By Laura Aka
Broadcast version by Emily Scott
Reporting for the WorkingNation– Arkansas News Service Collaboration
Chris Isbell of Isbell Farms is a prime example of a lifelong learner. “If I had to farm like everybody else, I wouldn’t want to be a farmer because I like to experiment. I like to look at new things. I like to test the envelope on just about everything. That’s just my personality. And I was allowed to do that here,” says Isbell who co-owns the 3,000-acre farm with his wife Judy in England, Arkansas.
Isbell is from a lineage of at least five generations of farmers with his father being the first to grow rice. It may surprise you to learn that more than 47% of all rice grown in the U.S. is from Arkansas, which had a record harvest last year.
More than 30 years ago, Isbell began attending the gatherings of the Rice Technical Working Group. “Academics from all of the rice growing states meet every two years. They share their experiments and the papers they’ve written. It’s basically peer review.”
The first meeting Isbell attended was at the University of California, Davis. At registration check-in, he was asked what institution he was from. “I said, ‘I’m a rice grower.’ So, they gave me a tag that said, ‘Grower.’ And as I walked around with my tag, everybody would stop me and say, ‘Wait, you’re a grower?’ and they’d asked me a question.”
Over time, Isbell developed close relationships with a number of the conference attendees. “Through the years, we kept those friendships up and it’s helped out many times in our decisions about where to go and what to do next on the farm.”
Isbell says he started looking at sustainable farming practices decades ago. “Our main interest was saving water. It was expensive for us to pump underground water whenever there was surface water available. So, we began to level our fields – what we call zero grade, no grade. No slope. The fields are all flat, like a tabletop.”
“It works really well. People all over are doing it now. Researchers have figured that the savings on water is 30% instead of having the terraced levees that go through the fields that we’re used to seeing.”
Paula DiPerna – a consultant to WorkingNation on the green economy and a special advisor to CDP, a nonprofit that works with its members to manage their environmental impacts – says, “One of the big problems in Arkansas is the runoff, the pesticides, the fertilizers, all of that is running off into the river waters.”
Isbell says zero grade fields address this problem. “Our water, according to the researchers, is cleaner leaving the field than when it’s pumped on. The rice crop serves as a filtering system. Because the zero grade fields don’t require water moving through them to remain flooded.”
Much of the farm’s energy is generated by their on-farm solar project. Solar provides power for “irrigation, grain drying, farm shops, and residences.” Unused power is transferred to the local power grid.
Among the varieties being sustainably grown by Isbell Farms are different types of Japanese rice, including that used to make sake. Years ago, at one of the academic gatherings, a man from Japan told Isbell about a ‘spectacular’ rice that could only grow in a certain region of his country.
Once back in Arkansas, Isbell studied the rice and its region at the local library. “No internet,” he explains. “I looked at the globe and spun it. I looked at our latitude versus the latitude of Japan. And they were right on the money. I said, ‘I bet I could grow it here.'”
These days, Isbell Farms supplies rice to premium sake brewers.
Sharing the Learning Mission
Isbell makes his farm available to higher ed – giving students the opportunity to conduct field research.
University of Arkansas is conducting methane emissions testing. Isbell explains that leftover straw from the rice crop deteriorates underwater and sends methane into the atmosphere.
The farm utilizes an irrigation method called alternate wetting and drying (AWD) that helps save water and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. “We flood [the field] and then let it dry up. Flood it again, let it dry up. Flood it again.
When you do that, these microbes switch from anaerobic to aerobic and they stop making methane.” Of note, Isbell says the research indicates the methane emissions are reduced by 64% using AWD.
Research Studies and Implementation
“Arkansas is a great state to study agriculture because we have totally different geographies. Where I live in Fayetteville, we have the rolling Ozark Mountains which have pastures. In the southwest, there are forests. And then in the eastern part of the state, there are row crops,” says Benjamin Runkle, Ph.D., professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas.
“We’re working with farmers to do different kinds of sustainability studies and implementations. The soil is very rich. It comes from the long-term history of the Mississippi River meandering across a flood plain, but it’s created a lot of different zones. You have sandy soils and clay soils. So, you need to create custom-made solutions for each farmer to be able to do the best kind of irrigation that they can,” says Runkle.
