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Conference looks at supplying supermarkets with local food

By Robin Mero Northwest Arkansas Times

Article from The Northwest Arkansas Times

Fayetteville was the setting this week for dozens of specialists in food and agriculture industries to brainstorm ways to help small- and midscale farmers sell their crops in supermarkets.

The University of Arkansas Applied Sustainability Center hosted the two-day Agile Agriculture Summit with sponsors including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sam's Club.

Grocery customers across the United States are clamoring for the freshest, healthiest and highest-quality food products, including organic. The summit's goal was to increase communication between the parties and discover ways to make the exchange of goods both profitable and practical, Michelle Halsell, center director, said.

Participants were from universities such as Penn State, the University of California and Berkeley School of Law. Other participants included Farm Aid, the Utah Food Council, Wal-Mart, Sysco Corp. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Keith Richards of Fayetteville, who does programming and funding development for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, attended the summit on Tuesday and Wednesday. The regional group provides education and training to help farmers become more sustainable.

"Consumers are looking for products with very specific considerations. Stores and distributors are looking to get more small, local growers involved because that's what their customers are asking for rather than just the great big growers from Chile and California," Richards said.

Richards said there's a large demand for more local specialty growers.

"I don't think consumers realize there are new models for farming, and you can have a career and make a good living - but you need technical training," he said. "Agriculture programs aren't always teaching this."

Richards said some universities are designing specific programs for small, local and sustainable farmers. For instance, he was in a small group at the summit with an individual from Alfred State College of New York, which has a 1,000-acre certified organic farm - and agriculture students work there.

"There is an amazing group of people here who are teaching around this concept," Richards said.


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