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Rotary, Heifer program helps farmers provide healthier food to people in their own communities

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Joe Carr bends over to pluck a handful of smooth, dark-green leaves, using a pocketknife to prune weak spots before bundling them with a rubber band and dropping the bunch into an orange crate. 

Eight neat rows of vegetables line the ground under a tunnel of greenhouse plastic, supported by a series of steel hoops.

“I got a little bit of bok choy here. It’s a favorite of a lot of the customers. Generally, I can get about $2 a bunch,” Carr says. “These are totally organic, no chemicals whatsoever, totally healthy, leafy green, and all the vitamins that go with it.”

Volunteers from Rotary and Heifer International built the hoop house, also known as a high tunnel, to let Carr extend his growing season, getting an early start on crops like bok choy and tomatoes. 

Carr is one of 24 farmers scattered across central and southern Arkansas who are engaged in small-scale sustainable agriculture to grow organic produce, filling an increasing demand for locally grown food.

Heifer has been using the small-scale agriculture model for decades to alleviate hunger and fight poverty around the world. The approach has the added benefits of being environmentally friendly and offering healthier food options.

That mission dovetails with Rotary’s mission to grow local economies and improve health, so it’s not surprising the two groups have teamed up on a number of occasions in the past 30 years to improve communities by helping families escape poverty.

The connection has strengthened because several Heifer employees are members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, the city where Heifer has its headquarters.

“Our values line up very well,” says Ardyth Neill, a member of the Little Rock club and president of the Heifer Foundation. “With Rotary, it’s Service Above Self and helping to serve others. Heifer has been working with farmers to be accountable, pass on their gifts, train other farmers, and work together in community. It’s learning to share and care, basic things that work well together.”

Sustainability is the latest trend

Sustainable agriculture, a hot trend globally, refers to a method of growing or raising food without harming the environment, while providing fair treatment for workers and supporting local communities.

In the United States and other developed nations, a lot of food production is controlled by large industrial operations, which produce cheaper food by focusing on a single crop and using specialized equipment to cut labor costs.

But advocates of sustainable agriculture say those operations can also damage the environment by using commercial fertilizers, heavy pesticides, and other chemicals. 

The corporatization of farming has also contributed to the failure of smaller family farms, increasing the poverty rates in places like rural Arkansas. 

In addition, people become more detached from their food. 

Nationwide distribution networks have resulted in food deserts in urban areas, particularly in the U.S., England, and Australia, where poor neighborhoods have little access to fresh produce and instead rely on less nutritious fast foods and packaged products.

Small-scale sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, tends to benefit communities by keeping things local. The money you spend on food stays in your community and helps your neighbor. Farmers maximize land use by planting multiple crops that replenish the soil and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides. If needed, organic fertilizers are used that improve a plant’s root system. 

And many nutritionists say fruits and vegetables grown closer to consumers’ homes keep more of their nutrients.

Consumers are increasingly aware of these health benefits, fueling the market for local produce.

“There’s a phenomenon going on, really nationwide, about people becoming more and more concerned and thoughtful about where their food comes from,” says Sharon Vogelpohl, a past president of the Little Rock Rotary club and a volunteer on the project. “I’m a mother of two. That’s something that I take very, very seriously.”

Jordan Beard, another Rotarian involved in the project, says: “I think people see that they can change their habit around how they eat, and it can make a big difference in their life and health. It’s connected with the idea of a more active lifestyle.”

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Joe Carr of Arkansas works with a Heifer USA adviser who is helping him transition smoothly into full time organic farming.

In Heifer’s back yard

In Arkansas, Rotarians and Heifer USA teamed up after conducting a study that found considerable untapped demand for locally grown produce. According to Wes Ward, Arkansas’ secretary of agriculture, the state spends $7 billion  a year on food, with about $6.3 billion of that coming from outside Arkansas, a state with the nation’s fourth highest poverty rate.

“There’s a significant opportunity in Arkansas, and small-scale producers can take advantage of it,” says Ward. “They can start producing things on much smaller acreage and sell their products at premium prices.”

Carr and the other Arkansas farmers are part 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 crop regardless of how weather or other factors may affect their output.

Heifer provides the farmers with training in sustainable practices and teaches its philosophy of accountability, sharing, passing on training, and self-reliance. 

Rotary members offer the farmers advice in marketing, finance, and business planning, as well as helping market CSA shares. 

The first season in 2014, the CSA had 150 shareholders, including 10 shares set aside for social service agencies and food banks, partly reaching people in food deserts. The number of shareholders has since grown to 450.

“What I like about my CSA basket is that it allows me to share,” says Beard. “I take it to my office because there’s always more than one person can go through. It’s a way to spread the word about what we are trying to do.”

The plan called for creating a financially independent cooperative by 2018. The New South Produce Cooperative reached that goal a full year ahead of schedule, with a manager and four year-round employees overseeing the collection and distribution of shares, while seeking new markets for the farmers’ produce.

One of those new markets is selling mixed greens, microgreens, tomatoes, and peppers in wholesale amounts to grocers with high demand for them, said Ben Wihebrink, operations director for Heifer USA and a Little Rock Rotarian. 

