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Reimagining a Just and Thriving Southern Food System: Healthy Food, Healthy Communities, and Healthy Planet

Fostering collaboration among diverse farmers to build a just food system based on regenerative agriculture and healthy food for consumers.

Photo of Andrea Dhamer
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Heifer International

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Grass Roots, a farmer’s cooperative; Cypress Valley, a meat processing facility; and New South, a produce cooperative

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.heifer.org/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Little Rock, Arkansas

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Ozark and Delta regions of Arkansas

What country is your selected Place located in?

The United State of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Even before the territory of Arkansas was admitted into the Union in 1836, the state had a long, storied history with agriculture – seeing every iteration of food system work through its land, from cotton, soybeans and rice to the creation of robust livestock and poultry industries.  We selected our place because of the high incidence of poverty and food insecurity, the history as agricultural communities and our work and team’s deep multi-generational roots in the area. 

While the territory is rich in many natural resources, it is also a land of opposites and increasingly disparate food systems.  In the last 85 years, the region has seen a dramatic decline in the number of farms in Arkansas. “Between 1935 – when farms reached an all-time high of more than 235,000 units – and 1995, the number dropped steadily before leveling off to just under 50,000 farms.”[1] The area also is facing a succession crisis in which younger generations are not following their parents work in agriculture.  A key factor exacerbating this crisis is the rapidly rising costs of farming in the US. The current agricultural market primarily supports farmers that can scale up to service commercial demand, thus smaller production is economically unsustainable, especially for a new, incoming generation of younger farmers. In addition, a powerful and complex history of racial exclusion and declining land ownerships by African Americans in the region has further stymied the pipeline for a new, more diverse, inclusive generation of young farmers.[2] In 1920, one of seven US farms were black-run; by 1992, African-Americans operated one out of 100 farms.[3] 

We want to continue to live here, work here, raise our families here.  We understand that only through regenerative, sustainable stewardship of our land and resources can we create a growing, inclusive movement for multiple generations. We know we can accomplish this through strong, sustainable economic opportunities in agriculture. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Arkansas has a population of a little over three million inhabitants; it has beautiful natural landscapes and resources, as well as a rich, complex history of diverse, resilient cultures.

Geography: Landlocked in the middle of the United States, it shares borders with Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi. Given its size, it also has a varied terrain that can be split into two-halves; the highlands in the northwestern half and the lowlands of the southeastern half. Arkansas is also home to the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges, along with many gorgeous streams, rivers and lakes.   The Southeastern part of Arkansas, along the Mississippi Alluvian Plain, is often called the Arkansas Delta and is rich of alluvial soil formed by repeating flooding of the adjacent Mississippi yielding fertile agricultural areas.

Economy: Once a place almost entirely dependent on plantation agriculture, Arkansas’ economy has evolved and diversified.  The state’s primary agricultural outputs are poultry, eggs, soybeans, sorghum, cattle, cotton, rice, hogs and milk.  Its industrial outputs are food processing, electric equipment, fabricated metal products, machinery and paper products.  Today, only 3% of the population is employed in the agricultural sector even though the sector remains a major part of the state’s economy, ranking 13th in the United States in the value of products sold.

History of cultures and peoples: Before Europeans started arriving to Arkansas in the 1540s, the area was inhabited by diverse indigenous peoples for thousands of years prior.  Throughout its history, rural communities in Arkansas faced significant social and economic challenges.  In lead up to the U.S. civil war in 1860, slavery became a contentious issue that shaped geographic divides that remained for decades.  Owners in the cotton plantation economy in Southeast Arkansas firmly supported slavery as the only viable means for harvesting commodity crops and the hill country of the Northwest was unable to grow cotton at scale and had to rely on subsistence farming economies.

After the South’s defeat to the North, Arkansas was restored to the Union in 1868, however deep racial and social rifts remained.  In the late 1800s legislation passed to further disenfranchise blacks and poor whites. In 1954, via a Supreme Court decision, Arkansas was at the center of a federal mandate to integrate white and black students in state schools. Today, social issues are exacerbated by low educational attainment.  Arkansas ranks near the bottom in terms of percentage of the population with either a high-school or college degree.[4] The combustible mix of a history of exploitation and low educational attainments had often resulted in a culture of unsustainable abuse of resources (e.g. labor, mining value out of land) in a number of areas (e.g. poultry and pork production, farm workers, food processing workers).

