By REBEKAH HALL | U of A System Division of Agriculture
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — At a food forum presented by the Arkansas Local Food Network, Cooperative Extension Service food safety experts shared their perspectives on the future of agriculture in the state with fellow panelists, including Arkansas farmers and leaders in the local food economy.
Ruth Canada, engagement and outreach program officer for Heifer USA, moderated the panel. When asked about the movement to increase sustainable food production in Arkansas, Amanda Philyaw Perez, extension associate professor of food systems and safety for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said growing more fruits and vegetables in the state is key to creating a future that’s food secure.
“In Arkansas, the top ten crops that we’re growing do not include fruits and vegetables, but we do have meat. Our poultry is pretty strong, as is our rice,” she said. “So, if we had a major food security issue, we could probably live off protein and rice. But then we would have a lot of nutrition deficits from that, because we definitely don’t have a fruit and vegetable industry in the state that can support us. So, how do we change that? That’s the question of sustainable production.”
Philyaw Perez said providing support to farmers will be critical to growing the fruits and vegetables industry, and that the Cooperative Extension Service’s land grant system was integral to the expansion of the agriculture industry over a hundred years ago – a model that continues today.
“We have about 15 faculty members in the Horticulture department, which was not there when people were doing this work to increase sustainable production 10, 15, 20 years ago,” Philyaw Perez said. “They needed help on how to grow things, how to deal with some of the pest issues, how to integrate sustainable and resilient systems. There weren’t people to help in those spaces, and people were just figuring it out by themselves. Some of those resources are now available, but it comes down to people. It’s going to take everybody coming to the table to do this work, sharing technical resources, farmer to farmer resources, peer resources. We have a lot of opportunities.”
Philyaw Perez also said that “digging into how systems change and what’s worked across the country” will be important to creating this future.
“We’ve seen these efforts around community gardens, developing farm to school programs, developing small farms work and developing farmers markets,” she said. “All of those things are critical, but when the rubber meets the road, if we needed food in a quick turnaround, we would be in a world of hurt to secure what we need.
“Over the last two years, we’ve seen a huge shift in the fruit and vegetable industry in the southeast region of the state, due to global pressures,” Philyaw Perez said. “About 40 percent of the fruits and vegetable growers in the southeastern part of the U.S. went out of business a couple years ago because of economic pressures from some of the southern countries. We are less food secure when it comes to fruits and vegetables now than we were before.”
The forum, held Oct. 20 at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, also included a discussion on innovations happening within the state’s food systems. Panelist Karen Keller Ballard, chief executive officer of B & B Legacy Farms, said strides have been made on their soybean farm, “particularly around the area of water conservation.”
“We only have so much water, and we need to keep up with it,” Ballard said. “One of the things we’re looking at right now are varieties that are the most tolerant to heat and drought stress. We’re looking at the way we irrigate. When you see the white plastic poly pipe irrigation when you drive by fields, that has increased water conservation by about 60 percent. It’s very targeted, and it’s been a really smart practice that farmers have been able to adopt. My hat goes off to a lot of the researchers at the Division of Agriculture who led some of this innovation.”
The panel also included Rip Weaver, extension program technician for local, regional and safe foods; Karen Reynolds, grants and program manager for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture; Michelle Shope, director of food sourcing and logistics for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance; Jeremy Adams, executive director of the Arkansas Farmer’s Market Association; Anna Sawyer, community garden coordinator for the City of North Little Rock; and Brandon Gordon, owner of Five Acre Farms.
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