Hardin Heritage Farms Keeps Arkansans Closer To Their Food

It’s hard to separate why the food tastes better—whether it’s the picked-yesterday freshness, the care that went into raising it, the fact that the man smiling across the table is the same one who planted the seed months ago.

Whatever it is, nothing beats local food grown by local people. The realization of that fact has been spreading, prompted in large part by books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and movies like “Food, Inc.” These works brought our attention to a food system that has changed radically over the past 50 years, bringing with it a quantity of food never seen before but also a factory system with industrial sorts of problems, like pollution and centralized disease. We have come to see that it’s a little strange to eat food from 5,000 miles away (the average distance most food travels before it reaches our plates) when there’s the potential for plenty of good food right down the road.

In Arkansas the potential for local food has mostly been just that—there were a handful of farms, but local food was limited to what was available for the summer at the farmers’ market. In the past seven years that has begun to radically shift, and central Arkansas has become a place where it is easier to be a locavore—whether you eat out or eat in, whether it’s summer or winter.

The options start where they used to end, at the Little Rock Farmers’ Market, where vendors crowd the stalls early in the morning. If you want the best produce, come early—much of the best food goes quickly, especially if you are looking for that first tomato of the season. This market is bolstered by a good number of Hmong farmers, refugees from Laos who settled in Arkansas during the 1970s and have put their ample farming skills to work growing good food. Some Hmong farmers offer specialty Asian vegetables and even sticky rice.

Unfortunately, more than half of the vendors at the Little Rock Farmers’ Market do not produce what they sell, and buyers must be cautious of vendors selling produce purchased from warehouses that may or may not have been produced locally. This venue is essentially a public market with a scattering of local options, but many of those options are worth a try.

A lack of clear distinction between those who grow their own food locally and those who sell what was trucked in from elsewhere prompted a large contingent of farmers, led by Jody Hardin, to leave that side of the river and set up a new “Certified Arkansas” Farmers Market (CAFM) in the Argenta district of North Little Rock. This market has thrived, becoming a favorite of some of Little Rock’s best chefs, such as Lee Richardson of Ashley’s at the Capital and Donnie Ferneau of Ferneau.

Farmers from the Central Ozarks to south Arkansas come on Saturdays to sell fresh vegetables, fruit, berries, eggs and meats ranging from lamb, pork, beef, turkey and chicken. Among these farms are both multigenerational operations like the Sturdevant’s Cedar Rock Acres Farm and young newcomers to farming like Falling Sky Farm and Farm Girl Natural Foods. Other CAFM markets have started in west Little Rock and Searcy, featuring many of the same farmers. Check ArkansasFood.net for details.

The Argenta CAFM market also hosts the annual Foodie Fest on the 4th of July weekend, celebrating the good food the market’s farmers have to offer with chef demonstrations and live music.

The farmers’ market is set up just across the street from the Argenta Market, a neighborhood grocery store that features Arkansas food. Eat a local salad, buy a fresh chicken, get the best chocolate milk you’ll ever taste from cows that grazed Arkansas pastures—the Argenta Market is a good stop on the weekdays and off season when the Farmers’ Market is closed or you just need to pick up a few extra items and complete your grocery shopping all in one trip.

As the demand for local food has grown, so have the options for buying it. The Arkansas Sustainability Network Local Food Club started when farmers Rusty and Sue Nuffer decided that they could no longer dedicate the time needed to maintain a farmers’ market stand. The couple, perhaps the best organic farmers in Arkansas, had built a steady clientele of chefs, but with the many hours of work that a farmers’ market stand requires, they decided they had to do something different.

Their customers, however, wouldn’t have it. The thought of a summer without the Nuffers’ beautiful organic vegetables was unthinkable, so Nao Ueda, Katy Elliott and the Arkansas Sustainability Network (ASN) offered the Nuffers a way to get food to individual customers that would be just as easy as a restaurant order. ASN would collect orders from individual customers and compile them into one order. The Nuffers would deliver the entire order to ASN headquarters, and volunteers would distribute the food to customers.

The model proved promising and attracted other farmers. Eventually, the club went to a web-based ordering system at LittleRock.LocallyGrown.net that hosts dozens of farms and serves hundreds of customers. Members of the food club order online early in the week and pick up their orders at Christ Episcopal Church from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays. The range of available food is amazing—with everything from locally produced salami to shiitake mushrooms to every imaginable variety of seasonal produce. The ASN Food Club runs year round and requires a nominal monthly membership of $5 to cover operating expenses.

Every Saturday morning, Food Club pickups are as much social events as they are a simple way to eat local food. The Root Café, a local food catering company and café, with a new location opening soon on Main Street, offers coffee, jams, jellies and baked goods for breakfast at the Food Club. Many customers stay around to visit with other local food enthusiasts and enjoy a good cup of coffee with the best scones in town.

The LocallyGrown.net model is expanding, with Conway. LocallyGrown.net providing sustainable food to that city. The ASN will also add a convenient west Little Rock pickup location very soon for LittleRock.LocallyGrown.net.

Local food isn’t just for the home cook. Eating local while eating out is increasingly easy in central Arkansas. Ashley’s and the Capital Bar and Grill offer many locally-produced options, including chicken from Falling Sky Farm and greens from Arkansas Natural Produce. FortyTwo at the Clinton Library and the Café @ HeiferVillage are reliable places to get a locally-raised dish with varied specials like buffalo burgers. In North Little Rock, Starving Artist Café features an “Arkansas Grown” daily special and is a member of the CAFM Farm to Chef Network, a growing effort to connect farmers and chefs for a better food system.

Many other central Arkansas restaurants are adding locally produced options to their menus. The issue for most is not as much the desire as the supply—there simply aren’t enough farms to fulfill the demand in the right way. The answer to that question is perhaps the next stage in the local food revolution.

Arkansans are fortunate to live in a place that offers long growing seasons and good farming traditions, and now the networks and markets are coming together to make that food easy to buy, any day, any time of year, most anywhere worth shopping.

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