Mark Isbell of Isbell Farms is committed to agricultural practices that also benefit the environment.
Mark grows 3,500 acres of rice in Humnoke, Arkansas, on his family’s farm, where he utilizes zero grade technology, solar power and no-till, among other climate-smart agriculture practices.
Mark is dedicated to sustainability at Isbell Farms. His efforts, water use reduction, methane emission reduction, energy use reduction and the creation of carbon offsets earned Isbell Farms the 2016 Commitment to Quality Award from the American Carbon Registry.
An important part of Isbell Farms’ dedication to sustainability is its effort to conserve water. One way they accomplish this goal is through zero grade technology, which Mark uses on 100 percent of his acreage.
Rice is often grown on sloped fields that depend on contour levees or terraces to maintain water depth at intervals down the slope of the field. Though this technique is integral to rice production in some areas, in other areas, like Isbell Farms, it is possible to employ zero grade technology to decrease water and land use and increase efficiencies. Zero grade has become the popular term to refer to fields that have been leveled to the point of no slope or grade (think flat like a tabletop). This configuration saves 30 to 50 percent of water used in rice production.
Isbell Farms has been a zero grade pioneer, leading to hundreds if not thousands of visitors from across the globe to understand its implementation.
In addition to water conservation, Isbell Farms also carefully monitors energy use. Mark partnered with Farm Credit to install solar panels on his farm and, since 2018, much of Isbell Farm’s energy use is generated through this on-farm solar project. In fact, Mark's 300 KWH solar farm provides power for irrigation, grain drying, farm-shops and residences. When all the generated energy is not used on the farm, the power is transferred back to the local power grid through net metering.
When it comes to irrigation, Isbell Farms’ system is nearly 100 percent electric, leading to more efficient pumping of water with priority given to higher gallon-per-minute options when available. They are also connected to a network hosted by their electrical co-op that allows the co-op to temporarily stop their irrigation pumps during peak demand. This system leads not only to greater efficiency of electrical use on Isbell Farms, but throughout the entire regional electrical grid.
Finally, Isbell Farms uses computerized natural air grain drying technology that uses active feedback from sensors within their grain bins to limit aeration to times when most energy efficient. This allows Mark to reach consistent moisture throughout his grain storage, leading to significant energy use reductions and grain quality improvement.
Mark's commitment to sustainability continues into his field operations. Typically, rice is produced in constant flooded conditions. However, saturated soils tend to produce methane through natural processes. By carefully managing irrigation water and allowing soils to temporarily oxygenate throughout the growing season, a process known as Alternate Wetting and Drying, minimizes this natural methane production process.
Isbell Farms employs no-till techniques whenever possible. This limits the number of tractor passes across a field, not only benefiting air, water and soil quality by minimizing compaction and erosion, but also by reducing fuel consumption.
Isbell Farms also uses Tier 4 (link) engines with fuel-saving transmission in all its harvesters and tractors that complete the bulk of field operations on the farm, reducing both fuel use and emissions.
Part of something bigger
The Isbells have been AgHeritage Farm Credit Services customers since 2004, and Mark appreciates that, with Farm Credit, he feels like he’s part of something bigger. This feeling is especially salient when he receives his annual patronage check.
“The great thing about Farm Credit is that you're not just a customer, you're a member,” he said. “And as a member, you get to take advantage from the growth and the benefits that come to the organization through patronage. Depending on how Farm Credit did that year, you receive a certain percentage back of the interest and the costs that you've paid in the form of patronage.”
Receiving that check makes Mark feel like he’s part of the greater Farm Credit community. “It's always nice to get that as an added benefit and a reminder that you're in this together, that you’re part of something other than just being a customer,” he said.
The Farm Credit difference
Throughout the years, Mark has appreciated the way that Farm Credit employees know agriculture and are there, ready to support their customers in any way possible.
“The best thing about Farm Credit has been customer service,” Mark said. “Not everybody has the expertise or the knowledge about how things work on a farm. But having a partner like Farm Credit that we can work with that really understands agriculture makes a really big difference.”
Taking on a leadership role
Mark was elected to the AgHeritage Farm Credit Services board of directors in 2020. In his short time on the board, Mark has seen, first-hand, how much Farm Credit values our mission to serve rural communities and agriculture.
“What I've been able to see already is that Farm Credit cares about the members and cares about the path that we have before us, which is to make sure that there's strong credit available in rural communities,” he said.