As Joe Carr and his son, Cordell, set out on their 5-acre farm in Booneville, Ark., the morning mist gives way to long rows of kale, turnips and spring greens.
Despite fluctuating demand for local produce from restaurants and markets during the coronavirus pandemic, there is no pause button to hit when you’re a farmer. The family has continued to grow food for their community amid an uncertain future.
“Farming is a labor of love,” says Joe, who has been a grower in the Arkansas River Valley since 1993.
He has noticed a major uptick in demand for local produce since he first organized other valley farmers and launched an outdoor market in 2003.
“Every day I get asked, ‘Do you grow this yourself?’ People want to know where their food is coming from, and that it’s safe, fresh and wholesome.”
As Joe and his fellow farmers look for new ways to reach customers during the ongoing health crisis, one local organization is helping move more of their produce directly into the hands of consumers.
The Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy recently opened a food aggregation hub in Springdale—a refrigerated warehouse where farmers can send their produce to be sorted, graded, packed and sold to wholesalers.
The Food Conservancy is a regional partner of Northwest Arkansas Food Systems, an effort by the Walton Family Foundation to get more local food to local people.
By connecting small farmers to available land, technical assistance and capital, along with improving their access to sales and distribution services, the program is building a national model for small farmers looking to meet growing demand for fresh, local produce.
Run by part-time volunteers and a small staff, the Food Conservancy is committed to serving a diverse group of local growers—including Hmong, women-owned and veteran-owned farms.
While the hub is intended to help farmers gain access to larger wholesale markets over the long term, it is also buying what they can’t sell during the pandemic, gathering each week to box a variety of fresh produce from 16 local farms.
Consumers order online and meet staff at two no-contact pickup locations in the area for a weekly selection of fresh produce from farmers like Joe. The $20 boxes are also now being sold at Harps, a local grocery chain.
The Food Conservancy sold 233 boxes in the first three weeks of the program, moving one ton of healthy produce that would have otherwise been discarded. Whatever isn’t sold is donated to local food banks.
“Having a direct marketplace has been vital to the farmers,” says Diana Endicott, executive director of the Food Conservancy.
“The boxes are helping to sustain folks until restaurants and other large buyers open back up at full capacity.”
Prior to the pandemic, scaling up was already a challenge.
“It’s very much a chicken-and-egg scenario,” says Diana.
“We need to grow demand and supply simultaneously, maintaining affordability and consistency for the consumer while making sure the farmer can make money.”
Of her ultimate goal for food systems in the region, Diana says she is playing a long game.
“There is a real heritage of fruit and vegetable production in Northwest Arkansas. What we are trying to rebuild here doesn’t happen overnight. Being given the support and time to make it happen, in 10 years we’ll be able to step back and say ‘Wow!’ It will be a sustainable system—good for the community and good for farmers.”
As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, new and longtime residents are increasingly interested in the availability of local produce.
At the same time, the region’s lower-income communities need affordable, healthy fruits and vegetables. Food Conservancy boxes are in the final stages of becoming SNAP-eligible.
Northwest Arkansas is becoming a microcosm of what is taking place up and down the food supply chain as the nation weathers the pandemic.
“We knew farmer sales would be down, and if sales go down, they don’t put seeds in the ground,” says Diana.
The ongoing work of the Food Conservancy and Northwest Arkansas Food Systems will help sustain farmers through—and beyond—this crisis.
“The hub is a unique opportunity for our local growers to expand their base and increase operations, which has been a problem in the past,” says Joe. “If we can do that, we can have a solid income, pay our bills and make a living.”