Teaming Up to Support Family Farms in Arkansas

New funding infuses $600,000 into co-op’s work with farmers who are spreading sustainable agriculture and providing ethically raised, high-quality meats

The Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative is an Arkansas-based, member-owned livestock producer's cooperative operating by the highest principles and standards of pasture-based production methods. www.grassrootscoop.com

Clinton, AR—A diverse family-farmer cooperative is taking off in rural Arkansas, creating a model for ethical animal husbandry and slowly rebuilding the local economy in one of the country’s poorest states.

The members of Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative banded together in 2014—with technical, organizational and financial support from Heifer USA—to support one another and help new producers learn about sustainable animal agriculture. Now the co-op, which has been lauded by Little Rock media for its tasty meats, has received $600,000 in customized financing from RSF Social Finance, the leading funder of food hubs in the U.S.

“If this new funding helps us reach our vision, our co-op can be a model for other rural areas,” said Cody Hopkins, the co-op’s general manager and co-founder. “We’re creating economically viable livelihoods that take care of the land, lift up people and communities, and produce delicious, healthy meats.”

Hopkins, a first-generation farmer at Falling Sky Farm who was named a 2015 Arkansan of the Year by Arkansas Life, added, “Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen first-hand how farming can rebuild rural economies.”

The new funding from RSF Social Finance will reduce costs for farmers and enable production growth. A $400,000 line of credit will help the co-op buy animals from member farmers and process them, while a $200,000 loan will help the co-op finance the farmers’ purchases of feed and animals, which will be raised and eventually sold back to the co-op.

Before the co-op, member Mitchell Latture of Freckle Face Farm said he was struggling to access markets and get the best prices for his pasture-raised products. “We had access to land, and we wanted to start a farm and raise our kids out here on the land. But we were working ourselves to death without being able to sustain it.”

The co-op provides loans, training and mentoring, as well as transport, processing and marketing of goods, which go for a premium price because of their quality. Grass Roots’ 13 farms—up from nine two years ago—raise livestock (chickens, cows, turkeys, pigs and sheep) and believe in the benefits of raising happy animals that forage in forests or graze and peck on pastures. The farmers range from recently arrived immigrants from Costa Rica to families whose tie to the local land can be traced back generations. (Hear from more of the farmers about their approach and collaboration in this Grass Roots video and this Heifer farmer profile).

Ben Wihebrink of Heifer USA, who has worked closely with Grass Roots, said organizations like the co-op are essential to improving rural economies: “Poverty is widespread in Arkansas, with one in four people suffering from food insecurity. That’s why Heifer is active here and in other parts of the Southeast.”

RSF’s funding is a milestone for the San Francisco-based organization: the $200,000 loan is the first disbursement from its new Soil Health Capital Collaborative, one of four newly launched philanthropic funds that provide a tailored mix of financing types to emerging social enterprises working on deep and systemic impact. “There aren’t many financing options for small-scale operations like this co-op,” said Kate Danaher, senior manager, social enterprise lending and integrated capital. “A lot of money is going into food technology and delivery businesses, but hardly any is going to help enterprises like this reach economies of scale. That’s where our capital comes in.”

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Grass Roots is a great fit for the Soil Health Capital Collaborative, said Danaher, because “the co-op’s sustainable grazing methods are one of the best ways to sequester carbon and improve the health of our soil which, in turn, creates more nutrient dense food as well as less runoff and other ecological benefits.”

The social benefits are equally compelling. “Without the co-op,” Danaher said, “these small farmers wouldn’t be attracted to farming or would be relegated to selling to large, industrial meatpackers for much less. In this region, a conventional chicken farmer is paid pennies a pound, while a Grass Roots sustainable farmer makes $2.00 per pound.”

“We’re very proud of Grass Roots’ accomplishments, and the additional capital from RSF means we can look to the future. This gives us a model for the growth of farmer businesses, from grant funding to impact-based debt,” said Wihebrink of Heifer USA.

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About Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative

Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative is a group of small-scale farmers who have teamed up to share resources to deliver the best foods more easily to conscientious consumers. All Grass Roots farmers are committed to sustainably raising livestock on clean pastures using methods that benefit the animals and the land on which they graze. Each Grass Roots farmer has a unique, personal interest in sustainable agriculture. Read their stories to learn more about why we farm the way we do.

About Heifer USA

Heifer USA’s programs in Arkansas minimize barriers for people entering farming as a profession, providing capital and organizational support to farmers. Its mission is to create good jobs and sustain higher incomes for farmers in the state. Learn more about how Heifer works with groups of farmers in the US.

About RSF Social Finance

RSF Social Finance offers innovative opportunities to invest, give, and get funding and generate positive social, economic, and ecological impact. Since 1984, RSF has made over $450 million in loans, grants, and investments supporting social enterprises in the areas of food and agriculture, education and the arts, and ecological stewardship. Find out more about how RSF connects social entrepreneurs with diverse forms of capital.

Photos by Bryan Clifton.

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