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Thousands of Little Rock residents have spoken: They want veggies, and bread, and honey this summer. And they want them local.
While most folks are perfectly happy buying their tomatoes and lettuce from a Kroger or Wal-Mart store, there is a growing network of consumers and suppliers — the hot current term for them is “locavores” — looking for something more: fresh produce, delivered as close to the farm where it was grown as possible without it still being attached to the vine. The local food movement — an infrastructure, really; of suppliers, consumers, methods of distribution and outlets — has been slowly gaining steam in Little Rock for almost a decade now, and it looks like it is finally ready to break through into the mainstream.
Local-food grocery The Station on Markham is open and Argenta Market on Main Street in North Little Rock should be open by the time you read this. A local-food cafe is in the works. There are competing farmers markets on opposite sides of the Arkansas River. Online, Little Rock consumers are clamoring to pay premium prices for backyard-grown produce through a local food-buying club, where demand is outstripping supply by far.
In short, being passionate about eating local is not just for idealists and politically active college kids anymore. It's actually doable, by real people, with lives.
For growers, it's all about getting back to nature, making use of fallow ground, and saving the planet and the family farm. The motives of customers are just as widespread: everything from avoiding burning thousands of gallons of fossil fuels getting a California strawberry to your plate, to helping out the local economy, to the simple comfort of being able to look the person who grew your radishes in the eye. Whatever the case, it's clear that the cogs in Central Arkansas's local food machine are finally starting to mesh.
If the figures from the USDA are any measure, lots of people want to eat produce grown closer to home. According to their figures, in 1998, there were 2,746 local farmers markets in the U.S. By summer 2008, that number had grown to 4,685 — a number which had jumped 6.8 percent since 2006 alone.
Jody Hardin is the executive director of the Certified Arkansas Farmer's Market. His local-foods-only grocery store, Argenta Market, is soon to open in North Little Rock. On the lot next door to Hardin's store is the Argenta Certified Farmer's Market.
The market is open only to Arkansas farmers and Arkansas-grown produce, with participants vetted via visits to their farms. Hardin, considered one of the godfathers of Little Rock local food, started a locally-grown food basket subscription service in 2005. Over time, the service has grown to serve 340 families, each paying $60 a month for a basket containing a selection of meat, dairy, cheese or produce from Arkansas.
Hardin said the North Little Rock farmers market was born out of his frustration with the Little Rock Farmer's Market. Though the Little Rock Farmer's Market has done more to try and alert consumers about what is locally grown and what isn't, it allows what Hardin calls “resellers,” sellers who buy produce through some of the same providers who sell fruit and vegetables to the chain grocery stores.
“We were over there competing with Florida tomatoes,” Hardin said. “It was not fair … Farmers were miserable.”
Finally, one of Hardin's friends, a “big farmer” who grew produce on a larger scale than most sellers, told Hardin that they should start their own market. Six of the local farmers went with him, and last year the Argenta farmers market was born. It debuted for another season April 18 at the corner of Sixth and Main in North Little Rock.
“Farmers have to be inspected,” Hardin said. “The can't bring anything they don't grow or a member farm doesn't grow. It's very strict, but that's to keep the dern Florida strawberries out of the market.”
In addition to his grocery store and the market, Hardin is in talks right now to convert the former site of the Prime Quality Feed Mill in Argenta into a kind of slow-food hub, with a farmer's market pavilion, organic milk bottling plant, and local food warehouse. He said that both a culinary academy and Diamond Bear brewing of Little Rock have expressed interest in relocating for the project.
Hardin said that there's nothing wrong with eating food that isn't local, but tries to strike a 50/50 local/commercial balance in his diet. A fifth-generation farmer, Hardin said that his desire to eat local springs from wanting to help out local growers. “When I was 15, our farm was bordering on bankruptcy every year,” Hardin said. “We could grow this beautiful produce, but there was no channel to get it to the people. I set my mind early to figure out a solution.”