Last year, initial wholesale efforts brought in $60,000.

  • 4.00th

    where Arkansas ranks in the nation for poverty

  • 6.00th

    where Arkansas ranks in the nation for obesity

  • $7.00 bil

    what Arkansas spends a year on food

  • $6.30 bil

    what Arkansas spends to import food

The partnership is also trying to get more of the farmers under high tunnels, allowing them to approach year-round production. High tunnels seal in heat from the sun and can reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit (about 26 degrees Celsius) even when the outside temperature is at the freezing mark. About a third of the farmers have tunnels, many through government subsidies.

Volunteers from Rotary and Heifer spent a few weekends building the tunnel for Carr, who has been farming since he left his job at Whirlpool in 1987. He started a farmers market in 2003 that has grown to more than 60 vendors. The co-op and high tunnel have allowed him to increase his income.

“The beauty of the high tunnel is it gives you the quality you need for public demand,” he says. “Choy, kale, broccoli, carrots, and lettuce will all go through the winter. With the proper crop management, you can harvest all winter long.”

Farming around the world

The tools of small-scale sustainable agriculture look different around the world, but the principles are the same. Noel Mace, Heifer International’s program manager for Africa, explains that cooperatives play a crucial role in bringing together groups of farmers — many with both livestock and crops — and connecting them to markets.

“We are now developing more of a market-driven approach,” says Mace. “Historically, Heifer has spent a lot of time on how to bring poor farmers to a subsistence level where they can feed their families. But our mission is to end hunger and poverty, not to lessen it. Poverty is a big challenge without connecting to markets.”

Volunteers from the Rotary club of Little Rock, Ark., USA, and Heifer built a high tunnel for Joe Carr.

“So the question,” he continues, “is not just how do we make sure you are not hungry, but how do we move you beyond a family-level production to participating with others in a market” that creates income and increases livelihood?

Heifer’s model also strives to increase women’s decision making and encourage groups to form common goals, because when a community faces poverty, everyone’s part in fighting it is crucial.

Africa has a strong dairy program, so much of Heifer’s work there flows out of milk. Tight groups of 15 to 20 farmers join with other groups in cooperatives that then have enough scale to access chilling plants and, ultimately, processing plants. The farmers then look to diversify further by using their milk co-op to sell avocados, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce.

“If I am a consumer, I now can go to the co-op and buy milk, but also buy fresh fruits and greens, and I know it will have the same level of quality,” says Mace. “It’s really about marketing a brand, something I can rely on and know they will have when I go there.”

Mace believes the sustainable farming movement is driven internationally by a growing middle class that wants access to healthy food and can now pay for it.

“They don’t want the broiler chickens anymore with the huge breasts and giant legs. They want local poultry and are willing to pay two or three times more for it,” says Mace. “It creates a great opportunity for individuals to come together and produce poultry, vegetables, or fruits using sustainable methods and in a way this market wants.”

Spreading success

Back in Arkansas, Wihebrink says the larger vision is to encourage others to copy their model. “There is an infinite demand across the (American) South specifically for local foods and organic foods,” says Wihebrink. “And as long as there is consumer interest, there is opportunity to help farmers in many places struggling to make a living.”

Carr says the program has given him a new outlook. 

“Lots of doors have opened up for me along the way, and the biggest was when Heifer stepped in and offered this program and Rotary helped with the tunnel,” he says. “I just didn’t have enough time or money to get (the land) back into production the way things were. By getting this help, that’s got me back in the driver’s seat.”

Read how Rotary First Harvest connects 'ugly' produce and food banks

  1. Rotary Club of Little Rock, Ark., USA, members help build a high tunnel with Joe Carr and Heifer USA. 

  2. Rotary members pull a plastic cover over a steel hoop infrastructure to insulate the high tunnel. High tunnels help farmers extend their growing season.

  3. Rotary members and volunteers from Heifer USA carefully maneuver the high tunnel cover to create a roll down door that will allow farmer Joe Carr to easily open and close the front and drive his tractor through it. 

  4. Joe Carr plants crops in his new high tunnel, which allows him to harvest and sell through the winter months giving him an edge at the local market with fresh produce in December. 

  5. Rotary's high tunnel project created new business opportunities for farmer Joe Carr. “I went for years and years at status quo, like it was nothing would ever change, but all-of-a-sudden, doors start opening up," Carr said. "You look around you and you realize everybody doesn't have the same opportunities. They just walk in the same pair of shoes all their life. So, I acted.”

  6. Joe worked with Rotary members and Heifer USA to learn new business skills. “I think probably the biggest challenge I had was stepping forward into the mold as a manager. I don’t think I was cut out for that. I acquiesced into that side because it's needed for a legitimate market," Joe Carr said. 

  7. Joe Carr’s 16-year-old son, Cordell, helps with administrative tasks of the market, like collecting fees and paperwork from vendors while Joe manages sales at the table.

  8. “I started a farmer's market that was farmer-based, all produce from local farms, no resale of any kind," Joe Carr said. "People thought that's what a farmer's market should be, produce raised by local farmers.”