Feeding farming and families

Rotary, Heifer program helps farmers provide healthier food to people in their own communities


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Joe Carr bends over to pluck a handful of smooth, dark green leaves, using a pocket knife to prune away weak spots before bundling them with a rubber band and dropping the bunch into an orange crate. 

Eight neat rows of vegetables line the ground under a tunnel of greenhouse plastic, supported by a series of steel hoops.

“I got a little bit of bok choy here. It’s a favorite of a lot of the customers. Generally, I can get about $2 a bunch,” Carr says. “These are totally organic, no chemicals whatsoever, totally healthy, leafy green, and all the vitamins that go with it.”

The tunnel of greenhouse plastic, called hoop house or high tunnel, was built by volunteers from the Rotary Club of Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, and Heifer International.

The tunnels allow Carr to extend his growing season, getting an early jump on things like bok choy and tomatoes.

With help from Rotary and Heifer, Carr is one of 24 farmers scattered across central and southern Arkansas who are engaged in small-scale sustainable agriculture to grow organic produce, filling an increasing demand for locally grown food.

Heifer has been using the small-scale agriculture model for decades to alleviate hunger and fight poverty around the world. The approach has the additional benefits of being environmentally-friendly and providing people with healthier food options.

That mission dovetails nicely with Rotary’s mission to grow local economies and improve health so it’s not surprising the two organizations have teamed up on several occasions in the past 30 years to improve communities by helping families climb out of poverty.

The connection was strengthened because several Heifer employees are members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, where Heifer’s headquarters is located.

“Our values line up very well,” says Ardyth Neill, a member of the Little Rock Club and president of the Heifer Foundation. “With Rotary, it’s Service Above Self and helping to serve others. Heifer has been working with farmers to be accountable, pass on their gifts, train other farmers, and work together in community. It’s learning to share and care, basic things that work well together.”

Sustainability is the latest trend

Sustainable agriculture, a hot trend globally, refers to a method of growing or raising food without harming the environment while providing fair treatment for workers and supporting local communities.

In the United States and other developed nations, a lot of food production is in the hands of large industrial operations, which produce cheaper food by focusing on a single crop and using specialized equipment to eliminate labor costs.

Those operations can also damage the environment by using commercial fertilizers, heavy pesticides, and other chemicals.

The corporatization of farming has also contributed to the failure of smaller family farms, increasing the poverty rates in places like rural Arkansas. 

In addition, people become more detached from their food. 

Nationwide distribution networks have resulted in food deserts in urban areas, particularly in the U.S., England, and Australia, where poor neighborhoods have little access to fresh produce and instead rely on less nutritious fast foods and packaged products.

Small-scale sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, tends to benefit local communities by keeping things local. The money you spend on food remains in your community and helps your neighbor. Land use is maximized by planting multiple crops that replenish the soil and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Organic fertilizers are used that improve a plant’s root system. 

And fruits and vegetables grown closer to consumer’s homes retain more of their nutrients.

Consumers are increasingly becoming aware of these health benefits, fueling a growing market for local produce.

“There’s a phenomenon going on, really nationwide, about people becoming more and more concerned and thoughtful about where their food comes from,” says Sharon Vogelpohl, a past president of the Little Rock Rotary club and a volunteer on the project. “I’m a mother of two. That’s something that I take very, very seriously.”

“I think people see that they can change their habit around how they eat and it can make a big difference in their life and health,” says Jordan Beard, another Rotarian involved with the project. “It’s connected with the idea of a more active lifestyle.”

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Joe Carr of Arkansas works with a Heifer USA adviser who is helping him transition smoothly into full time organic farming.

In Heifer’s back yard

In Arkansas, Rotarians and Heifer USA decided to team up after conducting a study that determined there was considerable untapped demand for locally grown produce. According to Wes Ward, Arkansas’ secretary of agriculture, the state spends $7 billion a year on food, about $6.3 billion of that coming from outside the state, and ranks fourth in the nation in poverty.

“There’s a significant opportunity in Arkansas, and small-scale producers can take advantage of it,” says Ward. “They can start producing things on much smaller acreage and sell their products at premium prices.”

Carr and the other Arkansas farmers are part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network — a food subscription service in which consumers buy produce in advance at a fixed price, guaranteeing farmers a market for their crop regardless of how weather or other factors may affect their output.

Heifer provides the farmers training in sustainable practices and instructs them in the organization’s philosophy of accountability, sharing, passing on training, and self-reliance. 

