Farming is often thought of as a legacy profession, with farms passed down through families, from one generation to the next. While this is frequently the case, there are those who choose to take up farming with no family connections to the vocation.
With the significant resources necessary to become a farmer, it can be a daunting task to break into the field. That’s where the Walton Family Foundation is stepping in to provide new opportunities for aspiring farmers, while also providing access to fresh food in Northwest Arkansas.
The recently established Northwest Arkansas Food Systems is designed to connect farmers with technical assistance, capital and new markets. In addition, the Northwest Arkansas region is expected to benefit through the increased supply of fresh produce that will be distributed in local markets.
“Northwest Arkansas’ vast natural resources and rich farming heritage offer the necessary ingredients to grow this industry and diversify the local economy,” Tom Walton, Home Region Program committee chair, said in a statement. “Through this new initiative, we hope to reinforce how food grown locally can be a lifeline for communities.”
The Northwest Arkansas Food Systems is made up of three programs: the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust Farmlink, the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food at the University of Arkansas and the Food Conservancy.
According to Karin Endy an agriculture and food specialist working with the Walton Family Foundation, these programs have been strategically designed to create an ecosystem of “uninterrupted growth” in Northwest Arkansas’ community.
Endy said that the Northwest Arkansas Food Systems is designed to become a “national model” in supporting small-scale farmers, providing increased access to capital and increasing access to fresh produce.
Through the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust Farmlink, landowners are connected with farmers who are interested in leasing or buying farmland. As Endy noted, farmland prices are increasing, which limits many from the opportunity to start or scale up their farms.
The second program in the Northwest Arkansas Food Systems is an apprentice program run through the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food at the University of Arkansas. This program takes novice farmers and pairs them with established farms in order to learn the business of farming while helping out.
This apprenticeship program is customized to the needs of the participants and has a curriculum with practical topics, ranging from agricultural, legal, business and more. Endy said that the program has “robust screening on both sides” to ensure that the participants and the farmers are well-matched.
The third leg of the NWA Food Systems is the Food Conservancy, which has opened a food hub in the region that “aggregates and distributes locally grown produce,” according to a news release.
According to Endy, as food comes into the hub, it is getting aggregated and sold to wholesale markets. This was designed to alleviate the burdens imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, farmers were selling to restaurants, and the shut-down resulted in many restaurants limiting or stopping their purchases of local produce. Through this program, farmers have another outlet for selling their goods.
All of these programs, Endy noted, are designed to work together, feeding each other as a unified system. The farm training is designed to result in increased access to farmland and capital access, which results in the production of goods for aggregation and distribution, which ultimately can create a feedback loop of more food and farmers in the Northwest Arkansas region.