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story.lead_photo.caption The Damon Helton family of Lonsdale is the 2018 West Central District Farm Family of the Year, as well as the Saline County Farm Family of the Year. Family members include, Olivia, front; and back row, from left, Luke; Damon, holding Violet; and Jana, holding Elena. The family raises grass-fed beef, forested hogs and pastured broilers and operates the Olde Crow General Store in the Crows community.

LONSDALE — The Damon Helton family has made a connection with the community.

As first-generation farmers, they are developing The Farm at Barefoot Bend into a sustainable farm that feeds not only their family but also those of their neighbors in and around Saline County.

The Heltons are the 2018 West Central District Farm Family of the Year, as well as the Saline County Farm Family of the Year. They will compete with seven other district winners for the state title, which will be announced Dec. 6 at the Arkansas Farm Family of the Year luncheon in North Little Rock.

The Heltons — Damon and his wife, Jana, both 39, and their four children, Luke, 12; Olivia, 9; Violet, 5; and Elena, 5 — raise grass-fed beef, forested hogs and pastured broilers, as well as a wide variety of vegetables on their 165-acre farm. They also have a small retail business, Olde Crow General Store, where they sell the food they raise, along with other locally grown products.

“We could not be more proud to represent our community, Saline County and now the West Central District of

Arkansas as the Farm Family of the Year.” Damon said. “What an honor. … Thanks to everyone in our life that pushes us to keep moving forward.”

Jana said they are happy about the district award.

“We are proud to support and represent our community and also the style of farming we do … sustainable farming,” she said. “All of our animals work together to manage the land. … We’re really just stewards of the animals.

“We were surprised, too. It’s usually the very large farms that are recognized. I was pleased to see a smaller farm openly acknowledged like this. People from the community have really supported us. To us, it’s all about community involvement.”

Damon said being named county, then district, Farm Family of the Year “is still kinda surreal. This is just what we do,” he said, smiling.

“When you look at the big picture … how agriculture is so big in Arkansas … to be recognized as a farm district winner, even a county winner, is such an honor,” he said.

“We are a small, sustainable farm, working in, and for, our community. We do what we can do. We are doing everything possible to be a part of our small community,” Damon said.

“Arkansas feeds the world. … The state sells more rice than any place in the world. No way could we ever farm on that scale, but we are happy to be doing what we do,” he said.

“We are first-generation farmers,” said Damon, who is an Army veteran.

“We both grew up living in the city and jumped right into this lifestyle. I give a lot of credit to my military background for helping me. … I don’t quit. You’ll never fail until you quit, … and I’m not quitting,” he said.

“Damon Helton is one of the few young persons to jump into farming without a family farming history or farming resources to get started with,” said Ron Matlock of Benton, staff chair and agriculture agent for the Saline County Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “He is very energetic and has to be, because the type of farming he does requires seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year energy.

“He is determined to produce a wholesome product and tirelessly markets his production in several innovative ways. Damon is what I would call very vertically integrated, all the way from production to harvesting to the consumer, … whether it is through his retail outlet or farmers markets or through one of the restaurants that features his meat and produce.

“It is a pleasure to work with the Helton Family.”

Damon grew up in Little Rock, a son of Ron and Linda Helton, who now live in Benton.

Damon’s siblings include Sabrina Blankenship of Cabot, Heath Helton of Little Rock and Caesi Holt of Avilla.

Damon graduated from J.A. Fair High School in 1997 and attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for two years, but quit and enlisted in the Army in February 2001.

“That was right before 9/11,” he said.

Damon served eight years as an Army Ranger in the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Special Operations Command. His service included five deployments — one to Iraq and four to Afghanistan.

He completed his basic, Airborne and Ranger training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, near Tacoma.

“I arrived at Fort Lewis on Aug. 28 or 29, 2001,” he said. “Then 9/11 hit.”

Fort Lewis remained his base post until he separated from the Army in February 2009.