Runkle notes that the Isbell family has been very generous making their farm available for study, “I do research on the Isbell farm. We have instrumentation on the fields. We take notes about what they’re doing. We analyze their crop yield and figure out different ways that it could be more sustainable.”
Runkle’s research points to the significant impact of AWD in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the field. “You re-oxygenate the soils and prevent the methane from being produced. Sometimes a really small change can make a really big difference. We’re working on creating tools that also help make that a little bit easier. These are busy farmers managing a lot of land. We’re working to build little sensors they can put in one area of the field. Little things to look at so they can improve their practices.”
“I am an engineer. [The farmers] are also engineers – optimizing across a lot of different things. They can think very holistically about their farm and really understand deeply. So, then when they do make a change, they want to be really committed to it and understand all the possible implications – pros and cons – of doing that. That’s some of what our research can help demonstrate or test or explain to them.”
Career Opportunities for Students
Runkle says a lot of his students get jobs after graduation interacting with agriculture. For example, with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – which offers incentive programs for farmers to implement conservation practices. “[Students] had some experience on the farm and the research. They want to stay in that area. They get to use the engineering skills that they’ve learned in the classroom to then help implement change.”
“A lot of the students are really eager to be a part of the solution to the environmental problems that they’re seeing. And there are jobs, more and more, that are available to them.”
“This biological engineering is really about how to better use our landscapes for not just food production,” says Runkle. Looking ahead, he says, the landscape can be used to foster climate-smart agriculture.
With more farmers installing solar on their land, Runkle says students are landing in the renewable energy industry. He adds, “The types of jobs could include instrument maintenance and reading. Could be modeling and interpreting what the farmers are doing. Could be providing education for farmers. There’s a lot of strategies that are needed. A lot of different types of minds I think are needed in this area. It’s not just engineers, but people who can translate information back and forth.”
“One other tool that’s really interesting is satellites from NASA and other places that are crisscrossing the sky every night. Taking lots of pictures of the earth from which we can determine things like how well is that plant growing? Is it green in the winter or brown in the winter? Is it flooded or not flooded? We’re able to then turn that information into something that’s quantifiable in terms of the carbon impact of the landscape. So that’s also a whole new area of jobs and training and new types of education that we’re going to have to develop.”
Runkle says, as the focus on sustainability changes, teaching is working to keep up. “I’m starting some teaching on what we call natural climate solutions. You could be a financial accountant. You can also be a carbon accountant and work with landscape managers to take an accounting of how much carbon their operation costs and then how much savings they can have by storing the carbon or by reducing some of the energy use in greenhouse gas production.”
DiPerna is not surprised by students’ interest in sustainability, “Green thinking is baked in to so much of the thinking of kids in college and in graduate school. I think you’re just seeing the natural evolution of knowledge.”
Runkle says it’s not just students who are becoming more knowledgeable about tech. “The other thing with data and everybody being a technologist is a lot of farming, in general, is just becoming more data-rich. [The farmers] are looking at the weather on their phones to how much money they’re paying for fertilizer. There’s a lot of data interpretation and services and instruments. Their tractors are very advanced. They can drive themselves. And, of course, they fly drones.”
‘We’re going to build upon our past and our legacy’
“Green is kind of a crosscutting. It’s going to impact just about all jobs in the future,” says Secretary Mike Preston, Arkansas Department of Commerce. The Commerce Department oversees a number of divisions including the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services and the Office of Skills Development.
Preston sees the state’s green economy being driven by three industries that have long histories in the state – agriculture, as well as steel and timber. “We’re going to build upon our past and our legacy and just do it better and in a different, more efficient way.”
Preston notes that U.S. Steel recently broke ground in Osceola on a $3 billion mill. “It’ll be the most technologically-advanced steel mill in the world. They have a goal of a net zero carbon footprint by 2050 which for a steel mill is just incredible to think about.” He says the facility – which is an expansion after U.S. Steel’s 2019 acquisition of Big River Steel – will create 900 new jobs.
DiPerna says U.S. Steel moving into Arkansas is highly important, reminding, “Don’t miss the big story.”
