Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field is a new offering of the ATTRA Web site featuring interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders 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.
Heifer Ranch CSA Serves as Model for Southern Producers
An interview with Emily English and Cale Nicholson, managers of Heifer's CSA garden
By Margo Hale, NCAT Agriculture Program Specialist
September 21, 2006
For over 60 years, Heifer International has worked with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth. Heifer has three learning centers that provide experiential learning for youth and adults and provide working examples of the type of sustainable agriculture they support around the world.
Heifer is well known for its programs of donating animals to people all over the world. They also have extensive programs with farmers and communities in the United States. Heifer Ranch, a hands-on learning center located in Perryville, Arkansas, provides education that promotes sustainable solutions to global hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. Heifer Ranch provides a place for work to be done on sustainable practices. The Ranch is able to experiment with sustainable techniques, and then Heifer's staff are able to use the model and experiences from the Ranch and apply that knowledge to their projects all over the U.S. and the world.
An ongoing project at Heifer Ranch is a community supported agriculture (CSA) garden. One of the goals of Heifer Ranch is to serve as a model for producers, and this project demonstrates that a CSA can be successful in a small southern (Arkansas) town. NCAT Agriculture Specialist Margo Hale recently spoke with Emily English and Cale Nicholson, the managers of Heifer's CSA, to discuss local foods and Heifer's role in sustainable agriculture.
Q. Tell us a little about the Heifer Ranch CSA.
A. Heifer Ranch's CSA is located on 5 acres of certified organic land at Heifer Ranch. We have a 23 member CSA, serving 110 families. We deliver to a central location in Little Rock once a week.
Q. What have you seen come out of this CSA project, with regard to the local food movement in Central Arkansas?
A. We have seen people of all ages become interested in local food. Our members range from college students, to families, to senior citizens. They have become aware of local foods and organic foods, because our CSA is certified organic. It has been encouraging to see so many people interested in wanting fresh produce and wanting to support local food and sustainable agriculture.
We've been able to stress the importance of buying locally, and what that does for farmers. All of our members live within a 40 mile radius of our garden. So they are able to eat food that was grown locally and they know where there food is coming from. We always receive compliments about the quality and flavor of the produce. The members are able to see a difference in local food. We have seen the demand for local and organic food increase through this project. We sold out the CSA, and even oversold some. We can see the demand, and other CSAs like this could be supported in this area. The people we come in contact with are amazed that there are not more CSAs in the region.
It has also been really neat for us because we have been able to sell some of our extra produce to restaurants in Little Rock. So there is a whole other group of people we are able to educate about local food.
Heifer also helped start a farmer's market in Perryville (where the Ranch is located). It is a 25-mile radius home-grown market, and it is doing great. It has helped increase the sale of produce at the local grocery store. People are more aware and interested in vegetables. The growers sell out, and the market is continually getting more growers. They all are able to make some supplemental income, and people are eating local food.
Q. Heifer stresses education in all of their projects. Tell me how you use this CSA as an educational tool.
A.This CSA is an educational experience for all of our members, people in the community, and visitors to Heifer Ranch. Our members are able to come out and see the garden. They can see their food and learn how it grows. It is their garden and we encourage our members to come out any time. We educate our members and visitors about local food versus not local food and we educate about organic and not organic food.
Our members learn about vegetables and what is in season and when it is in season. They learn how to eat fresh food. We try to educate them on how to deal with the supply of food, sometimes you'll have lots of one thing and little of another. The members really start to learn about the climate and what that means for them and their food supply. They see how a drought or heat effects what they eat. We have a couple of field days each year so everyone can come out and learn more about the CSA.
Educating the public is something important that happens at Heifer Ranch. Service groups and church groups come to Heifer to learn what we do here. They get hands on experience with the CSA garden or the livestock projects. So we are able to help educate far more people than our CSA reaches. Heifer Ranch really gets the chance to educate the world about sustainable agriculture.
We also have a weekly newsletter, The Beet, that we send out with information about the CSA. We include recipes, field notes, stories, nutritional information, and profiles on people who help us with the CSA. We also include what they should expect to get in their basket each week. We give them tips on how to plan meals with what they will be receiving. This newsletter goes out to a couple of hundred people and reaches far beyond the shareholders.
This farm is an educational tool. We have people beyond our shareholders that will come by or email us questions. They come to the farm to visit because they want to learn about a CSA and learn more about sustainable agriculture.
Q. How does Heifer Ranch and this CSA help to further the sustainable agriculture movement?
A.Heifer Ranch helps people learn, that is one of the most important things that Heifer does. We are both products of the learning opportunities of Heifer. We both started volunteering here in college. We then went on to become interns here at the CSA. We went on to other things outside of Heifer, but now we are back as the CSA managers.
Most of the work at the Ranch is done by volunteers. Heifer provides extensive learning opportunities in sustainable agriculture. These volunteers and interns are able to leave Heifer with great experiences and knowledge and go on to do other things in sustainable agriculture.
The CSA offers an internship and utilizes several volunteers and workers. Working at Heifer is like a "farmers training program." Heifer provides the infrastructure and allows us and others to come and learn. We've been able to learn so much here and now we can pass on that knowledge.
Our interns here at the CSA do a lot of learning. They learn about irrigation, plant care, harvesting, and delivery. Some of them have to learn what a tomato plant looks like! But they are learning and taking these experiences to further sustainable agriculture projects in other areas.
Q. What do you feel Heifer's role is to the small farmer?
A. Our farm is here on this Ranch to show people that small farming can be done in an environmentally sustainable way and in an economically viable way (in Arkansas and on a really small budget!).
The livestock portion of the Ranch has extensive projects and project partners they work with in the south. We've had to work to educate people that Heifer Ranch has an organic garden and a CSA. It's been neat for us to see some of the livestock project partners incorporate gardening and vegetable production into their operations. They are able to see how the garden plays a part in the whole system to provide for their families.
Heifer Ranch also has several Small Farms Initiative (SFI) projects. Heifer provides the infrastructure for various agriculture projects. Several livestock producers have developed businesses out of that project. In the past they have offered meat products through the CSA by working with the producers working on a SFI project at Heifer.
Q. What is some advice you would give to someone interested in sustainable agriculture or someone interested in starting a CSA?
A. First of all I would encourage people to learn as much as possible. Read, visit farms, get hands-on experience, and get in contact with other sustainable agriculture groups or CSAs. We actually had a hard time doing that because there weren't any other CSAs in central Arkansas.
Don't overdo it! Don't try to do too much too soon. It is a gradual process. We know we couldn't leave Heifer next year and do the exact same thing. You have to have some form of infrastructure and delivery system worked out. You have to have customers!
I think in order for a CSA to be sustainable it has to be an organic outgrowth of the community. You can't just move into a community and all of a sudden expect people to want to pay up front and take on the risk of your farm. To me the definition of a sustainable CSA is that "community supports" the farm. In order for you to feel that what you are doing is worthwhile, it is important to have those people that support you. Especially in the middle of August when it is really hot, their tomatoes are dead, they get 25 cucumbers and they are tired of making pickles! If you don't have those people to send you emails and tell you "thanks for all your hard work, I know it is hot out there" then I think it would be hard to keep going.
This page was last updated on: May 16, 2012