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

90000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

3000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The challenge for our current (2020) and future (2050) food system is that while Arkansas is rich in resources, policies do not incentivize the success of small-scale farmers. Building a system that supports smallholder farms in an environment of industrial agriculture requires a long-term horizon, both in time and investment, and short-term production practices challenge the growth of sustainable, local farming options. Below are a few examples: 

Economics: Arkansas raises little of its own food. According to a study done by Food Economist Ken Meter, Arkansans spend $7 billion dollars per year on food, $6.3 billion of which comes from outside the state[5]. This gap presents a tremendous market opportunity for diverse Arkansas farmers as well as economic development opportunities in building out services and critical infrastructure. According to the Meter study, “If Arkansas consumers purchased only 15% of the food they need for home use directly from state farmers, this would produce $1 billion of new farm income in the state.”   

Environment: Agriculture practices of industrial companies use processes that result in significant topsoil erosion, contamination of rivers, streams and underground waterways across the state with both animal waste and chemical pesticides.  Continued short-term deterioration of these natural resources will directly impact small farmers’ ability to make their land productive and generate revenues in the longer-term.

Diet: Current food consumption trends indicate a consumer disconnect with the food system. Prices of small-scale farm products are still too high to compete with cheaper, lower quality food in supermarkets.  The inability for wholesome, locally produced to be an economically viable alternative for citizens in the area results in diet primarily based on mass commercialized food.

Policy: At the federal level, Department of Agriculture policies across the state are almost exclusively geared towards supporting industrial agriculture. [6]  At the state-level, key agriculture policy entities, (e.g. Arkansas Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Plant Board, which regulates pesticide use), are overwhelmingly represented by industrial agriculture interests.[7]  Research to inform small-shareholder policy receives little to no institutional support from universities. At the primary land grant state university, the University of Arkansas curriculum does not address small scale, sustainable-minded farmers.

Culture:  Arkansas has a track record of exploitative agricultural system. Addressing this element of culture is sensitive given the extraordinarily tenuous history of racial and social inequity in the region.  While still in the minority, this demographic remains a valuable potential human capital resource. The mobilizing of underrepresented labor pools is also of acute importance as we see the current generation of farmers aging out of the systems and not being replaced by a younger generation. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The food system we envision seeks to reverse the current incentive challenges by building a robust network of profitable farmer- and employee-owned businesses based on regenerative practices. 

To mitigate the challenge of economics, our vision is to coordinate a robust supply chain that connects family farmers to profitable markets. Strategic partnerships, such as working together with Grass Roots, a farmer’s cooperative, Cypress Valley, a meat processing facility, and New South, a produce cooperative – will enable efficiencies and scaling for local family farmers. In 2019 Grass Roots sales of sustainably produced proteins surpassed $4 million and is expected to continue to grow significantly in 2020. Cypress Valley, is scaling into a regional meat processor, providing critical meat processing services to over 350 state and regional livestock producers—including Grass Roots farmers.

To address the challenges of diet and culture, our vision will focus on factors that stimulate demand and educate consumers. Food awareness campaigns to buy local already benefit from increased consumer interest.  With an already growing movement of stakeholders spearheading awareness campaigns (i.e. chefs, obesity-fighting coalitions, food banks), our vision seeks to focus on the niche that coordinates and vocalizes the perspective of producers along the supply chain. New technology tools that we are piloting in other areas of Heifer International, such as block chain, will provide consumers a new level of transparency not previously available. 

To combat environmental challenges created by industrial agriculture practices, our vision is to provide and communicate alternatives.  To inspire a new generation of consumers and farmers, past our consumer education efforts have included setting up living classrooms at the HeiferUSA Ranch where consumers can witness how smallholder farmers’ can achieve a triple bottom line while using regenerative production methods.  Our vision is to build on these experiences through live-streamed tours, virtual reality experiences, and social media affinity groups. We will also build and professionalize a new cadre of small-shareholder farmers that will champion regenerative, environmentally sound production practices.  Our vision is to train hundreds of farmers annually on topics ranging from cool season organic horticultural production to pastured production of pork, poultry, lamb and beef.

To address challenges of policy and work toward systemic, institutional change, we need to strengthen partnerships between farmers, the private sector (markets, processing and transport) and local and state government. This will include securing small-farmer representation in key agriculture policy entities. In addition, we will continue to shape policy in collaboration with other community organizations to ensure that issues critical to small holder farmers (e.g.  fair pricing and wage practices for smallholder farmers) are represented.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

By 2050, our vision has reshaped the food system in Arkansas and created fertile ground for the next generation of farmers to continue to work and thrive. 

