“Everything we do is for our soil,” says Cody Murphree, a 29-year-old farmer who, together with his wife Kodi, run Circle M Farms in Prairie Grove, Arkansas.
Cody, who grew up in Batesville helping on his grandfather’s 3,500-acre row crop operation, is now selling more greens, tomatoes and squash than he is able to grow on his leased one-third of an acre.
“My grandfather might call this more of a truck patch,” Cody jokes, “But what we are doing here is intensive and sustainable small-scale production. There are a lot of benefits to large-scale agriculture, but it also means that we’ve lost that connection to our food. At market, my customers are not only looking at the farmer who grew their produce, but a member of the community who is a responsible steward of their land.”
As Cody looks to expand, he is participating in an innovative, free “matchmaking” program offered by the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust.
NWA Farm Link is an online network that connects farmers looking to access land with owners interested in new opportunities for their property.
Through Farm Link, farmers also have access to a “community board” offering equipment and services, along with legal guidance, networking events and resources to bring their ambition to scale.
The Land Trust is a regional partner of Northwest Arkansas Food Systems, an effort by the Walton Family Foundation to grow and get more local food into the hands of local people.
Susan Koehler, farmland preservation manager for the Land Trust, runs the new Farm Link program, meeting farmers where they are in terms of experience, need and expectations.
“We provide information and support on sustainable and best practices in terms of the overall stewardship of the land, while at the same time acknowledging the experience of our more conventional growers. We want to honor that knowledge across generations.”
Since 2003, the Land Trust has worked with landowners, including some farmers, to conserve more than 4,000 acres of land.
The cost of land is going up for aspiring farmers, and the risks are greater. Farm Link is helping to level the playing field.
Through Farm Link, Susan saw an opportunity to develop additional tools that directly address the barriers that today’s farmers face.
“What we see playing out nationally, we see happening right here in Northwest Arkansas,” says Susan.
“As established farmers age, their children aren’t choosing agriculture. There is no succession plan. On the flip side, the cost of land is going up for aspiring farmers, and the risks are greater. Farm Link is helping to level the playing field.”
These are challenges that Cody has experienced firsthand.
“Financially, it’s a lot harder for our generation, in terms of student loan debt and the higher cost of land in a more urban setting like Northwest Arkansas.”
To support Circle M Farms, Cody travels for work in the off-season with a five-year goal of transitioning full-time to agriculture.
“While we do what we can with what we have, if I knew I was on permanent land I could really expand my operations, invest in permanent practices that would benefit my land and the people around it for years to come.”
NWA Farm Link, now serving four counties in Northwest Arkansas, is part of an existing national network of Farm Link programs.
As part of her job, Susan helps older owners create online profiles, adding badges and detail to help them assess the qualifications of those seeking land. She also is heartened by the commitment and skill of the young farmers with whom she works.
“I’ve been surprised at the number of qualified people who want to grow food for their community. It’s inspiring.”
On the community board, members can find everything from custom tractor work to composted soil to notifications of auctioned farm equipment.
While “true matches”—what Susan calls linking an owner to a seeker—take time, every member of NWA Farm Link has already accomplished a portion of the goals they set out to achieve. Over the long term, she hopes to see more systemic change.
“We are really optimistic that through Farm Link, and through the larger NWA Food Systems effort, we can play a role in preserving more farmland, help owners build their legacy and see not only a return to our local farming heritage, but also the development of an important economic engine.”
Back at Circle M Farms, Cody has used Farm Link to network with owners, and Susan has connected him with a nearby farmer looking to sell equipment, along with support drafting the lease agreement on his current land.
“For a person starting out, they have given me a real jumpstart. As advocates for our local food system, they know what it’s going to take to help my business grow.”