New South Produce Cooperative, based in North Little Rock, has been in business close to two years now, providing Arkansas residents another source of locally grown produce.
It evolved from a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program begun by Heifer International in 2014, formally incorporating as a separate entity in early 2016, according to Sara Brown, business development manager at Heifer. She’s been working with the co-op since it started.
New South comprises about 24 Arkansas farmers who produce certified organic or certified naturally grown vegetables and fruit, which are sold to members of the CSA as well as to local restaurants and retailers.
“The mission is all about supporting the small-scale farmer,” Brown said. “By pooling their resources together, they’re able to access more profitable and more reliable markets so they can sustain themselves in the long run.
“That’s the mission alignment between Heifer and New South, wanting to support people that without a cooperative or this type of business would not be able to make a living from farming.” The farmers are located throughout the state, from Booneville to Batesville to Wynne.
In addition to fresh produce, the CSA also offers flowers and cheese as well as meat and poultry “add-ons” from Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, about which I’ve written previously.
The New South Produce CSA is available to members in Bryant, Cabot, Conway, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Searcy. It also sells to Whole Foods in Little Rock and Fayetteville, Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville and Natural Grocers in Little Rock and Jonesboro.
Among the two dozen or so restaurants buying its products are the Root Cafe in Little Rock, Farmer’s Table Cafe and Greenhouse Grille in Fayetteville and the Yellow Rocket Concepts restaurants (Big Orange, Local Lime, etc.)
This season, eight weeks in fall 2017, about 150 people are participating in the CSA. As many as 300 have participated previously. The summer season, which lasts 16 weeks, draws the most participation.
“We know that consumers are asking for this type of product at all different points of purchase,” Brown said. “They’re demanding it at the grocery store, at local restaurants, as well as wanting to purchase it themselves.”
For the farmers, New South can aggregate purchases of inputs — seed, materials and such — and pick the order up. “So instead of five buyers driving to southern Missouri to pick up materials, the co-op can make one trip and pick up all of those materials for five farmers, and they get the discounted price for ordering in bulk and the shared transportation cost,” she said.
“During the season, they’re able to market, aggregate and distribute their product,” Brown said. For example, the co-op along with Heifer and using a grant from Farm Credit bought three refrigerated trailers placed around the state on different farms to aggregate distribution.
The system is designed to reduce the time farmers spend not farming so they can focus on growing their crops.
Brown said there was some hesitance on farmers’ part at the beginning of the co-op, but that has dissipated. “Everybody was a little reserved on production, but now that it’s been several years and they’ve been able to see the growth and the efficiency and the willingness of New South staff to advocate for the farmers in terms of price and consistency and volume, now farmers are able to scale up their own operations knowing they have this market available.”