Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement.
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Jody Hardin of the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market (CAFM) network, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Jody Hardin is a farmer, economist and activist. In 2005, he and five other Arkansas farmers founded the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market network (CAFM), a farmer-owned and -managed network of outdoor and online markets. Hardin now serves as executive director of the 501(c)6 corporation. CAFM has grown from a group of 25 farmers in 2008 to a group of over 40 farmers in 2009. Their mission is to build a producer-only, source-verified and united network of Arkansas farmers. CAFM plans to open and operate a distribution and aggregation system for Arkansas. This system, also called a hub-and-spoke system, will link central, or hub, aggregation centers with local spokes in all parts of the state. This means Arkansans throughout the state will be connected to Arkansas-produced food.
Jody Hardin of the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market Network
Q. What is CAFM proposing?
A. Our idea is to create an aggregation center for small-scale farmers, as well as mid tier farmers, that will serve as a packer, repacker, warehouse and cold storage and eventually get to the most important part, which is processing. I could see this going as far as a commercial kitchen that produces ready-to-eat foods for schools.
Q. What are the goals of the proposed CAFM hub-and-spoke distribution system?
A. To solve more than just one problem, like the farm-to-school issue, where crops are grown in the summer, when school is out. We have to find a way, if the schools legitimately want to serve local food, to preserve some of those summer crops and extend the season into the school year. So our goal is to build infrastructure. We can do this through our rural communities and farmers if we can aggregate and have a market maker to buy, process and store food for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the food banks, the restaurants, the schools and the institutions.
Q. What other cities or towns around the state have you identified as possible spokes or aggregation centers?
A. The foodshed concept really makes the most sense. We really need a food assessment to do in-depth research into where our food is coming from and look at different foodsheds around the state to see what is grown where, or what is ready for market, or what is potentially ready for market, and then in each region we will build a specialty processor. If it is in the Delta [eastern Arkansas] and they have a million acres of pecans — that's one of the products coming out of that foodshed. So we might, through economies of scale, locate a cracking and shelling plant there, but we would aggregate it at a central facility that is geographically located close to the buyers.
Q. Who will set the prices for products distributed through the hub-and-spoke system?
A. It depends on who the buyer is. The idea is to be farmer-driven (and have) fair-trade pricing. We are going to cooperate, together, if we're going to do anything. For instance, this aggregation center will work with large, national retailers as long as they don't isolate individual farmers and drive their prices down. We will collectively negotiate what our prices are. The national retailers have to understand that we're creating fair-trade markets. That's something different, something they've never dealt with, because we're going to ask for premium, fair-trade prices.
Q. Is this a system that encourages cooperation or competition?
|The Argenta Market, in the CAFM network.|
A. It starts as cooperation, through coordinated development of new markets. Once these markets have been penetrated, and begin expanding, we will need to bring in more farmers to fill a growing demand. I'm looking at other successful models in California, Missouri and Kansas, as well as Amish auction markets, which I think is one of the keys to having fair competition among producers.
Q. Will this system create profits, and for whom?
A. I would love for this to generate profits that are paid back to the farmers as a dividend, or as stock that can be sold when farmers retire.
Q. What has been the reaction from Arkansas farmers? What has been the reaction from Arkansas consumers?
A. Everyone I get time to explain this to seems to understand the logic of aggregation, especially the folks who are interested in an aggressive farm-to-school plan that would turn the existing system on its head. School is out in the summer when the bulk of Arkansas crops come off. I always say, “If you want this food to go into your school, how do we get it processed and stored until the school year?” This part is simple for most people to understand. The farmers who need new or bigger markets think the idea of a central buyer and aggregator with cold storage is a great idea.
Arkansas-grown tomatoes at a CAFM market
Q. What difficulties have you encountered?
A. I'm a volunteer, and I have too many hats to wear to put this together. It will require some focused professionals to sit down with me and hash this out. I think we have a good, simple plan in place for 2010 with Sysco (a food distributor), who owns a warehouse in Little Rock and has a distribution system in place. They have recently returned with a counter proposal that is getting very specific on what we need to do: organize five gap audited farms; form a cooperative (for profit or nonprofit); buy custom boxes with the CAFM brand custom printed for squash, watermelon, peppers and tomatoes; and get group liability insurance for $5 million. All of this adds up to some pretty big money, and I'm still working as a volunteer to get this off the ground.
Q. Are there other states that you are modeling, or will this program serve as a model for other states?
A. Each state seems to have its own issues. I've heard that Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have very well-coordinated local food systems that actually do get local food into their schools, and have centralized, state-sanctioned farmers markets that serve mid-tier, production-oriented family farms. Our project could become a national model, provided we get some funding to do it right, with ample amount of time to get it organized properly.
Proposed aggregation center in Little Rock, Ark.
Q. How can farmers and communities around Arkansas get involved?
A. I need farmers to connect with our website (www.CAFM.locallygrown.net) and post their business description as well as the products they have for sale. This is one of the foundation tools we have been developing that will eventually drive a new, totally revolutionary local food system.
Q. What is your advice to entrepreneurs in other states that want to start something similar?
A. Get busy organizing and coordinating your farmers, (and learn) what they grow and where they are located. Then start connecting the dots with those who want, and most importantly, need local foods.
Jody Hardin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit CAFM's website at www.arkansasfood.net.
This page was last updated on: May 16, 2012