Cody Hopkins has literally lived from farm to table and back again.
Owner of Falling Sky Farm in north central Arkansas, Hopkins serves as general manager and a member of the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative — a collection of 13 local farms that are giving small, family-owned operations, like his, a fighting chance to flourish while surfing the crest of a growing food awareness movement in the United States.
The Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, supported by the worldwide hunger and poverty-fighting charity Heifer International, is an organization of Arkansas farms that shares resources and responsibilities, helping to mitigate expenses and improve all aspects of farming.
Not only does the group effort help farmers meet the demand for fresher, more natural foods within the farm-to-table movement, but it also gives farmers the organization and strength in numbers they need to make a living in what has often been a challenging existence for small, family-owned operations.
The co-op’s founding members, including Hopkins and Heifer International, began meeting in 2013, and the co-op incorporated in 2014. “We chose the cooperative model to be a democratic business that kept the management and vision of farmers intact,” explains Hopkins. “I think small farmers are very important to our communities, and there is a growing market for our kind of product.”
Inspiration and Roots
A graduate of Van Buren High School with family ties to Cedarville, 37-year-old Hopkins recalls spending a lot of time on his grandparents’ 40-acre farm and remembers his family’s own small collection of livestock and large garden. But the agriculture bug took a while to bite; Hopkins attended Hendrix University in Conway to study physics, then taught in the north-eastern U.S.
It was while putting meals on tables at his weekend restaurant job in Providence, R.I., that Hopkins says he began to develop a deeper appreciation for food, an appreciation that perhaps was also influenced by his rural past and an interest in conscious consumption that he developed in college.
Returning to north central Arkansas to work at a bakery, Hopkins became interested in entrepreneurship and the impact of businesses on rural communities.
“I stumbled on a couple farmers who had sustainable, pasture-based livestock farms,” he says. The farmers were “creating their own economic opportunities in Searcy County,” one of the state’s poorest areas.
He met and married local girl Andrea Todt — who shared his growing interest in sustainable farming — and the couple founded Falling Sky Farm (the name is a play on the story Chicken Little) in 2006.
A neighbor provided a free lease on 30 acres, helping to satisfy Hopkins’ pasture-based livestock model, and the farm started by producing poultry and other meats. The focus was on smaller batch sizes, rotating livestock to maintain a supply of fresh grass and high-quality feed using no antibiotics and getting animals into an environment they had evolved to live in.
Many of Hopkins’ farming principles, and those of the farmers he encountered, were among the qualities prized by American consumers’ growing interest in farm-to-table food supply, which insists on fresh meat and produce raised and processed as naturally as possible. “The mission right off the bat was to create an economical, viable demonstration farm,” Hopkins says.
Chris Ward, who owns co-op member Fresh Food Farm near Harrison and whose wife Melanie is chair of the Grass Roots board, grew up on a farm in northwest Arkansas and has worked in the retail meat industry and oversaw as an agricultural advisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a focus on sustainable agriculture development.
Returning to the States — a welcomed relief after working in high-risk environments like Afghanistan — Ward continued to focus on sustainability. Both the sustainability movement in farming and becoming part of the co-op were a “happy coincidence,” he says. “I think folks were experiencing some of the same difficulties at the same time.”
Owned and operated by the farmers, the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative is focused on sustainable agriculture, with the farms using methods that best benefit the land and livestock. This natural approach focuses on fresh air, pure water, grass and room to roam. “At Grass Roots farms,” the co-op’s website says, “chickens scratch, pigs root and cows and sheep graze.”
The group is very open about its methods, with production teams making regular visits to ensure the co-op meets animal husbandry standards. Also, under its open-farm policy, the co-op welcomes visits from outsiders interested in observing the farms’ practices.
“You see it around the country. Ultimately, the end-consumer is driving this,” Hopkins says. “People want to know more about their food and want a food source they can trust.”
Consumers suspicious of chemical fertilizers, distrustful of the big companies that produce them, or turned off by inhumane treatment of poultry and livestock are fulfilling a greater awareness that has helped spawn the farm-to-table movement. Many shoppers and diners now want food from producers who farm with nature, not against it, and operate with transparency while raising healthy, happy animals.
“There’s always a paradigm shift,” says Ward, who agrees the farm-to-table movement is driving interest in the local farms and co-ops. As an example, Hopkins mentions a sustainable-minded fast food company in Austin, Texas, that has reached out to the co-op to source ethically raised chicken.
“Thank God for the internet,” Hopkins says. “When you see people like Monsanto, a leader in genetically modifying crops, re-branding because of this effort, you realize that even the ‘big boys’ are moving. They are seeing the trend, and it’s all because our consumers can get more and more information.”
Most of the consumer-grade chickens in the U.S. have, up to now, been raised by farmers who contract with companies that own not just the chickens but the supply chain itself, from hatcheries to processing plants. The farmers have been primarily paid just to raise the chickens to market weight — which these days takes around five weeks due to genetic modification and unnatural feed as opposed to the approximately 12 weeks it would take naturally — while being responsible for capital improvements, upgrading and maintaining their facilities and paying for utilities and labor.
But stagnant incomes and increasing expenses have made things difficult for farmers who operate under this model, and their debts force them to keep operating even if they are losing money. “You see, the individual farmer becomes extremely inefficient because of this,” says Hopkins, “and it becomes capital oriented, making it hard to grow their business.” Ward adds, “If you’re not rich, it’s hard to go out and rent freezers and loading docks.”
It’s a climate leading to fewer people taking up farming while more are getting out of the business, leaving the average age of the American farmer at 58 years, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Into this ineffective and unethical environment steps the co-ops, helping to make farming profitable again while enticing younger, small-scale farmers to get into the game and expand with the support of their fellow co-op members.
Strength In Numbers
Steve Dettelbach operates co-op member Dettelbach Farm near Wynne with his wife Ashley and brother Jeff. He quit his factory job on Jan. 1, 2016, and his wife shut down their state-certified daycare on July 1 of the same year so they could focus on farming.
“Eventually it was like, we’ve got to make a decision here,” says Dettelbach. Raising primarily poultry so far on their 35 acres, the Dettelbachs recently signed a lease for an additional 180 acres. We’re fixing to get into some real cattle production, along with raising swine.”
Dettlebach says the growth and expansion he and other co-op farmers enjoy would not be possible without the secure markets and guaranteed paydays that come with being a part of the co-op. Knowing a check will come in a few weeks after a sale of 1,300 chickens provides the security that comes with a stable income. “Instead of being at the farmers market and working against each other, we’re all over the state selling our name and just continuing to get better and better,” Dettelbach says.
While the large-scale commercial farmers have had to spend profits on capital improvements like freezers or poultry houses, Grass Roots farms see a return of 70 to 80 percent of profits because so many expenses are shared rather than borne by one farmer. Also, the average farmer is prey to the ups and downs of the commodities market, whereas Grass Roots farmers are developing their own markets and creating a steady clientele.
The average farmer gets a base rate of five to six cents a pound for broiler chicken. Grass Roots farmers get paid $2.25 a pound. One co-op farmer in his second year made $30,000 for 10,000 chickens. “To farmers in rural Arkansas, that makes a huge difference,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins notes that a customer in Missouri who does national shipping may not have his needs met by one individual farm, but as a group the co-op members can meet his needs and share the revenues. And the farmers agree there is no substitute for the group approach to solving problems and sharing information.
Whether it’s curing pinkeye in cattle or solving a mystery of dead turkeys — the solution: rounded corners in the pens to keep the turkeys from fatally bunching up — if one of the farmers doesn’t have an answer, another one will. Ward appreciates the strength that comes from togetherness. “Farming is a risk anyway,” he says. “There are so many factors. Any time you can mitigate some of that risk by joining together with other folks, it’s a no-brainer.”
“At the end of the day, we can figure out together what’s working best,” says Dettelbach. “That’s the stuff that would never happen if you were farming by yourself.”