The Ralston Family Farm is located just a few miles south of Atkins, in rich bottomland encircled by mountains. Grain bins and a large central office sit near the road, surrounded by cultivated fields. The family grows non-GMO corn, soybeans, and cattle, but most of their 6,800-acre farm is dedicated to growing rice. And not just the traditional long-grain southern rice we’re used to here in Arkansas. These bottomlands are also home to large crops of aromatic rice seldom grown in the United States. In fact, these fields produce all the jasmine rice sold by Blue Apron company, a national meal delivery company that reaches every state in the nation.
The Ralston model is what is often referred to as a farm to fork business, meaning that the family farm is involved in every step of the process from planting the seeds to packaging the rice and distributing it to retailers. This is rare these days where overheads are high and income is low. But the Ralstons have found a niche market which includes the traditional white and brown rice alongside nutrient- and antioxidant-rich purple, red, jasmine, and basmati rice varieties. And they’re in this together. Mother and father, Tim and Robin Ralston, run the business with their adult children and their families.
I met the Ralston family inside their recently built main office, which is home to a state of the art chef’s kitchen. It’s a bright and welcoming room outfitted with stainless steel appliances and crisp white walls. It’s often used by chefs to experiment with their varieties. A large wooden farm table near the glass wall makes for a great place to have a conversation. The silver grain bins are visible right outside the windows and the fields glow green in the distance. The Ralston daughters, Jennifer Bruehwiler and Ashley Ennis are the first to show me around, followed by Tim and Robin.
You may have heard about Ralston rice through famous chef P. Allen Smith or sampled it at the WunderHaus restaurant in Conway. It can also be found in the school lunches of the Conway Public Schools and is often distributed through Ben E. Keith out of Little Rock. Or maybe you stumbled across it this spring at one of our many local farmers markets. But if you’re like me, you may be wondering why you’re just recently hearing about this locally grown, world famous rice. That’s because their trade marked packages of eight different varieties of rice just hit grocery stores in January of 2019. Since January they have grown to more than 2,000 grocery stores and made waves across the nation for the quality of their rice, their sustainable growing practices and their family run business.
The Ralston Family as a whole has been involved in farming for 10 generations. They can trace their farming roots back to their ancestral lands in Scotland. Tim and Robin and their children have been involved in farming since their children were little, but it wasn’t a rice farm. They did row crops and cattle. These fields they harvest today came into the family when the two older daughters were in college, pursuing degrees in history and interior design that seemed, at the time, to have nothing to do with running a family farm. But several factors came together in recent years to make a farm to fork rice operation a real possibility. For starters, says Tim, there was the access to unlimited amounts of surface water needed to grow rice.
Like many farmers in the River Valley bottoms, the Ralstons work with the Point Remove Wetland Irrigation District. “It comes from the Arkansas River and makes the water not only easier to access but cheaper to access and the volume is unlimited,” he adds. “So that is when we started expanding our rice. It’s very sustainable because we take that water off and we return it back to the Arkansas River. It’s an endless process,” he explains “Its’ a whole biodynamic,” adds Robin.
Sustainability is both a farm and family value that extends beyond just water usage. When possible the Ralstons use a no-till method for planting, using a drill planter which allows planting the rice into the old seedbed from last year. This often allows the seeds to get in the ground a little earlier, reduces the burning of unneeded fuel, and requires less fertilizer and less water because of all the leftover organic matter on the soil from last year’s crop. Like many sustainability practices in modern farming, these might seem like new ways of doing things, but they are actually inspired by older ways of farming that are becoming increasingly relevant in our times.
