Agriculture Magazine September 2019

New Day Dawning: Jennifer James

New Day Dawning

by Tyler Hale |  Photography by Jamison Mosley 

New Day Dawning

Jennifer James of Newport is a fourth-generation farmer managing more than 6,000 acres of crops.

Jennifer James brings innovation, diversity to the farm

Striding into the offices at H&J Land Co., Jennifer James settles down at her desk, leans forward and fixes you with an intent, thoughtful look. It’s only 5 a.m., but her mind is already hard at work, ready to tackle the daily challenges of her farming operation.

Sitting just off Highway 17 in Newport, H&J Land is an Arkansas Century Farm, established in 1909 by James’ great-grandfather. Both her grandfather and father have managed the farm, and now she’s the fourth-generation at the helm of the family operation, managing 6,200 acres of farmland.

 While her career has relatively been short — after all, the average age for farmers is 57 — it has progressed quickly. James has been quietly building a reputation for innovative practices and an impressive resume of honors, from committee memberships to awards for sustainability practices. The latest in the growing list is being named the first female to sit on Riceland Food’s main board of directors.

According to Riceland CEO Danny Kennedy, board members are chosen by local membership. The main board is chosen from the leadership of the district (grain) dryer councils and is composed of 24 members.

 To Kennedy, James represents the “next generation of agriculture,” and he’s looking forward to seeing what she’s bringing to the boardroom. “What really matters in the boardroom is having a rich diversity of thought. That helps us make the right votes and decisions based on the broadest pool of talent and thought,” he says.

 Being named to the board was a surprise for James, although a pleasant one. The principal benefit of the position, she says, is the platform to learn more about and promote agriculture for Arkansas farmers.

 “I was shocked to be quite honest with you. After a day or so, when it had sunk in, I became really excited — really excited to represent the farmers,” she says. “Being able to represent the farmers in our district on the Riceland board is a big honor for me personally. I’m excited to be able to listen to them, listen to their concerns, and hopefully translate that to change at Riceland.”

 As for being the first female on the board, James is not worried about labels. James had concerns that others might be hesitant about her election, but she says the board members have welcomed her into the fold. “I don’t think it makes any difference. I’m very capable of doing the job,” she says.

 Likely, there was little need to worry. As Kennedy says, “She has a strong reputation for working hard and working to help the entire rice community in Arkansas prosper.”

That reputation was built over the past two decades of consistent leadership and making innovative leaps in a traditional industry.

Taking over the family farm might look inevitable to an outside eye – like it was destined from the beginning, but James says that she originally had other plans in mind. When she left for Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas, she planned to get an accounting degree and head to law school. Had she taken that route, James might have entered the political arena.

“I thought about going to law school. I actually had some interest in politics. I thought about becoming a state representative or a senator, even a U.S. senator,” she says.

Not unlike many college students, James’ plans changed during her time in Fayetteville. James decided to shift her focus from accounting and law to agriculture, a decision that opened the doors to a new future —one that would take her back home.

“I grew up around the farm, but did not plan on coming back to the farm,” James says. “There’s something about being here that drew me back. I knew I wanted to come home. I called my dad and said, ‘Is there something I can do on the farm?’ He said, ‘If you want to come back, we’ll find something … we’ll figure it out.’”

James switched her degree to agriculture business and never looked back. During the summers, she did agronomy work and scouted rice fields — work that she continued for the family farm until the birth of her son in 2000.

Even during her college years, James displayed the  leadership qualities that have become her hallmark. One of her professors was Mark Cochran, now the University of Arkansas System’s Vice President for Agriculture, who describes James as one of the best students to pass through his classroom.

“It was obvious at an early stage that she was going to be a mover and a shaker,” Cochran says. “She has an awful lot of character and intelligence. There’s a lot of deliberation. She’s someone who is very thoughtful. That comes out in innovation and discipline.”

 After returning to the family farm, she worked with her father, Marvin Hare, and brother Trey. Initially, she worked on the production side — scouting fields — and began learning the trade from the ground up.

“It was tough. It was hard. I had never worked on the farm as a kid. I would come out to the farm, and I knew some things — but I didn’t really know anything,” she says. 

Today, James manages the financial and marketing side of the farm. Meanwhile, her husband, Greg James, takes care of the daily operations for the farm, along with Hare, now in his 54th farming season. (Her brother has a successful ground application business.)

Moving from production to the front office played to her strengths and helped set the farm up for later success, James says. She credits those early years of agronomy work for giving her a solid understanding of how the farm works and what is needed to make it run smoothly and profitably.

“My strength — I’m a math and numbers-type person. That’s really where my strengths lie. So it wasn’t hard at all,” she says. “As we began to grow in our operation, there was just more to take care of too. We could see that that was going to be a vital part of our operation.”

Modern agriculture is a complex industry, driven by a vast system of mechanisms. Farmers have always been at the mercy of weather conditions — drought, excessive rain, poor soil conditions and more can have an adverse effect on profits. For a state where agriculture is the number one industry, these can have a major impact.

Profit margins in agriculture have become smaller amid ballooning costs, whether for seed or fuel, as well as trade issues, most notably with China. In early August 2019, China announced that Chinese companies had stopped buying U.S. agricultural products.

Managing farming operations, especially family-owned farms, has become an increasingly difficult proposition as the business margins get tighter.