Damon met Jana when he was home on leave, and they married in 2003.

Jana grew up in Bryant, a daughter of Ed Hogue and Lee Ann Hogue. She is a 1987 graduate of Bryant High School. Her older brother, Blake Hogue, lives in Russellville. Jana is the financial director at GastroArkansas, a medical facility specializing in gastrointestinal medicine.

After their marriage, Jana returned with Damon to Fort Lewis, where they would remain until he was discharged. While there, Jana, who had graduated from UALR in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and psychology,

obtained her master’s degree in health care administration through Chapman University, which had a satellite campus at Fort Lewis.

The Heltons returned to Arkansas and settled near Benton to be close to their families. Out for a Sunday drive, they found an abandoned farm in Saline County that seemed to call to them. The Heltons bought the land in 2012 and began farming in 2014. They opened the Olde Crow General Store in October 2015.

As they began to think about farming, Jana found various programs that might help them develop the farm. They found the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Inc., sponsored by Farm Credit nationally, which in turn led them to Armed to Farm: Sustainable Agriculture Training for Military Veterans, which is a program of the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

“Armed to Farm taught us how to become farmers,” Damon said. “I want to give back to that program and help other veterans learn to farm.”

The Heltons found additional support through the Homegrown By Heroes program, sponsored by the Farmer Veteran Coalition; AR Grown/Homegrown By Heroes, sponsored by the Arkansas Agriculture

Department; and the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, supported by Heifer International.

“After farming for a year, I quickly realized that the hurdle wasn’t raising the animals; it was how to get them to market,” Damon said.

“So we opened the Olde Crow General Store, which we could run year-around and sell or market ourselves as ‘farm-to-table.’ We also attend three different farmers markets — Benton, Hot Springs and Hot Springs Village,” he said.

“Utilizing social-media platforms, as well as targeted ads and web placement, are other ways we market ourselves,” Damon said. “Lastly, we have farm-to-table dinners and farm tours throughout the year.

“Our store is a big part of the business. Through the store, we have visibility, retail presence and ability to interact with the end-user of our product. We have totally adopted the philosophy ‘Know your farmer, know your food.’ We promote that in our model from top to bottom. Working with local restaurants and markets is how we are executing this.”

All the kids help on the farm, as does Damon’s dad.

“Everybody’s got a job,” Damon said, laughing.

“We sell everything we produce. Dad helps us out a lot. I think he enjoys it. I do lean on him quite a bit,” Damon said.

“We are feeding our community,” he said. “That’s a neat feeling. That gives me a great sense of accomplishment.

“When I first got out of the military, I struggled with what I could do. I had served my country, which gave me a sense of community. I now have that same sense of community.”

The Heltons hope to grow their farming operation.

“We plan to increase production by 20 percent year over year for the next five years,” Damon said. “We want to allocate acreage for planting our own feed for hogs. We want to incorporate a timber-management program. We want to incorporate a robust veggie production — two or three high tunnel gardens. And we want to start an intern program for veterans to promote healing and business in agriculture.”

The Heltons recently moved into a new home in Benton; all four children attend Benton schools.

Luke will be in the sixth grade at Benton Middle School; Olivia in the fourth grade at Ringgold Elementary School; Violet in kindergarten at Ringgold; and Elena in pre-kindergarten at Ringgold.

Each family member is involved in various activities.

The oldest children are involved in sports and Boys & Girls Club programs, as well as in school and gardening projects.

Jana is a member of the Health Care Financial Management Association and the Arkansas Medical Group Management Association. She participates in classroom reading at her children’s schools.

Damon is a member of the Saline County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10483 in Hot Springs Village and American Legion Post 0123 in Hot Springs Village. He is

also a member of the Arkansas Freedom Fund, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture Homegrown By Heroes program and the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association, as well as the American Cattlemen’s Association. He was a member of the American Farm Bureau Patriot Project in 2016 and the Farm Credit Military Loan Program in 2015 and is a current member of the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

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