Helping get local produce to the consumers is Sylvia Blain, with the Local Foods Initiative in Little Rock. Blain said the group's main focus right now is helping school and community gardens get off the ground, and working to close the gap between customers and farmers. There is overwhelming demand for local produce in Little Rock right now, Blain said. The problem is that there just aren't enough growers to supply it. Many of those who do raise produce are still unsure the market is there, and are reluctant to take on more work and risk on a maybe.
Blain said that while some consumers buy local because of concerns over industrial food farming and long-distance shipping, a big part of the equation is the personal connection between the consumer and the farmer. When you buy local, Blain said, you're often dealing directly with the person who grew your food.
“There is a measure of trust and accountability that you really don't have [with mass produced food],” Blain said. “When you buy a can of peas, you have no idea what farm those peas came from. You have no interpersonal relationship.”
Blain said that because eating is such a mundane act — something most of us do three or four times a day without thinking about it — most people don't really consider the impact of where their food comes from. While she said you can't be too big of a zealot about eating local (she loves her coffee, she said, and farmers aren't going to start growing that in these parts any time soon) she believes people do need to think about what their food really costs.
“We are paying artificially low prices for foods that are coming to us from anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 miles away, and the people who are growing those foods are living below the poverty line so we can do so.”
At the other end of the local food chain is Dwayne McFarlan. McFarlan is a member of the Local Food Buying Club, available through the Arkansas Sustainability Network at littlerock.locallygrown.net. McFarlan also volunteers to help run the club, and — thanks to the two beehives he keeps behind his Hillcrest home (yes, it's legal to keep bees in Little Rock, and in most every city in Arkansas except Hot Springs Village) — he also sells honey through the club. Every Monday morning, the ASN sends out an e-mail to those who have signed up for their Local Food Club mailing list, informing them that online orders are being taken. Orders come in until Wednesday at noon, with shoppers selecting both the quantity of produce they want and the grower. The club totals up the purchases, and the produce is delivered on Saturday morning at Christ Episcopal Church at Sixth and Scott in Little Rock.
McFarlan said that as a seller, buyer and volunteer, he has been very impressed with the quality and variety of produce sold through the club. Prices are comparable with what you might find at an organic food supermarket like Whole Foods. He has enjoyed the sense of community attachment the club fosters. “It's all about supporting local people,” he said. “I want to know who I'm giving my money to for vegetables, and to know that that's supporting their livelihood. I want to know that they're putting the same care into producing my food as they put into the food for their family.”
Like most of the folks we talked to, McFarlan said you don't have to be “militant” to eat locally. “It doesn't necessarily mean you can't have that banana or that strawberry in the middle of December,” he said. “But you're more cognizant of: ‘What has it taken to get this to me?' … It just gets you thinking about the food choices you're making.”
The Local Food movement is gaining ground in the world of not-for-profits as well. Mary Christine Coon is one of the co-founders of the Backyard Garden Project, which seeks to provide those who receive assistance from food pantries with fresh produce — and eventually the know-how to grow their own — by helping people in the inner city set up backyard gardens. Coon said she got the idea from a similar program she worked with in West Oakland, Calif. Last summer, the Backyard Garden Project helped set up four raised bed gardens for individual families, and another for the Helping Hands Food Pantry.
“There's definitely a demand for local food from the consumers end,” Coon said. “But there's also a lot going on in the non-profit aspect of it — not just providing local, fresh food for people who can afford it, but also for people who need it and who have the same basic right to be healthy and not be misled about what they're consuming.”
Coon said that for those who don't live in the country, growing produce can be life changing. “I feel like seeing a seed grow into something that you can eat is a really cool way to be connected to nature,” Coon said. “If you live in the city, you might not know about that, or value it.”
Getting to both fresh produce and that life changing experience is also the plan at Felder Farm, a large garden now bursting into fruit at Felder Academy, a charter school for at-risk kids near the airport. Ragan Sutterfield is one of the brains behind the farm. This spring, before the final frost, a city bulldozer came in and scraped up a neat rectangle of black river bottom dirt where a Bermuda grass field had been. Since then, students at the academy and local children have helped tend the garden. They've already harvested greens, and strawberries will soon be ready for picking. Before long, there will be peas, garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, carrots and more. There have been three “shares” in the garden sold to local residents, who will receive weekly allotments of produce. Sutterfield said he hopes the garden will produce enough to sell through the ASN food club, and food from the plot will be served in the school cafeteria as well.