Having access to unlimited surface water and utilizing smart planting techniques isn’t the only thing that has allowed their vision to come to fruition. For starters, there was the creation of grain bins which allowed them to avoid being at the mercy of the granary’s fluctuating prices. But the big shift came when the Ralston’s adult daughters all decided to pitch in. “We had been thinking about it for years, about adding a mill for value,” says Robin. “It wasn’t the right time. But all the kids decided they wanted to come back to the farm. Ashley was teaching and decided she wanted to come back. Jennifer and Willie had been here and our son Matthew has known farming is something he always wanted to do. With everyone back home it made sense to make the jump.”
Eight family members are in charge of the bulk of the work. “I do audits, food safety and quality and paperwork.” explains Ashley. “And federal guidelines. Sales, online sales. Building relationships is a lot of what we do with chefs and schools. Everybody eats,” she laughs. Her son Hadley works in the mill part time. Jennifer is in charge of getting all of the products into the supermarkets. Her husband, Willie Bruehwiler, is in charge of quality control in the production.Their daughter-in law handles facebook outreach and the recipes “Someone in the family is doing every part of the business at this point,” explains Jennifer. “Some months we hit a wall, and have to push each other through.” “Or every other week,” Robin laughs.
Most farmers who grow rice choose to cultivate southern long grain rice, a regional favorite with wide appeal. But the Ralston’s wanted to expand the market, and spent a great deal of time researching what the market might need. “Most of jasmine rice in the United States is grown overseas,” explains Tim “We felt like it would help us fill a niche market.” That kind of thinking is what drew a huge company like Blue Apron to the Ralstons.” While market research and smart planning has certainly played a role in their success, so has a fair share of happy accidents.
“We had an interesting first harvest on our red and purple rice varieties,” explains Mom. “We gave it to a few chefs and they really liked the taste. So we decided to grow it and expand it and it’s actually our most popular variety,” she adds. It can now be found marketed under the name “Nature’s Blend.” “No one can replicate it,” she laughs.
The family makes it clear that faith is central to their story and ask that this is something that is shared with readers as a core part of their story. They remain in awe of all the successes they’ve had since they first started working toward becoming a farm to fork operation. “We just know that we’re here for a purpose and for good work,” says Ashley. “God has carried us and we see it unfolding and we see it changing us and giving us an opportunity to change others. It’s a mission,” she says. Jennifer points to the first national grant they wrote and received which allowed them to begin value-added production. “I had never written a grant before,” she says. And this one was facing national competition. Another challenge came with the British Retail Consortium certification, a third party audit that made their partnership with Blue Apron company possible. It’s the same kind of audit huge companies like Nestle must comply with, they explain. “We were told, don’t even think about getting an A.’ But we made a double A,” says Ashley, with surprise in her voice. Auditors were impressed and would often ask, “‘What engineer did you have?’”, says Ashley, as she points to her father and mother who designed the grain bins. “It doesn’t make sense.” “There was a lot of prayer going on in here,” adds mother, Robin.
Working together as a family means that they share the workload. But it also means they share the risks. “Being the family farm we have so much at stake,” says Jennifer. We want everything that leaves the store to be perfect. Because we have liability for everything,” she says. “We’re just all invested,” adds Robin. Looking over at her parents Ashley adds, “They have all of our families on their shoulders.” Both Tim and Robin make it clear that they have such faith in their family and point to the ways in which everyone brings their strengths to the table. Jenifer went to school for interior design and brings her skills to the beautiful design of the buildings. Ashley’s history degree has helped her develop the strong webpage that markets their products. “As parents we think it’s awesome that our adult children, are so capable and so talented and such hard workers,” says Robin, smiling at her daughters. “Tim and I, a lot of times, we have to meet with retailers and we just leave. And we know that this is all in good hands. They know what they’re doing. That’s a pretty awesome thing to know.”
When asked about their future plans the Ralstons say they hope to reach over 4,000 stores and continue to grow their partnerships with area schools. And they want to grow their amount of donations, a central part of their family’s vision. We would love to keep working with the Arkansas Food Bank,” says Ashley. We want to keep helping feed people who need it. It’s been a mission from the beginning. And so many people have helped us.”