Farm family earns county honor
When Jim Parker retired from the Pine Bluff Police Department in 1985 after 24 years in law enforcement, he decided he wanted a break from the public and chose to go into farming with his wife, Judy Parker.
As he lived in southeast Arkansas, one might assume he chose rice or corn to grow, but Parker, who had purchased the farm in 1984, started raising chickens. Since then, his daughter and son-in-law, Stefan and Lynn Draper of S&L Farms, have successfully taken the reins, and they were named the 2021 Jefferson County Farm Family of the Year.
“It’s an honor to be chosen,” said Stefan. “Jefferson County has never chosen a chicken farm. That there made me feel really blessed.”
According to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, poultry is the largest agricultural product in Arkansas. The state is second in the nation for total pounds of broiler meat produced, yielding more than 5.7 billion pounds with more than 2,400 broiler farms.
S&L Farms is owned and operated by Stefan and Lynn at their Sheridan address off Ashley Road in Jefferson County. The Draper family raises chickens for Tyson Foods and has approximately 50 cows that are bred and sold.
“When I retired from the chicken business, I asked my daughter and son-in-law if they wanted to get in the chicken business,” said Jim, who began the poultry contract with Tyson Foods and who now lives in Arkansas County with his wife. “They were both working at Mid-America Packaging.”
After 15 years with the company, Stefan decided to take over the family business in 2000.
He added two row houses to the four already on the farm and bought additional acreage, extending the farm for future productivity.
“When we bought this farm, it was 60 acres. Then we bought the land behind us, another 60 acres, and then we bought 200 acres at the end of the road
clearing off for cows,” said Stefan, who said the cows go hand in hand with raising chickens because of the fertilizer.
“The opportunity came, and I worked about three years before Lynn quit Mid-America after 13 years,” said Stefan. “To make it financially, we built two more houses, and that way it would support our family.”
The Drapers, who have been married for 26 years, had twin boys, Baxter and Brent, and believed they could make a living solely on producing poultry for Tyson Foods, the largest poultry-producing company in the world, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
“They [Jim and Judy] were in it and made a good living at it,” said Stefan. “They raised four kids raising chickens.”
The Drapers are contracted with Tyson to provide five “grow-outs” a year. Each grow-out ranges from 60,000 to 130,000 chicks over 56 days.
“We produce 7.5- to 8-pound birds, and Tyson pays us $6.25 a pound,” said Stefan. “Tyson brings us their food and brings the chicks and we furnish the water, utilities, labor and the place to keep them. [Tyson] comes and catches them, and that’s the chicken that everybody eats.”
Grow-out farms raise newly hatched chicks to market weight. As a contract grower, the farmer provides barns, water, bedding, electricity and management while the company provides the chicks, feed and necessary pharmaceuticals.
Though the process sounds simple enough, Stefan said technology has changed the way chicken farms operate compared with when his father-in-law was in charge.
“We used to have conventional houses where you roll the curtains down,” he said. “About eight years ago, Tyson decided they all had to be tunnel houses, solid walls, vents, computers and different environment forms.”
Water troughs have been replaced with water nipples for the chicks, and ceiling misters are no longer there as the row houses now consist of cool cells that allow Stefan to control temperatures remotely.
Stefan said the changes improved the conditions, resulting in fewer chickens lost to heat. He also said windspeed inspections are done regularly.
Higher wind speeds dissipate more heat from the birds, resulting in better feed conversion, faster growth rate and lower mortality, according to the National Poultry Technology Center.
The state Farm Bureau said in a release that poultry farming is all about breeding.
In 1925, it took 112 days to grow a 2.5-pound chicken, and the mortality rate was 18%.
Today, it takes an average of 47 days to grow a 6.12-pound chicken, and the mortality rate is 3.9%.
The Drapers get about two weeks in between each grow-out, but that downtime doesn’t count as leisure for the couple.
“In between flocks, you have to manage your litter and get prepared for your next flock,” said Stefan.
The couple has only taken a vacation once in 21 years of work, and Jim said most poultry farmers are reluctant to do so because it imposes a hardship.
“If the chickens are small and the weather is good, we may go to town, but we’re home every night to check on them,” said Stefan, who added that he and his wife may get a day or two to themselves when there are no chicks on the farm.
“We like to kayak when we get a chance,” said Lynn. “We don’t get to get away far, but at least that’s something we can do.”
Lynn also likes to read and garden but is most proud of her year-old pet pig Hamilton, which she has raised since he was a piglet.
“My dad always raised pigs when I was younger, and of course they went to slaughter,” she said. “I was determined I was going to have a pet pig that would not go to slaughter.”
Even though Lynn grew up on a farm, she never thought she would be raising chickens.
“That was not my plan, and I’m sure my dad never thought I would be here,” said Lynn, who added that her dad almost invested in an alligator farm instead of poultry — a path not taken that she is thankful for. “I work every day with Stefan. I’m in the chicken houses right along with him.”
For now, it’s just the two of them, but just as the reins were passed from one generation to the next, the Drapers are hoping at least one of their sons will be next in line to continue the family tradition.
Both sons are married, and each has a toddler son.
“We’ve been talking to one of our sons about moving back here from Bentonville and possibly running the two farmhouses at the end of the road,” said Lynn. “It’s still in the talks, but it would be nice.”
Until then, the Drapers say they will remain dedicated to the family undertaking and the connection and association with a respected brand that will continue to be a rewarding opportunity for generations to come.