From small businesses to universities and humble vegetables to artisan cheeses, the state of Arkansas is brimming with local agricultural products, and residents are eating them up.
The local food movement has made room for niche products, and those products are in high demand not only at farmers markets, but also in grocery store chains and restaurants.
One new local product in Arkansas is solving two problems: farm waste and fundraising.
In 2008, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance began working with local farmers to get unmarketable produce out of the fields and into the hands of people who can’t afford fresh produce.
“I have not met a farmer yet who enjoys plowing his product into the ground,” says Michelle Shope, director of food sourcing and logistics for Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. “If someone can eat it, that’s what they want.”
So over the past five years, Shope has worked with local farmers to transport millions of pounds of unmarketable produce − fruits or vegetables that are too small, too large or slightly blemished − to seven regional food banks that serve 800 agencies.
“So far this year, we’ve done about 1.3 million pounds, and our long-term goals are 5 to 6 million pounds per year,” she says.
And although the Hunger Relief Alliance is able to keep transport costs down to 3 cents per pound, Shope says she knew as the program grew, it would need additional funding. So she started brainstorming. Something the organization had plenty of each season was tomatoes − because of their delicate nature, many don’t make the cut to leave the farm, so the Hunger Relief Alliance is usually inundated with them.
“When fresh produce comes all at once, you can get a little saturated,” Shope says. “We were looking for ways to preserve all those tomatoes, and it hit us − spaghetti sauce. ”
Shope contacted the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s food science department, and it agreed to process and jar the spaghetti sauce, named Growers’ Gift.
A local chef provided a delicious recipe, and the Wal-mart Foundation awarded the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance a grant to make the idea a reality.
In 2014, Shope says about 12,000 jars of Growers’ Gift spaghetti sauce, labeled with the Arkansas Grown label, will be available to the public. All proceeds from the spaghetti sauce will go back to help fund further growth of their gleaning project.
Artisan Cheese in Arkansas
The local food movement isn’t restricted to fruits and vegetables. Another sector that has plenty of room for niche products is dairy.
What started as a hobby for cheesemaker Kent Walker has grown into a successful small business that provides an outlet for dairy farmers across the state.
“Our commitment to using local products is a complete commitment,” Walker says. “We get cow and goat milk from several local sources. It’s all high-quality milk, because if the ingredients are bad, then you’re not going to have a good product. Starting with good milk is the key, and we have that here in Arkansas.”
Walker began making cheese using his stovetop and the vegetable crisper in his refrigerator. Now, he makes 350 pounds of cheese weekly − five artisan cheeses year-round in addition to several seasonal cheeses − using a 700-gallon cheese vat and a walk-in cheese cave. In the future, Walker will offer tastings and tours in his new downtown Little Rock location.
Arkansas is one of the only places in the United States that you can find local edamame. Eda-Zen Super Premium Shelled Edamame are grown, harvested and processed in Arkansas.
“The soils are very rich in Arkansas and that comes through with a better tasting edamame,” says Raymond Chung, co-owner and CFO of American Vegetable Soybean & Edamame, Inc. producer of Eda-Zen. “The benefit of growing edamame in Arkansas is that we can control how they are grown and cultivated. In many foreign countries they use unauthorized chemicals that can leave a residue on food.”
Producing better edamame in Arkansas led to Eda-Zen being a 2013 sofi Awards finalist for outstanding new product. These outstanding, locally grown edamame can be enjoyed on their own or in soups, salads and much more.
Whether it’s spaghetti sauce, artisan cheese, edamame or local fruits and vegetables, Arkansas farmers and consumers are embracing the local food movement, and everyone is benefiting.