Balancing crops has been the traditional way of ensuring profits. This balance is determined by agronomy, market fluctuations and even intuition derived from hard-won experience. H&J Land specializes in three crops: rice, corn and soybeans. Depending on the year, they plant approximately 2,500 acres of rice, 1,500 acres of corn and plant the remainder with soybeans.

 “We try to start with what the soil needs, what the fields need agronomically. But then the market obviously has to play a part of our choice of cropping mix. But then we have some fields that are really heavy clay that hold water well – that’s obviously a rice field,” she says. “It’s a delicate mix to try to figure what the best crop is for any given year. But thankfully, in this part of Arkansas, we have the capability of growing several different crops, so that makes us more sustainable.”

To offset the volatility of the agricultural market, farmers have to be more innovative with their operations, James says.  Business considerations, from cost consciousness to marketing to finding new markets, are primary concerns for James

“As I see it, in row-crop agriculture in Arkansas, the business side is more important than actually producing the crop these days,” she says. “Margins are very thin. Being aware of your costs and doing a good job marketing your crop are going to keep farmers farming.”

Value-added, or specialty markets, are one way James is filing the profit margin.  The farm grows a variety of non-GMO products, including corn, that are marketed toward specific industries. Growing non-GMO products is an effect of the market. James says, “With some of the low prices we’re experiencing, the commodity market is very helpful.”

“We’re being forced because of the financial situation with row crop agriculture to find those value added markets and be more of a consumer-driven producer than just, ‘I’m going to produce rice every year, or I’m going to produce corn every year,’” she says.

 James has even moved to the global arena to sell products. H&J grows non-GMO specialty soybeans that are used for natto, a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. The company not only grows the soybeans, but contracts with local farmers to grow the product, which are then delivered to the bins at their Newport facility. The soybeans are then cleaned and loaded into 20-foot shipping containers bound for Japan.

Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward says James is at the forefront, both at the state and national level, of innovation in agriculture. Ward says that James is “always thinking ahead” in terms of growing and marketing for not only her own farm but for the state’s agricultural industry as a whole.

“We’ve had a lot of successes in agriculture, and we have a lot of challenges,” he says.

“She is always looking to make things better.”

Conservation and sustainable practices have been key components of James’ efforts to improve agriculture around the state. And those efforts have not gone unnoticed — she was named  the 2017 Farmer of the Year by Field to Market, an organization that champions sustainability in the agricultural supply chain.

Take water conservation, for example. James and her co-managers decided around 2009 to transition to having close to 100 percent irrigation on the farm. In order to implement the plan, they cut back on their acreage, letting go of some of their land. But it paid off.

Cochran says James’ operation, using water recovery and conservation methods, has served to steer the conversation about best practices around the state. “Farming is a tough business, but she is dedicated to being a good steward of the land,” he says.

Fast forward to 2012, and a drought struck the region. With the irrigation, the farm was still able to produce its crop, and it fetched a high price.

“Probably in 2012 if we had still been farming a lot of the unirrigated land, it would not have been as profitable of a season for us,” James says.

In the 1978 USDA Census of Agriculture, there were 3,408 female operators across all Arkansas farms. For farms with sales of $2,500 or more, there were 2,145 operators.  By contrast, there were 26,917 total female agricultural producers in 2017.

James says discrimination has not been an issue. Throughout the course of her career, James has experienced only one notable incident involving her gender. When she was around 20 years old, she was scouting a field for a client when a truck pulled up at the well and parked.

“I’m out in the middle of nowhere by myself — I was a little concerned,” she says. “So, they weren’t leaving, so I finished what I was doing scouting the field and walked back to my truck.”

It turned out to be one of the farm managers for the family farm she was on.  This manager — the older generation manager — told James that “that a rice field was not where a woman should be” and to not come back.

“At first, I thought he was joking — I thought he was just teasing me,” James says. “I quickly figured out that, no, he was not. I just said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I got in my truck and I went and met with my boss.”

“This was in 1991 or ’92. Looking back now, I think, ‘Gosh, why did he even hire me?’ How many women were scouting rice in the ’90s? There were probably some, but it certainly was not common.”

But the industry does appear to be diversifying. While visiting Arkansas State University on a campus visit with her son, James noted the number of women in the agriculture department. “I don’t know whether they’ll be in production or not, but they’re coming into the industry,” she says.

Her rising profile has made her rethink her status as a female in agriculture. Being a woman in agriculture was never a consideration for James, who says she was always encouraged by her parents to pursue her interests. She now aims to encourage the next generation of women in agriculture.

“I’ve realized it is unique to be a female in agriculture,” she says. “At this stage in my career, I feel like it’s my job to look around and reach back and help other women who are interested in being involved in agriculture and representing farmers.”

Others, like Cochran, agree that more young farmers are necessary to keep the state’s $21 billion industry going. Cochran says, only half-jokingly, “We wish we had a whole lot more Jennifers in the state.”

What does the future of agriculture looks like — that’s a question that James is trying to figure out. The industry, she says, is in a transitional phase, and learning how to adapt will ensure farms remain vital. For her own farm, James is questioning how it will look in the coming years to remain sustainable.

“Is it profitable for us to stay at this size? Do we need to be bigger because of the future? Can we come back smaller?,” she asks. “We’re trying to figure that puzzle out. That’s actually something we’re trying to work through.”

No matter what the future entails for agriculture, James doesn’t doubt that U.S. and Arkansas farmers can tough it out. After all, everybody still has to eat. “Farming — there’s always something different going on around here,” she says. “There’s a lot of technology and a lot of future in agriculture.” 

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