“Agriculture is the lifeblood of Arkansas; it’s the state’s original business,” says Sharon Tallach Vogelpohl, an Arkansas Rotarian for nearly 20 years. But that business has become more challenging in recent years as row-crop farming has become more commoditized, making it difficult for families who have been farming for generations to make an adequate living.
Vogelpohl, who was club president during the Rotary Club of Little Rock’s centennial year in 2014, says club members wanted to mark the milestone with a project that would have a lasting, local impact. “With all the good that Rotary has done internationally, we wondered what we could do to bring that good home here in Arkansas, which is a very impoverished state,” she says. “What could we do to help our friends and neighbors in our own backyard?” The conversation quickly turned to a farming project.
The Little Rock club (nicknamed “Club 99” because it was the 99th Rotary club chartered) meets weekly at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, which is a tomato’s throw from the headquarters of Heifer International. Heifer is a nonprofit, founded in 1944, that seeks to end hunger and poverty through sustainable agriculture. Given the proximity – and that several Heifer employees are members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, including Ardyth Neill, president of the Heifer Foundation, and Ben Wihebrink, operations director for Heifer USA – the two organizations teamed up to help Arkansas farmers.
Around the world, Heifer teaches farmers how to increase production sustainably and access new markets. It also helps small-scale farmers form cooperatives, where locals can buy produce directly. The goal is to increase a farmer’s profits by about 30 percent while providing the community with more locally grown produce. A key component of Heifer’s method, and the Arkansas project, is the formation of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network – a food subscription service in which consumers buy produce in advance at a fixed price, guaranteeing farmers a market for their crops, regardless of how weather or other factors may affect their output.
In Arkansas, Rotarians fund Heifer’s training efforts, including an informational video, and members offer advice in their areas of expertise, like marketing, finance, and business planning. “Heifer helps the farmers with technical expertise,” Neill says. “Rotary gives them access to individual club members who want to help them directly. That means local folks helping local folks to make a difference.”
The project plan calls for the establishment of a financially independent cooperative by 2018, with 45 or 50 farmers. As of last spring, the cooperative had more than 20 farmers. The CSA network, which had more than 150 shareholders in its first year, grew to 400 in its second. While the project is focused on lifting the economy of Arkansas, which has a poverty rate of 19.2 percent, Wihebrink says Heifer wants to replicate the model. “Once we have the model proven, if we go into Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, or another high-need area, the Rotary club will be a natural in,” he says.
The Little Rock club received a global grant of $60,000 in 2013 to fund the project. Individual Rotarians support the initiative by purchasing CSA shares and using their relationships and connections to bring others into the fold. For example, a Rotary connection resulted in Baptist Health, the largest nonprofit hospital system in Arkansas, agreeing to buy CSA shares for use in its cafeteria. The hospital also created an opportunity for its employees. “Rotarian Troy Wells, CEO of Baptist Health, committed to a block of shares which were remarketed to Baptist Health employees with the incentive of being able to purchase them through a payroll deduction program,” Vogelpohl explains. “Baptist Health has been a great partner to the cooperative by promoting the CSA program to its employees and by purchasing shares for use in its cafeteria.”
Wes Ward, Arkansas’ secretary of agriculture, says the conditions are right for the project to succeed. He cites a Heifer study that calculated that Arkansas spends more than $7 billion a year on food, with about $6.3 billion of that food coming from outside the state. “There’s a significant opportunity [to provide local food] in Arkansas, and small-scale producers can take advantage of it,” Ward says, adding that the time is also right on the consumer side. “People want to know where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and who grew it.”
Vogelpohl concurs. “Over the past several generations, we’ve become pretty disconnected,” she says. “This is a way for us to become more connected to our agrarian roots and culture – by knowing where our food comes from and supporting something that’s making a difference in our economy.”
Still, for a farming project to succeed, there is another obvious need: farmers who want to participate. Enter Joe Carr.
Carr left his job at Whirlpool in 1987 to farm crops full time. In 2003, he started a farmers market that grew to more than 60 vendors. “I come from a family of farmers that go back as far as I can remember, to my grandmother and grandfather in Ukraine,” says Carr, who is 62. “After they migrated to America, my grandmother and grandfather raised sweet corn in Florida. I remember running beside the tractor as they plowed the field. In 1967, we pulled up stakes and moved to Arkansas and got into cattle farming, but I never lost my love for crop farming.”
To help Carr increase profits, volunteers from Rotary and Heifer spent weekends at his farm last fall to build a hoop house – a structure of metal hoops, over which durable greenhouse plastic is tightly stretched to seal in heat from the sun. Carr says that on sunny days, the temperature inside the hoop house, which he refers to as the “high tunnels,” can reach 80 degrees even though the outside temperature is 32 degrees. The hoop house allows him to begin planting earlier than if he had to wait for suitable outdoor conditions and extends his growing season by about three months.
“Building the high tunnels, that was a great boost,” Carr says. “That increased my level of production and increased my income.”
He’s eager to continue to improve. “I need to increase my management skills and knowledge about what I’m doing and how to do it better,” he says. “I’m grateful for the support that I’ve gotten.”
“When you find people like Joe who are committed to growing food in a responsible and sustainable manner, it’s really important to support that,” Vogelpohl says.
So far, Heifer and Rotary’s partnership in Arkansas has brought more local produce to the state and increased profits for farmers. “This project has made sustainable farming a viable way of living for many families,” Vogelpohl adds. “That Heifer and Rotary were able to come together to do that right here in our backyard is really gratifying.”