March/April 2015 Issue
We asked five Arkansas farmers the logistics behind turning sustainable agriculture into sustainable business.
Photos courtesy of businesses
Little Rock Urban Farming
One advantage of urban farming is that it allows you to “stay in tune with the heartbeat and pulse of the community, and constantly get feedback from them that they want the products you are producing,” said Chris Hiryak, director of Little Rock Urban Farming (LRUF), an urban farm on G Street in the capitol city.
“[There is] a rising demand in our nation for not just organic food, but regionally produced food. Communities are being built around their food systems,” he said. “In the Little Rock market, we are having a cultural explosion in the food scene. A ton of new restaurants are focused on serving high quality foods. People want to know where their food is produced, going to want to know the people who are producing it. The trend is going to be towards high quality, regionally based, sustainably produced foods.”
Despite the limited amount of space available, LRUF optimizes every square inch. The farm’s location allows Hiryak to be “not just in proximity” to the community he serves, but also close enough to regularly host events and be very accessible to community members.
In addition to being a resource for the community, LRUF is also dedicated to teaching apprentices and interns, a farmer incubation model that allows people interested in farming to learn through hands-on experience.
“We’d like to take what we’ve learned in our food lab over here on G Street and use that data to push us into the next phase of development, and find a place where we can amplify our production to meet the demands,” Hiryak said.
“Arkansas has some of the richest soil and the most abundant amount of natural resources to produce foods. Our state has a lot of potential to be a major food-producing region,” he said. “I think we need more producers. We need more training. [We need more] people who want to make this their livelihood.”
Dripping Springs Garden
Mark Cain, co-owner and manager ofDripping Springs Garden and longtime board member of the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, foresees a plentiful future for locally grown foods.
“It is a lifestyle choice for a lot of people. They choose to come to a farmers market and find a place to park, walk in and shop rather than going to a supermarket — to participate in the local community and have dollars go to the local community. It takes time do that, just like it takes time to farm organically,” Cain said.
And that’s a shift in decades-old shopping habits.
“With the industrialization of food following the World War, people became like zombies, buying whatever had the brightest package rather than reading the labels,” he said, “People are waking up.”
In the 1980s, Cain and his business partner bought an abandoned blueberry farm; they intended to make a living from market farming. They have been on the farm for 31 years and supply food to a number of Fayetteville locales, directly to consumers at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, and through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
“Our CSA customers have entrusted us with up to $600 of their earned money upfront because they want a secure supply of organically grown products,” Cain said. “In Fayetteville, we have a lot of people who share those sentiments. They know that when they buy something, they are supporting the people. They are supporting local agriculture, and that’s what makes it possible to be a small farmer.”
Cain also sees the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market as a good indication of the years to come.
“It gets bigger every year. It had about a 15 percent growth last year,” he said. “Last year, we had our best sales ever. That’s just been the trend. What’s been amazing is the numbers of 20- and 30-year-olds shopping there. When we started, our customers were much older. The younger people are doing it because it is fashionable and intelligent and hip. We find ourselves well placed in that context. We’ve been able to go from being people on the fringes of society to local heroes. Lots of people feel that way … you get introduced as a rock star. Thirty years ago you were wondering if anyone could even hear you.”
Falling Sky Farm
Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative
“My wife and I are first-generation farmers, bootstrapping it from the beginning,” said Cody Hopkins, co-owner ofFalling Sky Farm. “We didn’t grow up on a farm, nor did we have a lot of farming experience. We read about some farmers doing this … saw the demand in local, sustainably produced products and thought, ‘Let’s give this a go and see if we can create a viable business, create a good livelihood for ourselves, our families and our community.’”
It’s worked out well for them.
“On the customer demand side, it’s been incredible,” Hopkins said. “We’ve never had a problem finding customers to sell the products to. Usually it’s the opposite — people beating down the door.”
Falling Sky Farm completes the pasture-to-plate circle, Hopkins said. By hand-delivering the food to restaurants and people in central Arkansas, there is no need for a middleman.
“We deliver packages of meat straight to peoples’ homes,” Hopkins said. The process is convenient for the consumer and “gives them a direct connection to the farmer,” he said.