The culture and attitude towards good food has changed.  Through education campaigns, local, state and federal engagement, the value of good food and the methods of production are not only understood, they are embraced. 

Good food is right for all people in Arkansas.  Through purposeful outreach and interventions, good food is now accessible to people regardless of race and socio-economic status.  Unrepresented groups, such as Latino, Asian and African American farmers have joined the movement and are part of our growing group of farmer cooperatives.

Small-scale farming is an economically viable income generator and has become a new model for rural economic development. More than 15% of locally grown food stays in Arkansas and has added more than a billion dollars annually, creating new jobs in the small-scale farming supply chain, as well as making sustainably produced food more affordable.

A new focus on the research and science of small / mid-scale farms is fueling data-based decision making.  With higher education institutions and research policy actors now engaged, the sector of small, share holder farming is getting a new level of attention that is bringing additional depth and rigor to the field of regenerative agriculture.

There is significant progress environmental preservation and nurturing for a new generation of farmers.  By 2050, hundreds of thousands of acres are now under regenerative production practices.  For 30 years, we have invested in agricultural production systems that nourished the land and we are now seeing the dividends of that investment.

Economic incentives are reversed, and tax and labor policies reflect this shift. Previously competing incentives between small, shareholder famers and industrial agriculture has found a balance. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In 2050, Food is the solution, not the problem. We see a world where good food is the byproduct of an interconnected network of actors that not only cares about the final product, but the means to which it was created and the people and environment that produced it along the way.  Thirty years from now, we envision a place where good food is a viable, sought after resource in Arkansas. Good food is taught and fed to our children in schools in all communities, regardless of socio-economic background. Good food is served in restaurants and grocery stores.  Incentives, economic and political, are reversed in a way that can make regeneratively produced food a profitable, sustainable option.

Our culture and attitude towards our local food system has changed across the state.  Individually, people see agriculture as a solution - a way to cool our planet and have healthy bodies and communities. The perspective in Arkansas on diet has shifted, consumers see more value in eating smaller quantities of higher quality food and better understand the long-term health implications of their food choices. We have data to show that insurance premiums are dropping due to better health, as well as increased education performance due to better food options in our schools.  Our vision is to see the 85% food from other states and countries drop to 50%, with a increase of more than 50% in the consumption of locally grown food. Through collaborative work with the Department of Health and the Department of Tourism, food, and the way it is grown, has become a way of life and a movement. Our work is catalyzed by a focus on healthfulness, not only for the well-being of our citizens, but that of our environment. In addition to changing consumer behavior around food, we’ve created a dynamic tourism market around good food, attracting outside visitors to the beautiful region.  Farmers and communities are rewarded for protecting the land, celebrating the majestic state parks, scenic waterfalls in the Ozarks, and fertile wetlands of the Delta.

By 2050, our efforts to educate consumers have made good food a right for all people in our state, not just those who can afford it. Given Arkansas complex history of exclusion and exploitation, we are now consistently mobilizing economic actors that were previously left out of the state’s food system, both as consumers and producers. With the goal of equity in our food system, our work is intentionally inclusive and socially just. Across Arkansas, we have connected black, white, Latino and Asian farming communities to each other and, through collective support, continue to make more small-scale farmers profitable. Diverse farmers across cultural and geographical communities have organized around our shared vision and goals (i.e. profitable, sustainable farming).  Through a strong network of cooperatives and financial institutions, small-scale farmers now have access to technical and financial support to facilitate long-term fiscal stability and growth (e.g. lower debt, assist with cash flowing of inputs).

Our focus on making small-scale farming an economically viable income generator has also become a new model for rural economic development. Our state has capitalized on the market opportunity to create new farm income and Arkansas now purchases more than 15% of the food they need directly from state farmers and the state is now producing more than $1 billion of new farm income annually. To support this growing trend, more rural citizens are employed in small farms. Our work and community development expertise has helped to reverse the national trend of “a declining rural America” in Arkansas. Unemployment numbers are now disaggregated from overall state unemployment numbers, thus allowing more specific regional interventions and area-specific targeted farmer outreach.  Working county-by-county to mobilize additional small, shareholder farmers adopt regenerative agriculture practices has helped rural counties that were previously facing more than 5% unemployment decrease localized unemployment to more closely align with those of urban areas in the state. (e.g. 3.4%.)[8] 

Decision making in our food system is more localized. By 2050 the volume of community food system advocates has grown, and decisions are negotiated and made between farmers and consumers. Dozens of new farmer coops and community food enterprises continue to form. There is a new element of diversity in our Arkansas food system not previously present.  Our food system is not only rich and varied in agricultural offerings, but also in the composition of its stakeholders - a dynamic and ever-growing group of diverse small- and medium- scale farmers.  Through collective organizing along the value chain (i.e. planning, producing, bulk-purchasing, aggregating, distributing and marketing together), greater efficiencies are occurring regularly, in turn decreasing food prices and creating better margins for farmers and producers.  More sustainably produced products are entering the local market at price points that are more attractive and economically viable for consumers.

