Thayn Morton has planted and grown millions of seeds as a farmer in Dewitt, Ark., but none has risen so high as the one planted one afternoon in the fall of 2012. This seed just hasn’t stopped giving.
Morton was returning from a trip to town that day, and as he drove down Grandview Drive in DeWitt, he passed by the Caring and Sharing Food Pantry, a food assistance program in DeWitt’s downtown area. Snaking from its entrance was a 150-foot line of hungry people waiting for food.
“I had heard that someone had started a food pantry,” Morton said, “but I had no idea that there was that kind of need. I also realized that I knew some folks in that line.”
Morton returned to his combine to continue harvesting corn, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the food line. When he stepped off the machine during a break that afternoon, Morton saw piles of spilled corn here and there in the field, typical losses of the harvesting process. The loose grain brought a scripture to mind from the Old Testament. The verse stipulated that farmers leave some of their harvest in the field for widows and orphaned children, an act of kindness known as gleaning.
Morton’s thoughts wandered from his harvest. If farmers could “tighten up” on spillage during harvest, they could easily afford to give the savings to charity to help DeWitt’s needy citizens.
“A couple of years ago corn prices were really doing well and yields were excellent,” Morton said. “I thought that if I could talk 10 or 15 farmers into donating the revenue from one acre of corn, that would be a gross of $1,500 an acre from each farmer. That could make a difference.”
Morton called his friend, Brad Chambless, who is senior vice president at Farmers & Merchants Bank in DeWitt, with an idea for a farmer-fundraiser banquet. Chambless liked the concept and immediately started working out the legal details. They formed an all-volunteer board of several area farmers, a flying service owner, a pastor and two bankers. They decided to call the charity Acres of Help.
Because DeWitt is a small community and closely connected to agriculture, it didn’t take long for word of the upcoming event to spread among farmers and agribusinesses. Soon, local agribusinesses were insisting on donating auction items such as pallets of seed and chemicals to raise more money. Acres of Help was coming to fruition.
In February 2013, over 200 attended the first Acres of Help fundraiser, including close to 100 area farmers. The charity brought in almost $130,000. The second year, it raised just under $150,000. The fundraiser is alcohol-free and family-friendly.
Biblical concept of gleaning
The most creative aspect of Acres of Help is that it modernizes the biblical message of gleaning. In ancient times, farmers left sheaths of grain or parts of a field unharvested for the poor. For this charity, farmers fill out a pledge card to donate the revenue from one acre of land or more to Acres of Help. The charity then allocates the monies to local charities, which then distribute food and other items to those in need.
The pledge card is preprinted with pledge amounts based on an average yield and price. For example, the revenue from an acre of corn for the second fundraiser was $1,000, based on a 200-bushel yield and a $5 corn price. In turn, Acres of Help pledges to give all its net revenue to local charities.
Morton had no idea the charity would be so successful. “I thought our first banquet might raise $20,000 to $25,000. I was amazed when we walked out with over $120,000 that night.”
The structure of the charity means it doesn’t decide who is helped, giving that responsibility to local groups. “We try to stay one level removed from the end user. We don’t want them to know who we are,” said Chambless.
While active for only two years, Acres of Help has already helped dozens of charities in south Arkansas County feed hungry citizens, provide shoes and clothing to children, backpacks of food for schoolchildren to take home on weekends and much more.
“Everything they’re doing has been a blessing for us,” said Ron Knowlton, who with his wife Carolyn are county coordinators of The Call, (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime). The charity recruits foster homes for foster children in the county.
“Acres of Help gives us the means to help foster children and those families who are willing to help a child in need,” Knowlton said. “In return, we see our local country foster children receiving a good, Christian foster care home.”
The CALL’s outreach has grown considerably over the last few years, and at least a portion of the credit goes to Acres of Help. “Three years ago, Arkansas County had two foster homes and 50 children in foster care,” Knowlton said. “The children here in Arkansas Country were being sent to Fort Smith, Jonesboro and Monticello. They were leaving their school, their friends. Over the last few years, we’ve seen 11 new Christian foster homes open up.”
Christmas gifts for children
Last Christmas, Acres of Help once again helped The CALL by donating some year-end reserve funds to help foster families buy Christmas gifts for their children. “They helped us provide a little better Christmas for 29 foster children living with these 11 foster families. I’ve been overwhelmed by their generosity, as well as our churches.
“If you could see Acres of Help in every county in the Mid-South, you’d see a great deal of improvement in the quality of life. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. I know them all well. They all have big hearts and are doing great work here.”
The men who organize and administer the charity are Thayn Morton, president, Brad Chambless, vice president, Kirk Vansandt, treasurer, Barry Wilson, secretary, Arkansas Country farmers Drew Whiting, Keith Patterson, Mike Dodson, Drew Counce and Jason Berry, Pastor Chad Philipp, who provides additional inroads into charities and people in need and auctioneer Doug Stovesand, who donates his time to the fundraiser.
When members of Acres of Help got together back in 2012 to discuss the budding charity, each of them knew there were needs not being met in the county. It wasn’t until they started sharing their knowledge that they began to fully understand the depth of the problem.
“We realized there were many more needs than we thought,” said Whiting. “I had no idea how many kids around here needed shoes at school. I had no idea that our county had as many needy people as it did.”
“We hear a lot of heartwarming and heart wrenching stories,” said Wilson, who operates a local flying service. “As farmers, we’ve all been blessed, and it’s an honor to be able to give back. We can give all we take in right here locally, because the need is here.”
Vansandt echoed the thoughts of the farmers. “We wanted something that would directly help the people here. We wanted to see the results locally.”
Patterson believes Acres of Help can serve as a blueprint for other Delta counties, many of which have struggled with poverty for decades. “We would like to see this get off the ground in other communities.”
“Other communities can do the same thing if they put their minds to it and get together with their farmers,” Chambless added.
“You hear about world hunger and children starving,” Morton said. “But we have it right here in our town. If everyone would do something, even if it’s on a small scale, to help their community, we can help a lot of people. Farmers are so blessed with what we have. As much acreage as we farm, just one acre can help so much.”