FAYETTEVILLE -- A new grant is aimed at helping small farmers in Arkansas connect with buyers, affording those producers upward economic mobility while expanding access to healthy food and providing an avenue for buyers to get more local products in their stores.
The $743,651 grant from the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator is different from typical grants in that it's structured more like a startup accelerator than intent on academic research, and it's "fast-paced," said the project's principal investigator, Meredith Adkins, an assistant research professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I³R), a new model of public research and economic development that prizes collaboration to deliver positive societal impact. The goal of the grant is to address societal problems through converged research and accelerate solutions to market.
This grant aligns with I³R's focus on research that attacks "big, complex problems" relevant to Northwest Arkansas and the state with solutions that can be scaled globally, said Ranu Jung, founding executive director of I³R. These are problems -- such as metabolic and integrated health -- "not solved in one day," and which require convergent research.
The increase in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease is "a global problem, but especially in Arkansas, and you start thinking about [the role] access to healthy food" plays in that, said Jung, a Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering and associate vice chancellor at UA-Fayetteville.
Though the Convergence Accelerator "is a relatively young NSF program, our unique program model is focused on delivering tangible solutions to address societal and economic challenges," according to Douglas Maughan, who heads the NSF Convergence Accelerator program.
This type "of project can seed other things that may be needed that we discover during the process as we [gain] more information," Jung said. "That is the beauty of [it]."
The project brings together "distinct scientific disciplines" that can make a more significant societal impact than they could by themselves, and "our goal is user discovery," rather than searching for applicability for a discovery, Adkins said. The first phase, which began in January and will continue through August, involves interviewing small farmers and stakeholders to identify the "true pain points" for small farmers.
GATHERING AND USING DATA
Large suppliers and industry buyers -- such as hospitals, schools, grocery stores and restaurants -- have plenty of data to know what consumers want to buy and what needs to be produced, but small farmers are "quite blind," Adkins said. Many sell at farmer's markets and food stands, but they could find more profitability by selling to industry buyers, who would like to buy more local, but are likewise handicapped by a paucity of data.
Adkins and other leaders for this project hope to build that data and make it accessible so farmers and industry buyers can connect, she said. Another element is improving farm valuations, because farmers who know what their farms could be worth can have an easier time procuring bank loans to make necessary changes that would net higher future profits.
The second phase of the project would involve actually building these platforms, Adkins said. "We can apply for up to $5 million in grants in phase two," and Adkins and her fellow team members will begin working on their grant submissions later this year.
A pair of startups, Junction AI Inc., and Cureate, are partners on this project, "Data-driven Agriculture to Bridge Small Farms to Regional Food Supply Chains," Adkins said. The former specializes in taking "unstructured data" -- such as farm data -- and delivering it in a "user-friendly dashboard," while the latter has a procurement arm that makes it simpler for industry buyers to purchase from small farmers.
RESEARCH TO BENEFIT THOSE IN NEED
Investigators will lead outreach with small farmers in Northwest Arkansas, as well as the underserved regions of the Arkansas Delta and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, through the University of Arkansas School of Law's Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, a grant collaborator, according to Andy Albertson, director of strategic communications and engagement for I³R. "The project will engage students, including those underrepresented in fields such as food science and computer engineering, in convergence research and human-centered design."
For many native producers -- be they ranchers or crop-focused farmers -- "it's not just about accessing a market, but creating a market," particularly for those in rural and/or remote locations where broadband internet isn't widely available, according to Erin Parker, executive director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at UA-Fayetteville. Being able to earn a living by selling their product doesn't benefit only them, but it can create more jobs and prosperity in their communities, which is especially valuable on tribal reservations -- many of which battle poverty.
In the U.S., the market value of agricultural products sold by American Indian/Alaska Native producers increased from $3.24 billion in 2012 to $3.5 billion in 2017, and has continued to rise in the years since, Parker said. Over that same five-year period, the number of those farms increased by 7%.
Rural areas have particular struggles with food insecurity, and "we can't leave rural America behind," Parker said. Arkansas is in many respects a rural state, and it's also "such a huge agriculture state, [with] 14 million acres of farmland," but "one in five Arkansans are food-insecure."
Yes, the goal is to bring solutions discovered in Arkansas to a national and even international level, but this project's "impact has to start with populations that need economic mobility," and Arkansas farmers are well-situated to sell products in a time of climate change, Adkins said. "Climate patterns are favorable toward Arkansas, especially in producing several specialty crops."
COLLABORATION AND RESILIENCY
In addition to UA-Fayetteville and the aforementioned startups, teams of researchers from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and the University of Florida are also part of the project, including co-investigators Chase Rainwater, professor of industrial engineering at UA-Fayetteville; Kristen Gibson, professor of food science, UA Division of Agriculture and UA-Fayetteville; Thi Hoang Ngan Le, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering, UA-Fayetteville; and Yasser Sanad, assistant professor of food safety at UA-Pine Bluff, according to Albertson.
"Success of the project will have broader societal implications for the economic livelihoods of small farmers and local businesses, for climate resiliency by creating income streams for farmers practicing regenerative agricultural techniques of mixed farming and crop diversification, and for the increased availability of safe and nutritious local food and metabolic health in local communities."
Building more resilient regional food systems has several advantages, Adkins said. They insulate buyers from global supply chain disruptions, promote sustainability, increase access to healthy, nutritious food, and "keep money in local communities."
Resiliency in regional food systems can also be "replicable," Jung said. "We can show other communities" across the nation and world how they, too, "can become sustainable and resilient."