BEE BRANCH — Don and Donna Pennington have been farming for 38 years.
Also married for 38 years, they began their farming life in 1976 when they bought a small herd of beef cows and raised bottle calves from local dairy farms. They operated a dairy for a number of years and now raise registered Charolais cows and bulls. The Penningtons, who farm approximately 870 acres, are the 2014 Van Buren County Farm Family of the Year.
The Penningtons have three children and five grandchildren.
Daughter Amy, 35, and her husband, Jason, live in Bee Branch with their children, Laci, 4, and Bethany, 2. Amy is a stay-at-home mom. Jason, who also has a 14-year-old son, Sam, is a firefighter with the Conway Fire Department.
Son Brian Pennington, 32, and his wife, Shawna, live near Morganton. They have three sons — Cole, 7; Caleb, 5; and Carson, 4. Brian is a diesel mechanic with G&W Diesel in Conway, and Shawna works at Cadron Creek Catfish restaurant in Bee Branch.
Daughter Allison Pennington, 28, lives in Little Rock and teaches at Wakefield Elementary School in Little Rock. Allison participated in rodeos during her years at South Side High School and twice attended national competitions.
“When we first got married, we had seven or eight cows and a bull,” Donna said. “I also raised baby calves for about 10 years and raised heifers for a dairy farm. Then we went into the dairy business. I ran that business for 19 1/2 years, selling it in 2007.
“I got to be pretty good at raising babies.”
As Donna worked with the cattle on the farm, Don continued his duties as a wildlife officer with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, retiring June 30 after 37 years. His territory was Van Buren County.
Don and Donna graduated from South Side High School. Don graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in 1976 with a degree in business and went to work for the Game and Fish Commission in 1977.
Don, 60, is the youngest of eight children born to the late Olen and Elmus Pennington of Bee Branch. His siblings include Quinton Pennington of Damascus, Ina Cassell of Clinton, Glynna Condray of Bee Branch, Mary Carrell of Damascus, Larry Pennington of Sugar Loaf, the late Harold Pennington and the late Glen Pennington.
Both of Don’s great-grandfathers — Edmon Pennington and Jobe Pike — homesteaded in the area in the late 1890s.
Donna, 57, also grew up in Bee Branch, the daughter of Faye Nixon of Bee Branch and the late Lester Nixon, who was a Baptist minister. Donna has three brothers and one sister — Larry Nixon and Leland Nixon, both of Bee Branch, Don Nixon of Texas and Susan Stacks of Damascus.
Don worked for his father on the farm while attending college.
“I also drove a school bus,” he said, adding that his dad was a bus driver as well.
Although Don did retire from the state, he said, there won’t be any retirement from the farm.
“There’s no unemployment on the farm,” he said with a laugh. “Unless you just don’t want to work.”
Don and Donna both vaccinate and work all the cattle on their farm.
“Learning about the Charolais breed after running a dairy was a challenge,” Don said. “In the past six years, we have learned the bloodlines that we like and want to use in our operation to improve our cattle.”
The Penningtons have 70 registered Charolais cow/calf pairs and five registered Charolais bulls. They also have several replacement heifers and herd bulls. They sell most of the cattle right off the farm.
They have approximately 450 acres of pasture and hay meadows.
The couple began showing cattle at the county, district and state fairs in 2013.
“Our grandson, Cole, showed his first heifer calf, a 4 1/2-month-old heifer that we raised,” Donna said. “Cole showed the reserve grand champion Charolais heifer at the Van Buren County Fair.
“Three local girls showed three of our registered Charolais heifers and a Charolais/Limousin cross steer. One of the heifers won supreme champion heifer at the county fair and was also named grand champion Charolais and third overall heifer at the district fair. All of our heifers won their divisions at the Arkansas State Fair.
“This year, we will have three of our grandchildren showing cattle at the fairs,” Donna said.
This year, the Penningtons started an artificial insemination program.
“Don and I both attended an AI clinic in Harrison in March and learned how to breed our cows ourselves,” Donna said.
“We are planning to add embryo transplants into our operation in the next year,” she said. “We are hoping to have top-quality calves out of our AI program to take to registered sales and better calves for our grandkids to show, as well as improving the genetics on our females.”
The Penningtons’ children help on the farm as needed, and the grandchildren are, or will be, involved in 4-H activities.
The Penningtons are members of the Bee Branch Baptist Church.
Both Don and Donna belong to the Van Buren Cattlemen’s Association, the American International Charolais Association and the Arkansas Charolais Association. Don is a member of the Arkansas Wildlife Officers Association.
“[Donna] does a lot more than most farmers’ wives,” Don said.
“Some husbands might object to that, but I don’t. I know if something happened to me, she knows how to do it. If I had to do the cooking, we’d starve,” he said.
“Now that I’m retired and will be home most of the time, we’ll find out how well we really get along,” Don said with a laugh. “I can always go fishing.”