Two months after Arkansas agricultural officials gathered at the Governor's Mansion to announce efforts to revitalize the "Arkansas Grown" program, nearly 150 farmers and buyers have added their names to a list of willing project participants.
Arkansas Department of Agriculture marketing director Zach Taylor told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1i6GgQC ) that the program now has more than 500 participants and that most of the new signees are farmers, though buyers such as restaurants, grocery stores, food distributors and even hospitals and schools also are joining.
Taylor said the growth of farmers markets across the state is 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.
The program also works to connect fruit, vegetable and livestock operations with buyers.
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.
"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.
Arkansas Grown is a branding effort designed to help the state's growers promote their products, such as at farmers markets, with marketing elements and by providing a contact point between farmers and potential customers.
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.
Using a 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.
"Our ultimate mission with the model is 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.
Rusty Mathis, general manager of food distributor Ben E. Keith Co.'s North Little Rock division, said the company, which has added its name to the Arkansas Grown list, is getting requests for locally grown produce not just from restaurants 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."
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com