Within 30 years, significant state and federal resources are now allocated to the research and science of small / mid-scale farms and regenerative agriculture.  To ensure that the interconnectedness and interdependence of the work continues, there is robust engagement with University partners and the Arkansas Department of Agriculture to conduct and disseminate research on how to efficiently scale regenerative agricultural practices.  Our close collaboration with academia also permits us to continue to work towards resilience as systems and climate conditions continue to evolve.  A deeper understanding of the work and ecosystem now permits farmers to forecast trends and enables them to pivot and adjust their practices accordingly to generate the highest returns while maintaining the integrity of their farming practices.

Environmentally, hundreds of thousands of acres are now under regenerative production practices.  For 30 years, we have invested in agricultural production systems that nourished the land and we are now seeing the dividends of that investment. Soil organic matter across the state is increasing due to improved regenerative production techniques birthed out of a partnership between smallholder farmers and university research centers. Pastured livestock is the new norm; large confinement animal operations and glyphosate have gone the way of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane)[9].  We now have a proven track record that food can be produced at scale using practices that protect the land and can ensure future generations’ ability also to continue to farm, make a living and thrive. 

Economic incentives are reversed, and tax and labor policies reflect this shift. Industrial Agriculture and Multinational Food and Beverage Corporations have joined other highly regulated sectors, such as tobacco and alcohol, as their practices have been recognized as having potential deleterious effects on the environment and health.  They are still commercial actors, however the change in mindset has not only shifted with consumers by 2050, but it now is reflected in our state and federal policies. There are more comprehensive tax consequences for impacts on the nation’s health (e.g. diet-related diseases) and direct damage to the environment (e.g. chemical and pesticides that impact other consumers and farmers).  We have achieved fair wages for farmers across the state, thus leveling the financial playing field for producers and having the downstream effect of more affordable product pricing.

Technology is enhancing the work of small-scale farmers and bringing transparency to consumers and producers. In the ever changing landscape of our work, technology is helping bring climate and crop data farmers more quickly, helping share the benefits of our work faster and to more people through multimedia platforms, and bring transparency to the supply chain. Through collaboration with tech companies, we have introduced new technology to our farmers (e.g.  Watson and other Artificial Intelligence platforms) to help make production more efficient and streamlined.  Through the implementation of block chain technology across myriad value chains, consumers can track where products in the food systems to ensure that what they are buying is produced in a manner which supports the shared food system vision. 

To achieve this transformative 2050 food system, we will have successfully mobilized stakeholders across our food system and a new generation of champions will already be building on the momentum of success from what was accomplished in 30 years, towards a  new, more equitable food system for the next 50 years into 2100.  Early believers in this movement, such as Heifer which by 2050 will have more than 100 years working to support small, shareholder farmers, will have not only championed this vision locally, but amplified the movement across territories and borders to make it a global crusade.  

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3 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Constanza Castano
Team

Hi, Andrea Dhamer ! Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!

Congratulations on a well thought out Vision for Arkansas. I can notice the care in the details and their interconnections. Now, I would just like to suggest reviewing your vision according to the guidelines on the evaluation criteria: https://www.foodsystemvisionprize.org/prize-statement
It may be that the questions that it includes lead you to new perspectives or simply help you to confirm the details of your proposal.

Remember, this is the moment when you can connect with other Visionary teams, provide feedback and get inspired by other submissions.

I look forward to seeing what's next for you!

Warm regards,

Constanza

Spam
Photo of Andrea Dhamer
Team

Constanza, Thank you kindly for your recommendation and we will look at our vision closely with respect to the evaluation criteria you provided. We are also in continued conversation with other partners and stakeholders to gain additional perspectives. Warmest regards, Andrea

Spam
Photo of Constanza Castano
Team

Hi Andrea Dhamer ,
Way to go! If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.
Always here to assist you.
Warmest regards,
Constanza