Rotary members assist in offering the farmers advice in marketing, finance, and business planning, and help market CSA shares. 

The first season, the CSA had 150 shareholders, including 10 shares set aside for social service agencies and food banks, partly reaching people in food deserts. The number of shareholders has since grown to 450.

“What I like about my CSA basket is that it allows me to share,” says Beard. “I take it to my office because there’s always more than one person can go through. It’s a way to spread the word about what we are trying to do.”

The plan called for the creation of a financially independent cooperative by 2018. The New South Produce Cooperative reached that goal a full year ahead of schedule and has a manager and four year-round employees who oversee the collection and distribution of shares, and seek new markets for the farmers’ produce.

One new market is wholesale distribution. Ben Wihebrink, operations director for Heifer USA and a Little Rock Rotarian, said the co-op has selected four high demand crops — mixed sale greens, micro greens, tomatoes, and peppers — for delivery to local grocers, allowing the farmers to grow a significant volume beyond what could be absorbed by CSA shareholders. 

Last year, initial wholesale efforts brought in $60,000.

  • 4.00th

    where Arkansas ranks in the nation for poverty

  • 6.00th

    where Arkansas ranks in the nation for obesity

  • $7.00 bil

    what Arkansas spends a year on food

  • $6.30 bil

    what Arkansas spends to import food

The partnership is also trying to get more out of the farmers under high tunnels, which seal in heat from the sun and can reach 80 degrees even when the outside temperature is 32, so they can get closer to year-round production. About a third of the farmers have tunnels, many through government subsidies.

Volunteers from Rotary and Heifer spent a few weekends building the tunnel for Carr, who has been farming crops since he left his job at Whirlpool in 1987. He started a farmers market in 2003 that has grown to more than 60 vendors. The co-op and high tunnel have allowed him to increase his income.

“The beauty of the high tunnel is it gives you the quality you need for public demand,” he says. “Choy, kale, broccoli, carrots, and lettuce will all go through the winter. With the proper crop management, you can harvest all winter long.”

Farming around the world

The tools of small-scale sustainable agriculture look different around the world, but the principles are the same. Noel Mace, Heifer’s program manager for Africa, explains cooperatives play the crucial role in bringing together groups of farmers — many with both livestock and crops — and connecting them to markets.

“We are now developing more of a market-driven approach,” says Mace. “Historically, Heifer has spent a lot of time on how to bring poor farmers to a subsistence level where they can feed their families. But our mission is to end hunger and poverty, not to lessen it. Poverty is a big challenge without connecting to markets.”

Volunteers from the Rotary club of Little Rock, Ark., USA, and Heifer built a high tunnel for Joe Carr.

“So the question,” he continues, “is not just how do we make sure you are not hungry, but how do we move you beyond a family-level production to participating with others in a market” that creates income and increases livelihood.

Heifer’s model also strives to increase women’s participation in decision-making and encourage groups to form common goals because when a community is facing poverty, everyone’s participation is crucial.

Africa has a strong dairy program, so a lot of Heifer’s work there flows out of milk. Tight groups of 15 to 20 farmers join with other groups into cooperatives that then have enough scale to access chilling plants, and ultimately processing plants. The farmers then look to diversify further by getting into crops, using their milk coop to sell avocados, lettuce, tomatoes and other produce.

 If I am a consumer, I now can go to the coop and buy milk, but also buy fresh fruits and greens and I know it will have the same level of quality,” says Mace. “It’s really about marketing a brand, something I can rely on and know they will have when I go there.”

Mace believes the sustainable farming movement is driven internationally by a growing middle class that wants access to healthy food and now has the ability to pay for it.

“They don’t want the broiler chickens anymore with the huge breasts and giant legs. They want local poultry and are willing to pay two or three times more for it,” says Mace. “It creates a great opportunity for individuals to come together and produce poultry, vegetables, or fruits using sustainable methods and in a way this market wants.’’

Back in Arkansas, Wihebrink says the larger vision is to encourage others to replicate their model. “There is an infinite demand across the (American) South specifically for local foods and organic foods,” says Wihebrink. “And as long as there is consumer interest, there is opportunity to help farmers in many places struggling to make a living.”

Carr says the program has given him a new outlook. “Lots of doors have opened up for me along the way and the biggest was when Heifer stepped in and offered this program and Rotary helped with the tunnel,” says Carr. “I just didn’t have enough time or money to get (the land) back into production the way things were. By getting this help, that’s got me back in the driver’s seat.”

Read how Rotary First Harvest connects ‘ugly’ produce and food banks

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