Regarding timber, Preston says, “We have an abundance of forest. We restock our forest every year. There’s a new technology called cross-laminated timber which is used in building materials. It’s as strong as any other industrial material in terms of making buildings. Extremely eco-friendly.”
“I’d say for Arkansas, the future is bright. The brightness gets even brighter with the green jobs because there’s going to be more and more coming,” says Preston.
“Arkansas seems to be demonstrating that the future of economic growth is tied to environmental protection,” says DiPerna. “Once you don’t see economic growth in conflict with environmental protection, then you can open your eyes to the idea that a lot of people are going to be employed, stay employed, or upskill in that new world.”
Green Jobs Growth in The Natural State
“The strong uptick in green job demand in 2021 in Arkansas is an indication that the green economy in the state is taking hold,” according to our new Green Jobs Now: Arkansas report, a WorkingNation and Emsi Burning Glass analysis of the green labor market in the state.
The report indicates there was demand last year for 1,374 new green workers in the state with the current green workforce estimate at more than 6,558.
Green jobs are found across many different industries, according to the report – including manufacturing and construction. But the report adds, “We see surprising industries such as professional, scientific, and technical Services coming up as having demand for green workers.”
“The workers in this industry include software developers, business management analysts, and others. This is yet further evidence of the breadth of today’s green economy.”
The report points out, “While we see demand across Arkansas for green workers, the greatest concentrations can be found in the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway metropolitan area.”
It is projected that in the next five years, employment demand for green jobs in Arkansas will increase by 9%.
What’s a Green Job?
As our Green Jobs Now reports have noted, the definition of a green job is not an easy one. Core jobs are those “with a primary responsibility associated with the green economy.” The data indicates the top core green job in Arkansas is a solar sales representative.
Enabled jobs have “primary responsibilities separate or tangential to the green economy” – with a production worker identified as the primary job.
And enabling jobs “aren’t associated with green tech per se, but they support the green economy.” The report says, “Green enabling jobs run the gamut… In all, over 168 different specialized occupations were represented in the jobs identified as green enabling in Arkansas in 2021.”
Green Jobs Now: Arkansas finds there are almost 445,000 workers in Arkansas, or nearly a third of the entire Arkansas workforce, who could be green workers – suggesting a talent pool that could learn new skills to work in the sector.
Higher Wages for Those with Green Skills
“The most demanded skills related to the green economy in Arkansas are energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy,” the report says.
“These same green skills offer strong salary boosts across roles, with energy efficiency and renewable energy increasing salaries by over $1,500 on average.”
The report notes that the average green jobs salary in Arkansas is more than $61,466.
‘I had a sustainability background when sustainability was not popular’
April Ambrose began her career in education and is a certified teacher. “I designed my own major in environmental education. I did my student teaching, and then I realized that it could take my lifetime to get sustainability integrated in the public school system.”
“I’ll say that I had a sustainability background when sustainability was not popular in the state.” Ambrose’s background is extensive. “I worked on national climate change legislation. I founded Arkansas Earth Day Foundation. I ran one of the first green jobs listers in the state back then. And I have continued to be involved in some capacity or another in mentoring students or involved in workforce development.”
In 2007, Ambrose became the first employee at Entegrity in Little Rock – basically, a green building consulting firm that focuses on energy and sustainability. Today, the company has 110 employees and Ambrose is the business development manager and also leads the firm’s DEI initiatives to create a diverse workforce pipeline through education.
Familiarizing Students Early
Ambrose’s path has come full circle. “We do sustainability education for these K-12 schools and higher education, helping them to understand that career exposure level, but also understand the 101’s of sustainability and all the careers in that world.”
“We make these solar suitcases. They have panels and things you can plug in. They can just see, feel, and touch how solar works. Seeing them see that is this huge moment for them, right?”
However, she adds, “There’s just so much that’s new and so much that is changing so quickly that it makes it hard to peg down the exact training that’s necessary. Students may hear, ‘You can do anything you want to do. There’s lots of sustainability jobs out there. If you care, you can find one.’ But how do they know which of those specialties their skill sets fit? And that’s where the gap is, to me, right now.”
