When Brian Foster looks out over the newly-christened Sunny Acres Farm in Springdale, Arkansas, he sees a puzzle to be solved. “Regenerative agriculture is like a really cool game of Tetris,” he says. “Rotating the crops in and out, trying to keep in mind how they all fit together in terms of nutrient uptake, I love it.”
A native of Alpena, Arkansas, Brian has always had an interest in growing food and feeding people. A hobby garden he kept alongside his grandparents grew quickly to 1,500 square feet, with homegrown bounty spilling out over the corners of each bed. At Thanksgiving, he has taken over dinner preparation for his large, aging family.
Brian long dreamed of owning his own restaurant and has worked in food and bar service in the region for years. “When COVID-19 hit, I realized pretty quickly how unstable this industry can be,” he says. “I needed a new career option.”
Through mutual friends, Brian learned about Farm School, an affordable, intensive 11-month program at the University of Arkansas’s Center for Arkansas Farms and Food.
Launched in 2020, Farm School combines experiential learning with core knowledge classes in market-intensive and mechanized agriculture, production, business and legal issues.
Each student who completes the program leaves with a sound farm business plan and the in-field experience to see it through.
The Center for Arkansas Farms and Food is a regional partner of Northwest Arkansas Food Systems, an effort by the Walton Family Foundation to grow more local food and get it into the hands of local people.
This fall, four students will complete CAFF’s Farm School, equipped with the plans and knowledge to begin growing food for their community.
“It’s a tough program,” says Brian. “None of us had a commercial farm background, but we all have the same ideas and dreams of where we want to end up. When you are working in a field in 100-degree heat, a bond is formed, that’s for sure.”
Building that bond, says Jonathan McArthur, farm manager and field educator for CAFF, is an important first step in helping Northwest Arkansas become a national model for accessible, healthy and local food.
“We are building more than just farmers, right? We are building a community, which really is the backbone of any regional food system,” says Jonathan.
Brian is the first in his cohort to start putting his newfound knowledge to action.
“I have a bunch of chef friends who have told me that if I can grow it, they will buy it.” One of Brian’s contacts offered him land – which Brian has named Sunny Acres Farm – in exchange for CSA shares.
On a sunny October day, his Farm School community helped him prepare for the coming growing season. “Jonathan brought equipment, and everyone came and helped. We got our soil prepped, beds set up and pathways laid. It was an awesome jumpstart on spring.”
While he is only temporarily working this land, Brian has big plans for the future. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers favorable, low-interest loans to beginning farmers with at least three years of experience. Through his time at Farm School, he already has one year under his belt and has plans to work with the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to find affordable land for purchase.
Of this final exercise as a cohort, Jonathan is proud of what his students have accomplished.
“As a farmer, especially in a reemerging farm community like Northwest Arkansas, sometimes it can feel like you are the only one. Our workday on Brian’s land demonstrates to our students that helping other farmers is essential for all of us to be successful in the future.”
Depending on the season, Brian plans to grow around 30 varieties of vegetables for what he calls a “true” market garden. “I grew up here, and it’s crazy to see how the market for locally grown produce has changed, even in just the past couple of years,” he says. “The Fayetteville Farmers Market is a weekly celebration of this effort and a reminder that we are building a community driven by local eating.”
Through Sunny Acres, Brian wants to continue the celebration. “Hospitality is a big part of who I am, and I want to be a good steward. I hope our farm can be a community-centered type place, where we grow and cook nourishing food for our neighbors on healthy land.”