Walmart executive Ron McCormick spoke to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C., Wednesday. (Stephens Washington Bureau/Peter Urban)
WASHINGTON – Despite an explosion of interest in “locally grown” produce, most Arkansas school children aren’t getting their lunchtime carrots from local farmers.
“We are not able to tap the school market,” said Jody Hardin, a fifth-generation farmer from Grady, Ark.
Hardin testified Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee at a hearing focusing on the increased demand for locally grown food.
Ron McCormick, senior director of local sourcing and sustainable agriculture for Walmart Stores, also testified.
While farmers markets are booming in Arkansas and demand is rising for locally grown produce, Hardin said obstacles remain for farmers to reach many untapped markets. The biggest obstacle small farmers face is the lack of “food hubs” — regional aggregating and processing facilities — where farmers can process and store their produce for schools or other large-scale purchasers.
Arkansas farmers harvest most of their vegetables in the summer when schools are out and the cafeterias are closed, Hardin said.
To have that available during the school year, the produce needs to be flash frozen and stored.
“We tried to start such a center in Arkansas. Unfortunately, we cannot seem to get it off the ground,” he said.
Hardin said that “a little seed money” from the federal government is needed but the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have a grant program where such a request would fit.
Rural Development grants would seem the logical choice but the money must be spent in “rural” areas only. While rural farmers would benefit from distribution centers, they often need to be situated near larger markets, Hardin said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said too much focus is now put on population to determine grants. He urged lawmakers to consider giving USDA more flexibility so they can focus on the “impact” on rural communities of such investments.
Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market in Detroit said that Michigan is trying to develop food hubs across the state. He noted that the lack of such “cut, wash and package” centers has meant some schools are getting vegetables from Indiana instead of Michigan.
At Walmart, McCormick said that having “food hubs” for small and mid-sized farmers would be “ideal” for building a supply chain that can sustain itself.
The Bentonville-based company has been promoting “locally-grown” in its stores in large measure because consumers are demanding it.
“Sourcing locally allows us to deliver a fresher product to our customers,” he said.
Walmart gets watermelons from 27 states, pumpkins from 26 states and potatoes from 25 states, he said.
The company is working with farmers to enable them to succeed, he said.
In Southeastern Arkansas, McCormick said they have helped revive tomato farming that was nearly dead. Farmers there had been growing Bradley County Pink tomatoes but have switched to more nationally popular Roma and grape tomatoes that are now selling in 13 states, McCormick said.
While breaking into the school lunch market has been a struggle, Hardin said a 2009 USDA grant was critical in helping to propel Arkansas farmers markets.
The promotional grant helped them create food festivals that have turned his farmers market in North Little Rock into a booming marketplace.
“We were able to leverage the grant fund to build one of the most exciting new farmers markets in the state, one that has attracted thousands of customers, chefs, children, and tourists to a once blighted downtown food desert,” Hardin said.
Sales jumped from $300,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2010, he said.