Local foods highlight discussions at OFPA convention

April 11, 2014
Contact Information:

Renee Threlfall, Ozark Food Processors Association
479-575-4607 / ofpa@uark.edu

Dave Edmark, Agricultural Communication Services
479-575-6940 / dedmark@uark.edu

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SPRINGDALE, Ark. – An “Arkansas Grown” branding program has been launched by the state to help consumers identify locally grown food, Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Butch Calhoun told the Ozark Food Processors Association convention on April 9.

“This program is going to grow,” Calhoun said during his address to the OFPA’s 108th Annual Convention and Exposition with the theme of “Farm to Fork: Going Local.” Calhoun said the branding is being used by producers, retailers and restaurants statewide. Starting in May the program will be featured both in a mobile app and a state food and farm guide to be published.

The program’s website at http://arkansasgrown.org provides details on how Arkansas residents may list their marketing information there and enable potential buyers to locate producers in the state. It also has a form so producers may apply to use the Arkansas Grown branding logo. The department also publishes an annual magazine, Arkansas Grown, that highlights local producers’ efforts.

Calhoun said Arkansas agriculture is poised to help meet world agricultural demands in coming decades as global population increases. The state’s climate, water, infrastructure, research efforts and producers are all assets. “We’re in a great position,” he said. “We just need to keep doing what we do.”

Mark Cochran, UA System Vice President for Agriculture, welcomed the audience to the convention and noted the theme of local foods. Farm-to-fork agricultural issues comprise an emerging area in which the Division of Agriculture is adjusting its programs, he said. Cochran cited figures from the 2012 federal Census of Agriculture that showed direct sales of product by Arkansas farmers had reached about $2 million.

“It’s a growing entity and an area with promise,” Cochran said. He also pointed to the Food Innovation Center operated by the Division of Agriculture through the Food Science Department as an example of providing services to small startup food businesses.

Wal-Mart Stores defines “local” as a product grown and sold in the same state, said Lea Jepson, the company’s senior director for temperate vegetables and floral. Some farmers deliver their products directly to a particular store and others deal through one or more of the 42 distribution centers across the nation. It’s a challenge for Wal-Mart to buy from thousands of farmers but customers appreciate it, Jepson said.

Much of the agricultural product that Wal-Mart buys from farmers comes from Washington, California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Jepson said the company hopes to get more products from farmers elsewhere in the nation who are closer to its distribution centers and stores.

One such farmer who began that way was Dave Sargent, who grows produce at Sargent Farms in Prairie Grove. He told the OFPA that he started 14 years ago by selling to one Wal-Mart; then he got a request to sell to two more. The company headquarters later asked him to sell to all 13 stores in the district. Then he expanded to supply the Clarksville distribution center. “I just kept plowing more ground,” he said. Last year he shipped his produce to one-fourth of Wal-Mart’s distribution centers.

Sargent said he hoped for further development of environmentally controlled underground growing areas in which a one-acre plot with controlled lighting can produce more than the output on multiple acres above ground. Such advancements will be necessary to feed the world in the future. “We can do it larger, faster and safer,” he said.

The general public’s increasing distance from farms is partly responsible for popular misconceptions about the role of animals in food production, said Yvonne Thaxton, director of the Center for Food Animal Wellbeing at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “We have a growing disconnect with production agriculture and people have less direct contact with farm animals,” she said.

Exercising proper animal welfare practices is not only the right thing to do but also improves animal performance, Thaxton said. She urged people in agriculture to explain the concept to those who are unfamiliar with the farm operations. “Get the story out through small groups of people you associate with,” she said.

The OFPA convention opened April 8 with its annual golf tournament held at Shadow Valley Country Club in Rogers. Forty-four golfers played in the event with proceeds benefiting the OFPA scholarship fund. Scholarships sponsored by OFPA and its members were awarded to five students from the University of Arkansas Food Science Department. In addition, eight students participated in a scientific poster competition. The convention had 57 exhibitors and 300 attendees.