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A normal day at the Little Rock Urban Farming's G Street Farm might consist of breakfast being made at 6 a.m. from fresh eggs and garden produce, a flower bed being cleared to make a wedding bouquet, soil being plowed and covered in compost for a new crop, an outdoor walk-in refrigerator being built, vegetables being hung along the rafters of the shed to dry and fresh-picked peaches being peeled and canned while a large pot of fresh tomato sauce is being prepared for the team's dinner.
Entrepreneur and gardener Chris Hiryak's mission in starting the farm was to educate the community and increase awareness of how consuming locally grown fruits and vegetables can lead to a stronger economy and community. Hiryak, who grew up watching his father tend to his backyard garden, developed his own garden at 19 and fell in love with gardening after the first year, he said.
Hiryak learned advanced farming techniques while participating in an apprenticeship program at Dripping Springs Garden, an organic market garden operation near Huntsville. Farming made him so happy that he wanted to find a way to incorporate it into his life, he said. In 2009 Hiryak was accepted into the LeadAR Extension Leadership Program, a two-year program developed by University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. The program accepts 25 students who show leadership potential, and it gives them the opportunity to learn about the industry, politics and economics of different communities throughout the state, Hiryak said. "It taught me that I have access to all of these politicians and leaders in our community, and all you have to do is write an e-mail or pick up the phone and you can be an agent of change," he said.
The program gave Hiryak confidence to follow through with his LRUF project, which he launched three years ago. Instead of finding a large area of undeveloped land, Hiryak used the land available around his urban Little Rock home. From there, he created the LRUF apprenticeship program. It's similar to an internship, but the experience is much more interactive than an office job, he said. "An apprenticeship program to me means that you come and you are constantly learning a new skill, and you do that by hands-on practice." he said.
The apprentices live on the G Street farm in a 1920s-era farmhouse at 5910 G, south of the Fletcher Library. They're provided with Internet and a furnished room and a weekly living stipend of $125, as well as a shared living room, kitchen, washer and dryer and other necessary amenities. The farm, surrounding the house on three sides and expanding around the shed behind the house, consists of three large plots and two 30-by-48-foot greenhouses and covers more than an acre. Hiryak expanded the operation in 2011 to a property at Harrison and Kavanaugh Boulevard.
Little Rock Urban Farming is a year-round operation that uses a system of micro tunnels and row covers for winter gardening. The farm produces carrots, beets, broccoli, kale, spinach and "gourmet salad mix" in the winter, Hiryak said.
There are two apprenticeship programs, one that runs from May to August and one from February to November. The "short-term apprentices," who work from May to August, are usually college students who receive class credit for the apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship helps decrease labor costs that are inevitably associated with running a farm, he said. Hiryak was also interested in the program because of the opportunity it gives people to experience the farming lifestyle. "You can go to agricultural schools, but they are largely based around conventional agriculture," he said.
"I think it's wildly successful for its third year," Hiryak said, noting the program's growth from one apprentice the first year, to two the second year, to five in its current season.
"We have people from all walks of life, all ages," he said. One associate, Ben Mathews, is a 28-year-old with a degree in communications and marketing. "He was doing something completely different but he just fell in love and this is his thing now," Hiryak said.
LRUF apprentice Daniel Kiefer joined the program because he wants to have his own farm someday.
College student Amelia Robert is a short-term apprentice who returned to school in the fall. "I've learned a lot about farming and entrepreneurship in general," Robert said.
The six-person "nuclear farm family," Hiryak included, is a close-knit community that shares two meals a day and works 20 hours a week in the garden. The group is constantly learning new things, Hiryak said. "Every night I'm trying to educate myself more and more about how we can grow these different products in a better way and how we can do this for many years to come," he said, "I'm constantly trying to understand soil science and soil microbiology and trying to advance myself so that I can help educate the people that are here with us."
Karl Heinbockel, a previous apprentice, was recently hired as LRUF's first full-time employee. Hiryak and Heinbockel plan to consult with other businesses and nonprofits in the future about marketing, how to move produce to markets, living stipends, gardening practices and input costs.
Hiryak has also created a nonprofit called Little Rock Urban Farming Education Foundation. It's an outreach organization that will educate people about healthy eating and getting back in touch with where their food comes from. The program will be run in collaboration with the Fletcher Library and will begin next spring. Hiryak will continue running the for-profit side of LRUF, which makes money from the sale of garden produce at farmers markets and funds the whole operation.
Little Rock Urban Farming sells its produce at the Westover Hills Presbyterian Church on Tuesdays from 4-7 p.m. and at the Hillcrest Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. LRUF is also involved in the Little Rock Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that provides members with organic produce from the farm. At the beginning of each week, members receive a box of whatever is fresh from the garden, Hiryak said.