Lock, Stock & Barrel: Ralstons Aim for Farm-to-Table Rice

Tim and Robin Ralston stand in front of their farm’s official logo.

Ralston Family Farms  is unique. When it comes to rice, it’s a “vertically integrated farm.” What’s that you might ask? It simply means they grow, mill, package, market, sell and ship the rice. Everything is done from the farm. It’s the closest thing to farm-to-table you can get without having Tim and Robin cook and serve the rice to you.

Tim and Robin Ralston, both 55, grow rice in the Arkansas River bottoms outside of Atkins. The couple grew up in Faulkner County. Robin’s dad managed the International Paper Co. mill in Morrilton, but his ancestors had begun farming the area during the 1840s. Tim’s ancestors came later and also farmed. He grew up in a row-crop farming family. Tim says right out of high school he started selling farm equipment and did that for about 10 years. Then he and Robin were in the sale-barn business for another 10 years.

They began row cropping 18 years ago, initially focusing on soybeans and wheat. However, the farm’s focus shifted to rice when the local water district brought a steady source of irrigation water to the area in 2006. That’s when the Ralstons began leveling land and focusing on growing rice. Initially, they leveled 700 acres. Tim says they’ve leveled acreage ever since and now grow rice on 2,500 acres. They also maintain a cow-calf operation and grow corn for silage.

The Ralstons rice growing doesn’t focus on the typical southern long-grain rice grown throughout the east Arkansas Delta. They grow other rice varieties including Basmati White and Brown, Jasmine White and Brown, Traditional White and Brown, Aromatic Purple rice, Scarlet Red rice and Golden rice. They also sell a new three-rice mix of Purple, Red and Traditional Brown called Nature’s Blend.

They’ve teamed with Arkansan and PBS-TV show host P. Allen Smith to endorse Nature’s Blend and their other rice varieties. The Ralstons were fans of Smith’s shows and had met him at his Moss Mountain Farm.

“We reached out to him and met through a mutual friend, and he’s caught our vision and added to it,” Robin said. “When we had our first discussion with him about the rice mill, the family aspect of it and the farm being inclusive here, it captured his interest right away,” Tim added. “But what really made him want to get on board are these specialty (rice) varieties. He sees the opportunity and uniqueness in marketing those.”

The Ralstons also have worked with chef Shane Henderson of Little Rock food-distributing company Ben E. Keith, who visited the farm, and kitchen and table tested the new Nature’s Blend. It’s proven popular with chefs because of its flavor and the multicolor presentation it offers.

“He was such an encourager. We needed to know we could sell it,” Robin said. “These chefs are visionary. They can see things on the utilization of the food and what to do with the product more so than the growers.”

Tim Ralston stands next to some of his packaged rice.

The Ralston’s decision to grow nontraditional rice varieties was a conscious one. Tim says most of these other varieties you can find in a grocery store.

“Robin and I looked at the market at what exists now. But I’d venture to say that 90 percent of these other varieties are grown overseas. As you get into the Basmati and the Jasmin, very little of it is grown in the U.S.,” he said. “So we felt like there was a market for a U.S. product, because everybody these days is concerned about where their food comes from, how it’s grown, what it’s grown in and the specifics of how it’s milled. We felt like there was opportunity there.”

Go here to read Part 2 of the Ralston story.

Watch video from our visit to Ralston Family Farms: