A new program will help Northwest Arkansas fruit and vegetable growers develop shelf-stable food products and business plans to expand sales opportunities at farmers’ markets.
The program will help growers convert their unsold produce into processed food products and develop business plans for selling the produce at farmers’ markets.
“The goal of the ‘Expanding Farmers’ Opportunities in Northwest Arkansas Program’ is to create income opportunities beyond the growing season for farmers who sell their produce at farmers’ markets,” said Ruben Morawicki, former associate professor of food science at Arkansas Agricultural experimental station. The experimental station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas Systems Division of Agriculture.
“Fruit and vegetables have a very short shelf life,” Morawicki said. “Hence, farmers will extend their production cycle beyond the growing season by converting some of these raw materials into durable products.”
Morawicki and the program team secured the scholarship before accepting a position at another university. After his departure, Renee Threlfall, a research scientist in the Department of Food Science, became the program’s principal investigator.
The program team includes Executive Chef Steven Jenkins, Department Chair at Brightwater, A Center for the Study of Food, and Rogelio Garcia Contreras, Assistant Professor and Director of Social Innovation in the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Risk Innovation at the University of Arkansas Walton School of Economics .
Brightwater is an academic faculty of Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville.
Jeyam Subbiah, chief of the department of food science, and John Swenson, manager of the experimental station’s Arkansas Food Innovation Center, are also providing their expertise to the program, Threlfall said.
The US Department of Agriculture is funding the program with a matching grant of $622,797 from the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, part of the USDA’s Local Agriculture Market Program.
Threlfall said participating growers will learn to create value-added products from their surplus produce using the Arkansas Food Innovation Center’s food manufacturing facility.
“The Arkansas Food Innovation Center provides customers with the expertise, facilities and equipment to develop value-added products and bring those products to market,” said Subbiah.
“I am very pleased to have this support from the USDA Farmers Market and Local Agriculture Market programs to help even more producers develop value-added products for the farmers market,” said Subbiah. “This funded project aligns well with AFIC’s mission and strengthens our relationship with partners to improve and expand our services to our customers.
“The ‘Expanding Farmers’ Opportunities in Northwest Arkansas Program’ is truly an interdisciplinary effort that incorporates culinary, food science and entrepreneurship to support our state stakeholders,” he said.
Jenkins and a team of Brightwater students will develop recipes for the products.
“This grant allows us to leverage the knowledge and expertise of our chefs and students to foster entrepreneurship that financially supports our local growers,” said Jenkins. “This effort is an important step in the evolution of Northwest Arkansas’ food system, as eating what we grow out of season requires local food processing capacity.
“This grant will allow farmers to use a greater percentage of their crop and extend their income beyond the farmers’ market season,” Jenkins said.
Garcia Contreras will lead a Walton College team to advise participating growers through market assessment and customer discovery processes. It will advise participating growers on market, branding and commercialization strategies for their products.
Interested growers are supported by the Walton College team in developing a small business development plan focused on manufacturing and marketing successful value-added products.
“This grant provides a unique opportunity to foster multidisciplinary collaboration aimed at supporting the development of value-added products and putting local farmers at the heart of our efforts,” said Garcia Contreras. “The intent is to harness the creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial skills of farmers themselves and support them in finding ways to generate new, viable and sustainable revenue streams.”
“We will make these services available to selected partner growers at no cost,” Threlfall said. “The grower can sell the product at the farmer’s market or other places.”
She said the number of participating breeders will be limited. Participants should expect a one-year commitment from the development of a product idea in spring to product launch during harvest time and post-production.
“Growers are provided with a commercially viable recipe, training, and help using specialized equipment to produce low-acid, value-added products,” Threlfall said. “You will exit the program with marketing advice and a portfolio that includes a product recipe, a food safety plan for processing, and a business plan.”