Photograph courtesy of Bryan Clifton.
In addition to providing fresh produce and meat for families in Arkansas, New South Produce Cooperative and Grassroots Farmer’s Cooperative supply financial and agricultural support for their member farms. Based in Little Rock and Clinton, respectively, these farmer-owned and operated co-ops connect members to distribution networks, provide technical assistance, and help small farmers raise capital as a collective.
Arkansas ranks among the least food secure states in America. Data from the Center for American Progress shows the average percentage of Arkansas households who were food insecure from 2013 to 2015 was 19.2 percent, the second highest rate in the country. Farmer-owned cooperatives help address the root problems of poverty and hunger in Arkansas, not only by making fresh produce and meat more accessible to local communities, but also by creating a significant number of jobs.
Food cooperatives, grocery stores owned and governed by their members, have been growing in popularity, particularly as a solution to food deserts in low-income and minority communities across America. But despite heightened consumer demand for locally produced food products, small farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. Between 1935 and 2012, the number of farms in America fell by about 4 million, and cropland has been heavily monopolized by industrial-sized farms.
New South Produce Cooperative and Grassroots Farmer’s Cooperative are providing small farmers with the tools they need to keep their small farms up and running. The farmers in these cooperatives have been able to expand their businesses and reach a wider network of consumers thanks to the cooperative business model.
New South and Grassroots were developed as a solution for farmers who had successfully started their own farming operations but were having trouble getting their products from pasture to plate. Members of the co-ops sell directly to their cooperatives, which can then market and sell large amounts of produce or meat.
Ben Maddox, manager at New South, says, “Arkansas, and the South in general, is an incredibly rich agricultural area that is, for the most part, lacking in solid support services for organic farmers. We see ourselves as a market-based solution to this problem that can not only support farmers through increased sales but also act as a collective advocate for the rights, needs, and issues of small organic farms.”
Cody Hopkins, general manager of Grassroots and owner of a Grassroots founding member farm called Falling Sky Farm, said the co-op has been well-received by small farmers in the region. “A lot of farmers who were doing their own independent business have joined Grassroots and turned over their entire salesbase to us because it’s a much more efficient way of doing business, and it allows them to really focus on what they want to be doing, which is farming.”
The co-ops were given financial support from Heifer USA, which is working to help states achieve food security through organic farming cooperatives and farmer-to-farmer mentorship programs. Heifer International is best known for its work overseas in developing nations, but its USA initiative has made an impact in the South. In addition to marketing know-how and development support, Heifer contributed US$3 million to Grassroots to help it grow as an organization.
“In total, we’ve created close to 30 jobs, which is a big deal in rural Arkansas, and that’s not including the individual farms and the impact they’re having on their communities,” Hopkins said.
The cooperatives both operate with the understanding that engaging the future generation of farmers is essential to maintaining food security in Arkansas. “We believe that to really address the barriers to accessing healthy food, you have got to start with the root causes of poverty and unemployment that dominate our rural landscape. For that reason, our focus is on building a company that can support farmer livelihoods and good jobs through sustainable agriculture,” Maddox said.
Sara Brown, business development officer at Heifer USA, says the success of the farmer-owned cooperative model in Arkansas is due in part to national marketplace demand. “Americans want pasture-raised livestock and Certified Naturally Grown and Certified Organic produce, and food distributors are looking to give them that. We want to encourage more farmers to farm sustainably, not only because it will make them a viable livelihood, but also because it is better for our bodies and our environment,” Brown said.
Heifer USA plans to continue developing its cooperative model in Southern Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta, two of the poorest regions in the country. The company is also evaluating the viability of starting cooperative projects in the Northeast. Whether Heifer is working in Arkansas or Zambia, Brown says, “the root of this work is that bringing together communities and individuals that share values, goals, and passions for change can empower each other to become resilient.”