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Waltons set up aid for farms

Program aims to help increase number of smaller growers by Nathan Owens | May 8, 2020 at 1:50 a.m.
Vegetables are offered for sale at the Rogers Farmers Market in this 2015 file photo.

A program aimed at helping small-scale farmers in Northwest Arkansas is being established by the Walton Family Foundation.

The region has deep farming roots. It is also home to farms that grow fruits, vegetables and herbs often sold to chefs, grocery stores or at farmers markets.

"We're hoping to grow more food locally for local people," said Becca Hazlewood, senior program officer of the Walton Family Foundation's special projects team.

Through a new effort, called the Northwest Arkansas Food Systems, the foundation is funding local nonprofits and programs that support small farms, with the goal of increasing the area's grower base. It has awarded $1.5 million in grants to three regional organizations so far, Hazlewood said. The grants went to the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust Farmlink; the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food at the University of Arkansas; and the Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy.

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"The idea grew from local restaurants not having access to locally grown food as prevalently as we'd like to see it," Hazlewood said. There has been a renewed interest with the popularity of weekly farmers markets and restaurants that use locally grown ingredients. The hurdles and costs to get into farming are high, however.

In a recent blog post, Tom Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, said the vision is to "build a food system in Northwest Arkansas that can serve as a national model for food grown locally," while also supporting the local economy. One way to do that is by improving farmers' access to wholesale fresh produce markets. Organizations including the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust and the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food are available so those interested in farming have access to land and educational resources.

Before the Great Depression era it was common for farmers to grow apples, beans and tomatoes for canneries or distilleries, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Benton and Washington county farmers today raise chickens and cows for the most part, supporting the likes of Tyson, George's and Simmons Foods.

There are about 100 farms in the area that grow vegetables for sale, covering a few hundred acres, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture census. More than 50 farms raise fruits and nuts. According to the Walton Family Foundation, the number of farms growing fruits, nuts and vegetables in Benton and Washington counties has grown 45% since 2012. About 500 acres of farmland are not in production, however.

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Hazlewood said the foundation plans to change that. In the next 10 years, she said the foundation wants to recruit 75 new farmers to the region and add more than 1,000 acres of production.

In recent years, farmers have relied on online sales, connections with chefs and seasonal farmers markets for revenue. But sales have declined because of business closures during the coronavirus pandemic.

"They had product. They planted it and were harvesting it and didn't have a place for it to go," said Diana Endicott, director of the Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy. "Farmers markets are doing all they can with the drive-thru and online sales, but face to face was driving sales."

In response to the crisis, her organization is collecting excess produce from some 30 farms and selling a mix of seasonal vegetables and herbs for $20 a box.

Business on 05/08/2020

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