundance of peaches last year which damaged some of the limbs and may curtail production.
Meanwhile BoBrook Farm’s thriving wedding business has also been curtailed due to the coronavirus with current bookings either canceled or postponed and future receptions slow to hit the schedule. All of which has pushed Bradford’s creativity and business management skills to the limit. Yet all one hears from the brassy entrepreneur is her indomitable spirit.
“My husband has gone to work for my son whose business is doing really well. That brings in a paycheck that we don’t normally have,” she said. “So, I’m just holding down the farm by myself. Luckily for me there’s not a whole lot to be done right now because it won’t quit raining. But I’ll be working my ass off in a couple weeks.”
“I feel like I’m blessed that my job will continue. I can continue to work no matter what as far as keeping the farm going, planting what needs to be planted, taking care of what needs to be done in hopes that I’ll be able to sell it whenever we harvest it.”
River Bottom Winery has proven a saving grace during this uncertain time. Not only is the public’s appetite for wine boosted during confinement, but it’s provided Bradford with a retail commodity to help make ends meet while the produce side of things sorts itself out. Bradford said the loyal following the winery has generated over the years has stepped up to support her when she needs it most.
“We have a lot of people that don’t live around here that love our wine and they’re wanting to support and help us,” she said. “I am thankful that I can do what we’re doing as far as delivering wine. Yesterday I went to North Little Rock. I’ve got a friend that took it on to Jacksonville for me. I met people in West Little Rock. I’m meeting somebody today at the winery; I’m going to stop what I’m doing and go up there and sell them four bottles. We’re doing what we’ve got to do, just like everybody else.”
Bradford tells all this with a shrug; farming requires a roll-with-the-punches mentality and for everything else that’s changed in 2020, that’s something foundational she brings to work every day. Everything else is simply part of the ride.
“I just know that this too will pass,” she said. “I’m thankful that we had a good year last year for a change. I have a little bit of cushion that I don’t normally have and I have been so thankful for that. So, I don’t worry; I just know I can do whatever I need to do to make that up. That’s something great about being a farmer, you have a chance to make up for stuff and you can keep working where a lot of people don’t have that option.”
“Everything I’ve got I’m still going to be able to keep growing. Will I sell it? I don’t know. Can I freeze it? Probably. Can I make wine out of it? YES! I will be fine! I will work really, really hard and it will be ready this fall whenever y’all can come back. I will have so much wine!”