In an effort to run efficient farms and keep the overhead costs low, Hopkins and eight other farmers around the state recently formed the Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative.
“At its core, it is a way for us to work together to break down the barriers related to the infrastructure issues that we face,” he said.
Hopkins serves as the general manager of the cooperative. The network of farmers will allow everyone to “work together by delivering products together and working under the same standards,” he said.
Hopkins sees the direct-to-consumer movement blossoming in the upcoming year, benefitting both the farmer and the consumer. The Grass Roots Cooperative caters to the movement. Working together in a cooperative manner enables farmers to “create something that is much more efficient than you can do by yourself.”
“[People] are being more conscious about their food decisions,” said Hopkins. “I also think people are starting to realize that what they are eating is a political act. You vote with your fork. What you eat affects your community, your environment. I think it is a trend that is going to continue to grow.”
Freckle Face Farm
“We got more interested in food and where it came from, and it literally blossomed after we got a milk cow and people came out of the woodwork,” said Mitchell Latture, owner and operator of Freckle Face Farms. “Friends and family wanting milk sparked an idea that maybe we could do it and make it our livelihood.”
Latture, his wife, and their seven kids all work together. “We are a family farm,” he said.
Recently, the Lattures stopped the milking operation on the farm to focus more attention on producing meats.
“The food scene has blossomed in Little Rock over the last several years,” Latture said.
That includes use of locally sourced foods in restaurants, something that’s not an easy task for a restaurateur. “You have to give them credit,” he said, as the restaurant owners have to go to a dozen farms to source local foods, rather than one supplier.
Latture sums up the future of his farm in one word: changing.
“We are in the middle. We’ve come off our best year ever and as far as the demand, it is just unreal. People are looking and really wanting to know where their food comes from and how it’s raised,” he said.
Despite the farm’s success, change is necessary. “We’ve found that after this year, that we just can’t do enough and stay a small family farm,” he said. “The path we were going to have to go is pushing against the model we were wanting to keep: small numbers of animals and do it all ourselves.”
For Latture, the Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative came at the perfect time.
“[We were] working ourselves to death without being able to sustain it,” he said. “We’re excited about [the cooperative]. Ideally what that will do for us and other small farms is what we initially set out to do. We had access to land, and we wanted to start a farm and raise our kids out here on the land.”
By handling the processing and distribution of products, the co-op will take the burden off of small farmers, Latture said.
“In fact, we are kind of to the point where we were going to have to look for work off the farm,” he said.
Currently, the farm sells all it produces.
“The demand is there. The customers are loyal,” said Latture. “We run out of bacon every week. “It’s a catch 22,” he said, hopeful that the co-op will take “the burden off of us and ensure a steady supply of bacon, for example, for our customers.”
Laughing Stock Farm
With one foot in conventional farming, the other in organic, Josh Hardin has dedicated his life to making farming a sustainable livelihood. Hardin, a fifth-generation farmer and manager of the family-owned Hardin Farms, founded the smaller, organic Laughing Stock Farm in 2009.
“Organic is more of a holistic approach. It is a whole-farm approach. The whole health of the farm is taken into account. The conventional farm is about the crop,” Hardin said. “Organic is more sustainable because you’re addressing the whole farm every day — addressing your impact on the water, the forest, the guy down the hill.”
As a result, the costs to run an organic farm are higher, as is the cost to buy organic foods.
In both the organic and conventional platform, farming is a full-time job for Hardin. “Both farms run 51 weeks out of the year,” he said, noting he employs from eight to 15 people between the two farms.
“I’ve been around this business most of my life, and I’ve definitely seen in the last five to 10 years a major increase … the demand and the willingness of people to go to the extra work to buy local, to have a real relationship with the producers, has really increased.”
Hardin grossed $19,000 in sales last year at Laughing Stock Farm, and $150,000 at Hardin Farms. He attributes his success to a more focused approach to farming.
“The old produce business was all about getting bigger and scaling up. In the small farm world, in the family farm world, we are all realizing scaling up is killing us. We are having to scale down and get better at what we do rather than scale up and be less efficient. We are growing more diverse crops,” Hardin said, “I see that as being critical to the strength of the farm.”