UALR instructor named Rice Farmer of the Year

Mark Isbell

Mark Isbell’s family has a long tradition of farming. His great-grandfather farmed cotton, his grandfather farmed rice after returning from World War II, and his father continued the family tradition.

And so, it seemed natural to Isbell that he should follow in their footsteps to work on the family farm near Humnoke, Arkansas, but Isbell is not your typical rice farmer.

Thanks to advanced farming techniques and his leadership in the Arkansas rice industry, Isbell was named the 2016 Rice Farmer of the Year at the Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.

“My experience with farming has been diverse and has afforded me the opportunity to meet people from around the world and do things that you might not expect, like work with researchers on greenhouse gas mitigation research, to things that you might already assume, like operate tractors and combines,” he said.

Isbell earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing from UALR in 2005 and a master’s degree in professional and technical writing in 2009.

In addition to farming, Isbell also works as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at UALR, and he can sometimes be found returning his students’ emails from the seat of a combine.

“Auto-steer technology makes this much safer than it might sound,” Isbell said. “As much as I enjoy farming, I also greatly value the opportunity to remain a part of the UALR community by teaching as an adjunct each semester. The thing I enjoy most about farming is the ability to be some small part of helping something grow into something more than it was before. Incidentally, that is the same thing I love about teaching.”

The Isbell family’s multi-generation rice farm utilizes zero-grade farming and rice-behind-rice rotation. Zero-grade farming involves leveling farmland to zero grade, which results in water being used much more efficiently.

“Arguably, Arkansas and the mid-South lead the way in the efficient use of water to produce rice, but zero-grade farming takes this a step further, sometimes using as little as half of the amount of water as traditional practices employed in the region,” he said.

“This is accomplished by using GPS and/or laser technology to remove the slope from the rice fields,” Isbell said. “Zero-grade is a technique pioneered by my grandfather that levels the ground so that fields as big as 80 acres or more are entirely the same grade, just like your kitchen table. The exciting part is this has laid the ground work for new opportunities, like creating carbon offsets.”

The downside to zero-grade farming is a large initial cost, but Isbell said the investment has proven to be money well spent. After all, his family has had one field in continuous rice production for 58 years.

His grandfather, Leroy Isbell, is credited with being the first person in Arkansas to utilize zero-grade farming for rice production. Meanwhile, his son, Chris Isbell, who is Mark Isbell’s father, also successfully cultivated Koshihikari, a Japanese variety of rice that was previously believed to grow only in Japan. 

Leroy and Chris Isbell were named Rice Farmers of the Year in 1996 for their innovative farming techniques.

Isbell is also a graduate of the Rice Leadership Development program and gave the class commencement address at their graduation ceremony during the 2015 USA Rice Government Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.

“I’m not surprised to see Mark acknowledged as Farmer of the Year at this major ag conference,” said Chuck Wilson, executive director of The Rice Foundation and manager of the Rice Leadership Development program. “He is an exceptional individual, recognized for his commitment and leadership by both his peers and the industry.”

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