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‘Arkansas Grown’ sprouts anew

Large buyers join mix as demand rises for local food by Glen Chase | April 20, 2014 at 2:38 a.m.
Zach Taylor, marketing director for the the Arkansas Agriculture Department, prepares materials for some of the businesses and people registered in the Arkansas Grown program, which connects Arkansas produce farmers and ranchers with buyers, including farmers markets, schools, restaurants and grocery chains.

Two months after a Governor’s Mansion gathering, nearly 150 farmers and buyers have added their names to a growing list of those wanting to participate in the relaunch of the state’s “Arkansas Grown” program.

“The majority are still farmers signing up to find markets for their crops,” said Zach Taylor, marketing director for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

But new names on the list include restaurants, grocery retailers, food distributors and institutional buyers such as hospitals and schools, he said.

For the past year, the Agriculture Department has worked to breathe new life into the Arkansas Grown program to capitalize on consumer interest in purchasing locally or regionally grown food. The program is a branding effort designed to help the state’s growers promote their products, at events such as farmers markets, with marketing elements such as green and black “Arkansas Grown” signs, as well as by providing a contact point between farmers and potential customers.

Taylor pointed to the growth of farmers markets across the state as evidence of how the program is being driven by consumer demand.

“Five years ago, we had about 40,” Taylor said. “Now, on any day, I would say the number is approaching close to 100.” While the department has contact information for about 80, other markets pop up for several weeks depending on what’s in season,he said.

Arkansas Grown has more than 500 participants, however, and is meant to do more than just promote farmers markets. It also connects fruit, vegetable and livestock operations with larger buyers as well.

As long as a producer can grow and deliver fruits and vegetables, connecting with larger buyers boils down to building connections, said Abraham Carpenter Jr., farm manager for Carpenter’s Produce in Grady.

Carpenter’s Produce is an annual fixture at farmers markets in Little Rock and Pine Bluff and also provides produce to larger outlets including Wal-Mart, Kroger and other retailers.

Carpenter said small growers are getting a chance to supply bigger customers.

“I have found that distribution centers like Wal-Mart and Kroger and all the others, they really want to participate in purchasing home grown when they can find the producer who can produce the quality and the supply of the product that they need,” he said.

Becoming a supplier boils down to having a track record for regular crop production and then connecting with the right person to make the sale, Carpenter said.

Another approach is a pilot project led by Jody Hardin, who is working with Heifer International’s Seeds of Change Initiative to create new market opportunities for small Delta farmers to market organic produce directly to central Arkansas consumers. Heifer signed a contract last week with the new Food and Farm Innovation Center at St. Joseph Farm in North Little Rock, he said.

Using an Asian/European model called “community supported agriculture,” Hardin said, participants prepay for shares of future crops, with farmers being paid upfront to supply boxes of seasonal foods on a weekly basis.

Hardin, whose efforts include the Argenta Farmers Market and other projects, said that if the innovation center grows as expected, a greater share of the food dollars spent by Arkansans will remain in the hands of the state’s farmers.

“We just can’t grow fast enough. There’s just so much demand for local foods right now,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and I’ve never seen it ramp up like it’s doing this year.”

“Our ultimate mission with the [community-supported agriculture] model is [that] we want to develop a community food hub,” Hardin said, which will put small farmers in the driver’s seat. He said the effort will also involve training farmers to shift from conventional to organic growing techniques.

Hardin called the lack of a central point for growers to meet with buyers “the missing link” that the agreement with Heifer is trying to provide. As part of the project, two coolers are being installed at St. Joseph Farm to store food until it is distributed, and a new facility is being built in Forrest City where farmers can bring their crops so it can be shipped to St. Joseph, established at a former orphanage near Camp Robinson.

“We’re trying to build that missing piece of infrastructure,” he said. “To build a local system to get farmers more profitable, we need that piece of infrastructure and it’s called a food hub.”

Taylor of the state Agriculture Department agreed that creating food hubs will be the next step to help buyers find producers. Since the department has only about $75,000 available to put into the Arkansas Grown program, Taylor said, he is hopeful that a private, nonprofit organization will take the lead in developing food hubs, a process he expects will take several years.

“That’s been our biggest hurdle having a food hub or having what we call an ‘aggregation center.’” Taylor said.

Providing help to establish food hubs is just one way the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responding to consumer demand, said Arthur Neal, deputy administrator for transportation and marketing program for the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Neal said the department is aware of about 260 food hubs around the country, and said more than 60 percent were established in the past five years. When food production became more commercialized several decades ago, the infrastructure that supported older-style food hubs, mostly farm cooperatives, deteriorated as foods were trucked around the country, he said.

“Now, there is the re-emergence of this more localized food system because you have more and more consumers wanting to know about what they’re eating,” Neal said. They want to know where it’s from, what the farm where it was grown is like and how the food is produced - information that typically doesn’t travel along with the food in a commercial supply chain.

The recently passed federal farm bill included $30 million for the USDA to use to promote farmers markets and promotion programs for locally grown food, Neal said.

The USDA also provides training and other information about food-safety concerns, including best farming practices, food handling and post-harvest handling, he said.

“Most farmers that we come in contact with do their best to ensure that food that has been produced on their land is being done so responsibly and in a safe manner,” Neal said.

While buyers including grocery stories and institutions such as universities prefer some sort of certification, not every small farm is able to attain it because the cost can be prohibitive, he said. The USDA is developing a pilot program by working with five farms as a group on such matters.

Food distribution company Ben E. Keith Co. added its name to the Arkansas Grown list earlier this year after sending two representatives - its chef and chief produce buyer - to the Governor’s Mansion event.

Rusty Mathis, general manager of Ben E. Keith Co.’s North Little Rock division, said the company is getting requests for locally grown produce not just from the restaurants it supplies but also from other customers, such as hospitals.

“I think we have a chance in Arkansas to get this up and going,” Mathis said. “And now with Arkansas Grown and some of these concepts coming through, we’re excited about it, and we’re going to do our part to be part of it.”

The seasonal nature of locally produced fruits and vegetables will entail a learning curve, he said, but the company is already familiar with how the locations of produce supplies change at different times of the year.

When it comes to Arkansas growers, “if there’s a local seasonal product, we just need to have enough of it and be assured that we have a market for it,” Mathis said.

Large national produce distributors are also responding to consumer demand for locally produced foods.

Kent Shoemaker, chief executive officer of Lipman Produce based in Immokalee, Fla., said his company is searching for smaller growers that will help meet that demand, so it can get closer to the source.

“There’s a lot of really great smaller farmers out there that want access to markets,” Shoemaker said. He said Lipman - the nation’s largest open-field tomato grower, with operations in 13 states and Mexico - tries to act as a conduit between small farmers and larger retailers and food-service operations.

“It’s good for our business because our customers say you’re helping us get closer to the ground; you’re introducing us to farmers we wouldn’t normally meet,” Shoemaker said. “The farmers are happy because they’re getting access to markets they wouldn’t get and they’re getting access to services they either can’t afford or don’t have the capacity to understand how to get them.”

Shoemaker said Lipman is working with small growers in some states. Help comes in the forms of production advice, techniques that might reduce costs and market access. And, in some cases, Lipman helps with financing a crop.

“We have to be creative as an industry and as a company to be able to get people what they want and support the small local farm,” Shoemaker said.

Business, Pages 69 on 04/20/2014

Print Headline: ‘Arkansas Grown’ sprouts anew


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