Steve Pharr looked around Hestand Stadium, where several hundred people gathered Thursday night in appreciation of Jefferson County’s farmers. Country music played over loudspeakers, the smell of fried catfish wafted in the air, and children rode ponies.
“I think it’s real nice,” Pharr said of the event. “I think it’s a good thing for the farmers. And for the kids and everything. To understand exactly where their food comes from. You know, most people think their food comes from Walmart.
“If it wasn’t for the row-crop farmers, they’d be eating tuna fish every night. There wouldn’t be nothing to eat.”
Pharr, his wife Tracie and his son were recognized as the Jefferson County 2016 Farm Family of the Year Thursday at the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce’s 64th Annual Farmers Appreciation Fish Fry.
Matt Alstadt, manager of Greenway Equipment in Pine Bluff, chairs the chamber’s agribusiness committee that picks the farm family of the year. The committee looks for row-crop and cattle farmers who take pride in their harvests, their profession and represent Jefferson County well, he said.
“[The Pharrs have] been farming in the county for a long time,” Alstadt said. “They do a very good job. They’re good representatives of the county and the farming lifestyle.”
Steve Pharr, a fifth-generation farmer, tends to 3,500 acres of rice, 1,000 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans with his son and two full-time hands.
“Keeps you busy,” he said.
In the summer, he rises at 5:30 a.m. and is out the door by 5:45. He returns between 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m., or whenever the work is done, then gets up the next morning and does it again. He’s too busy to think about crop prices in the summer, but after the fall harvest comes in, he knows his pay will be dependant on the market.
“You don’t know what your paycheck’s going to be,” he said. “You may work all year and lose money. You made a good crop, but that don’t mean you’re gonna make money if the price is low.”
It’s that kind of effort that the chamber salutes with the annual fish fry, according to Nancy McNew, interim director of the chamber of commerce.
“Agri is so vital to our economy here in Jefferson county,” McNew said. “We do it just as a big thank-you to farmers, kind of honor them.”
For years the fish fry was a stag party, with only men invited. Eventually women joined, and now the chamber seeks to make it more family-friendly, adding pony rides and animals from the Delta Rivers Nature Center. This year it was a litter-trained possum that confounded several of the young people who were encouraged to pet it.
One toddler called the possum a “baby tiger.” His father, Chris Cummings, works at Relyance Bank and said he’s been taking his family to the fish fry for the last three or four years.
“We have a large agricultural base, and we try to come out and support them,” Cummings said.
Others at the event remember when it was almost exclusively farmers, and far more of them.
Roger Aureli said he had been attending the fish fry since it was hosted at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Then, farmers were packed shoulder to shoulder, and attendees were greeted by the sight of john boats filled with cans of beer packed in ice.
“Almost brought a tear to my eye,” he quipped.
His father, 86-year-0ld Geno Aureli, began farming before World War II with a mule and a single-row plow and continued until he retired in the early 1990s. Flanked by his two sons and two sons-in-law Thursday, Geno Aureli recalled how local military pilots played jokes during the war by buzzing his farm, causing the mule to buck and run off.
“I’d shake my fist [at the plane],” Aureli said.
In 1984, 20 inches of rain ruined his sweet potato crop.
“Talk about smelling like a winery,” he said.
There are fewer farmers now, Roger Aureli said, and they get older every year. His father told his sons not to bother with farming unless they had 2,000 acres or more.
The summer of 1980 brought just a half-inch of rain in two months, said Philip Aureli, Roger’s brother and Geno’s son. By the 4th of July temperatures hit triple digits, and land that was not irrigated went to waste.
“I said, ‘Lord, if I make it through this summer, I’ll go to college,” Phillip Aureli said. He ended up getting a degree in chemistry, and now works at the Pine Bluff Arsenal.
Still, they continue to come to the event.
“It’s good to come out here and have fellowship,” said Roger Aureli. “A lot of old farmers kind of passed on.”