Like Sylvia Blain, Sutterfield said that the biggest problem with Little Rock's local food movement right now is there isn't enough supply to meet the demand. Though Arkansas is an agriculturally rich state, only a relative handful of large-scale farmers grow produce, as opposed to soybeans, cotton or rice. In his grandparents' day, Sutterfield said, people were closer to nature and more informed about what went into getting their food from farm to table. Today, most people can't even say for sure whether or not their tomato or apple came from North America.
“It makes it more difficult for people to make informed choices about what they buy, because they don't know the processes that went into their food before they purchased it — pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, things like that. Those are just abstractions without having some hands-on involvement in the process.”
Sutterfield said that while commercial growers have bred produce to be cosmetically appealing and easy to ship, that same produce often lacks in taste and variety. Growing locally, Sutterfield said, makes sense both from the standpoint of preserving genetic diversity and food security.
“Gas prices are a dollar or two a gallon now,” he said, “But shipping food around the country requires a lot of money and a lot of infrastructure. Because it's so centralized, it's easily disrupted. We would prefer that people have a variety of sources.”
For the kids at Felder, Sutterfield said that working in the garden will bring them closer to nature, and help them understand the food chain. “We also use it as an educational platform, to talk about everything from business planning to marketing and all aspects of the farm.”
Jack Sundell is a fixture on the local food scene. Currently, he's planning an all-local restaurant called The ROOT Cafe. Sundell said that many Americans are starting to live a more conscious lifestyle, including making choices about where their food comes from. He sees signs that the local food infrastructure, nearly dead for 20 years or more thanks to the prevalence of supermarket giants like Kroger and Wal-Mart, is starting to come alive again. “The system we've created is so upside down that it's easier to find strawberries from California [in Little Rock] than it is to find them from Arkansas,” Sundell said. “It's easier to find greens from Minnesota than it is to find greens from here. Why have we gotten to that point?” Sundell said that within the local food movement, a big debate is over which is better: organic versus local. That is: Is it better to eat an organic apple from Washington state or to eat a conventionally-grown apple that was produced in Arkansas? One traveled thousands of miles, in a fume-belching truck or train. The latter was likely sprayed with pesticides. It's only a small piece of the larger local food puzzle.
Sundell believes that for many people, eating locally comes back to a desire for more involvement in the community. “When you get back to the basics, food and community are so inextricably linked,” he said. “Take something like canning [at home] for example. Back in the day when people canned and they had to can to survive through the winter, you didn't just have one family can their stuff. … Everyone got together and made a big social event out of it.”
While Sundell said that lining up local suppliers for a restaurant is much more labor intensive than lining up suppliers who get their meat, cheese and produce from anywhere, he thinks the payoff will be worth it. He said that people are ready to eat locally again, with their choices limited by Mother Nature.
“If you eat foods in their proper time, you don't really miss the foods that aren't available as much,” he said. “Foods come to represent seasons.”
Holly Ingebo, the co-owner of the new local-foods market called The Station, agrees. Her store, situated in a refurbished wallpaper store at the fork of Markham and Kavanaugh, has been open since Feb. 21, long before the bounty of the summer growing season began trickling in. Nonetheless, consumer excitement about The Station's local food potential has already been high.
“People have an emotional response to food, and people respond really well when they know where their food comes from and who grew it and how it was grown,” Ingebo said. “It's fresher, it's picked in season, it teaches people how to cook seasonally. They start understanding where food comes from and in what season things are grown.”
Ingebo said that people need to know what goes into their food, both for their health and the well-being of the environment. She notes that America has a health care crisis right now — something that might be solved if only people would eat healthier.
“There are so many toxins in the environment that we don't have control over: the air we breathe, what's in our homes, what's coming through the city water,” she said. “But what we do have control over is the food we eat — if we take more responsibility of knowing where it comes from and how it was grown.”