To lessen that gap, Ambrose has encouraged a conversation among companies and nonprofit organizations to talk about employee skills. “It’s easier to train somebody to install solar, but how do I train somebody on how to achieve net zero for a building, to come up with that overall strategy, to work with the team?”
“I don’t have enough established pathways that I can work with an external organization to train employees that I can just hire – which means I have to find people who are interested in what we do, generally understand it, have some of the surrounding skill sets, and I’m still going to have to train them up.”
“You don’t have to have a college degree. You don’t have to have any specialty accreditations. It’s going to take all of these organizations coming together to figure out where they exist in that pipeline, how we can partner to get funding to actually carry people contiguously along, and how we can work with companies to make sure the end result satisfies, at least somewhat, their base needs to be able to hire them to do the work.”
Ambrose has had the opportunity to see the impact firsthand of her personal sustainability mission. Years ago, she handed out her business cards after speaking to several hundred high school students about green building. She didn’t get any particular feedback. Until eight years later.
A young woman applying for an Entegrity internship wrote, “I heard April speak and she changed my life. She handed out business cards. Nobody had ever given us a business card before.”
Ambrose recounts, “Her entire focus in all of her classes was, ‘How do I get to work for Entegrity?’ She kept up with our website. She kept up with how things were changing. She never let any of us know this until we had an internship opening.” Not only did this student get the internship, she now works for Entegrity.
Intersection Between Agriculture and Energy
Ambrose says the opportunity for sustainability practice is bigger than those in agriculture may realize. “It is a solar gold rush in Arkansas. One of the things that makes it nice is that you can have meter aggregation. I, as a farmer, might have a meter for my home. I might have a shop. I might have a number of different pumps, and now rather than having to put solar at each of those locations, I can have solar offsite somewhere that counts toward those meters.”
“In areas that are not useable for farming, you can put solar and be generating income to offset your utility bill for all of the other areas.”
As part of its educational initiatives, Entegrity has a partnership with Heifer International, says Ambrose. The organization provides training to students, usually members of Future Farmers of America, “helping them understand the role of regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration in the soils – as it relates to the land where solar is installed.”
Ambrose also points out there is a big push to make solar “dual use.” She explains, “There’s this land that [solar] sits on that should be able to do something. Can’t grow plants up too high and shade the panels, but what can be done under that? Low-growing pollinator plants and then putting bees on-site. Grazing land for sheep because sheep won’t affect the systems. They can keep the grass low and keep it mowed where you don’t have to maintain the growth in those areas.”
She adds, “Now you can’t use goats. Goats will eat the wiring. Cows will rub against the systems to scratch themselves, but sheep work really well.”
Ambrose also notes, “In fact, if the panels are high enough, you can still do row crops underneath, as well.”
‘Sustain resources for future generations’
Isbell says farming sustainably can be costly, but the mission is too important to turn back now. “From the farmer’s perspective, this thing is consumer-driven. This is what the consumer wants. If we’re going to sell the consumer rice, then my mantra has always been, ‘You sell somebody what they want. You don’t try to convince them they want something else.'”
“The market has gone to sustainability and we are able to do that. So why not? Especially in the greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, and things like that. The consumer may be living in an apartment building downtown, wherever, and all he can do for his carbon footprint is purchase products that were produced sustainably.”
Isbell adds, “The whole farming community is out here if you can just convince them to step up and do the same thing.”
“The thing about environmental jobs, green jobs is that they have only one objective in the end,” says DiPerna. “You can call any job green that has this objective – reduce waste of natural resources and reduce the contamination of natural resources.”
She continues, “Anything that has an environmental benefit in that regard to my mind is a green job. There have been farmers for centuries trying to manage the land sustainably, but there was no payoff for it. But now there is.”
“I am excited about the possibilities for Arkansas. We’re a state rich in natural resources and opportunity. I think there’s also a lot of opportunity to improve practices. We could make a much more interesting food production system and also make it much more sustainable. Be part of the climate solution,” notes Runkle.
And Ambrose says, “As we think about energy as a part of sustainability, you have to go back to the meaning of sustainability. It’s to sustain these resources for future generations. ‘People’ is ultimately the focus and not just the environment. It’s the intersection between the two.”
Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.
This story was originally reported and written by Laura Aka for WorkingNation.