Local produce hub gets help in Springdale

With its $31million budget, the Walton Family Foundation investment at the 45,000 square feet Market of the Ozarks of Springdale is designed to provide local farmers with the facility they need for processing and selling their produce.

The foundation plans to break ground for the new building in June and have it open by early 2024. It is one of many ongoing efforts in Northwest Arkansas that receive funding from Walton foundation to support local farmers.

“We’re trying to think creatively about products that can be made from locally grown foods and help our farmers grow and scale production, become financially viable and at the same time, can provide healthy food year-round for our residents,”Karin Endy is an advisor to the foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Food Systems Initiative.

Endy said that many Northwest Arkansas farmers produce produce on less than an acre and sell directly to consumers at farmers’ markets. “So we had this problem that they weren’t big enough farms to sell into wholesale channels and because there wasn’t enough food being grown locally — specifically fruits and vegetables — it really wouldn’t be a viable business for anyone to come in and set up a business being a local produce aggregator,”She said.

“The goal is to get more local food on local tables, and to provide local food where people typically live, eat and shop, so that it’s not just a farmers’ market,”Endy said.

The market will provide warehouse space, multi-zone cold store to aggregate and distribute locally grown produce, as well as a produce processing area to package food for school lunch trays and frozen vegetable blends that can then be used by institutional food service providers.

Farmers need to have the highest quality produce to sell to wholesalers and supermarkets. Second-grade or ugly produce is often overlooked. The demand for certain produce may change, which could leave growers with surplus.

Shared use commercial kitchens will be available for food entrepreneurs or those who have home-based businesses that want to expand and move to commercial settings. Endy said that this could help small, local food companies who may have lower incomes.

She suggested that the kitchen space could be used for community-focused classes in food education, particularly when not being used by food entrepreneurs such as on weekends or evenings.

A small outdoor courtyard can be found along the side of this building, where you will find walking and biking trails. Food entrepreneurs can use this space to keep their food trucks parked, but they won’t be allowed to do so on a regular schedule.

The Food Conservancy, a non-profit food hub, is currently in its second year of a grant from Walton Foundation. This grant will allow them to combine produce from local farms. The Food Conservancy also offers agriculture education.

Endy stated that she believes the market will be attended by the Food Conservancy farmers who are already involved in the program.

“We’re trying to create a system; how food is grown, processed, transported, gets to market, and make sure that system works effectively, that our small farms are growing, that they have access to wholesale channels, that food is being delivered into the community so everybody has access to it,”Endy said.

FOOD CONSERVANCY

Diana Endicott, Food Conservancy Director, stated that the goal is to provide more opportunities for farmers.

“Without having the market and without having that value added, the risk is all falling back on the farmer,”She said. “So this gives them a vision of what Northwest Arkansas opportunities there are for them, and I think that’s really vital.”

The market could expand the initiatives that the Food Conservancy is currently working on and could help with the growing demand for the Food Conservancy’s assistance to more growers.

Products that farmers sell at the market can also be sent to the conservancy for distribution: “We would be able to put that out on our fresh list or our local list, and people would be able to order it,”Endicott stated.

The Food Conservancy program began in Northwest Arkansas with no facilities or farmers years ago. Its goal was to purchase and sell produce from local growers in order to re-establish a local agricultural system.

In 2020, 16 farmers were involved. Diana Endicott, program director, said that 54 Arkansas farmers were purchased by the conservancy in 2021. This number is growing.

“We’re kind of overwhelmed with the number of people requesting to sell this year,”She said.

Dennis McGarrah, a grower who owns a 160-acre family farm and works with the conservancy to bring another perspective to the problem, that of older Arkansas farmers who are decreasing their workloads.

McGarrah, 65 years old said that he is contemplating downsizing his operations.

“We’ve got to get more young farmers involved,” McGarrah said.

McGarrah’s family farm produces 40 to 50 acres of crops each year, including tomatoes, blackberries and watermelons. McGarrah says the Conservancy has been a great help with his excess tomatoes.

“They have really been a big help to me, with my tomato sales, instead of me having to run to all the grocery stores, I’ve been in business with Harp’s for about 40 years now,”McGarrah said. “When you’re out going store to store delivering, you don’t have any time to do anything on the farm.”

The conservancy also has a Springdale warehouse, a distribution and aggregation facility, with refrigeration capacity, trucks, sales staff, and warehouse space. The conservancy is looking to purchase and sell produce to institutions, schools and distributors, retailers, and restaurants.

The conservancy determines what they will need from farmers by evaluating the market demand and customer needs. The farmer sets a price, and then the conservancy attempts sell the produce at the same price. They try to keep the farms’ produce grading and packaging. Conservancy workers will inspect and pack the produce at the facility before shipping it to customers such as Harp’s supermarket chain (KT Produce local distributor), Allen’s grocery store, Northwest Arkansas Children’s Hospital and Harp’s.

Endicott stated that these efforts could be used as a model for other areas of Arkansas. Endicott indicated that she was looking forward to meeting with someone in Little Rock who would be interested in setting up a distribution and aggregation facility in the capital of Arkansas.

“Because you have the food processing and because you have the support system here with the Walton family, it’s definitely going to change the landscape, but at the same time, it’s also going to benefit all of Arkansas, because it’s developing the infrastructure and the model,”She said.

“I really feel this is a good change, these folks coming in here trying to get this fired up,”McGarrah was also mentioned. “Also, it does people good to know that they’re eating local, they know their farmers,” McGarrah said.

Arkansas Department of Agriculture announced recently a partnership with the Walton Family Foundation to offer the Arkansas Grown Grant Pilot Program to 30 northwest Arkansas farmers from Benton, Washington and Madison counties. This grant funding will allow them to grow more wholesale fruits and vegetables for local market.

You can find more information and the application at https://bit.ly/3LOkIyI.

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