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April Showers in Perry County
Driving along highway 10, through the Lake Maumelle Watershed and towards the misty convergence of Ozark and Ouachita hills, Sam Hedges and I quickly find ourselves immersed into the rural landscape of Perry County. We have ventured out of the city to visit two farms nestled into this land and gain an understanding of how these sustainable powerhouses supply numerous retail and business operations in central Arkansas. Our first stop for the day is Farm Girl Natural Foods operated by Katie Short and company.
Growing up in Berkeley, California, immersed into a developed culture of local food and liberalism, Katie intuitively knew that she was a farmer, connecting her aptitude for natural science and creative work with her hands. As a teenager she notes the homogeneous urban elite identity that was created over the years as budding a curiosity and rising to see a new world of “true salt of the Earth” farmers. With the local food markets already established by veteran farms and affordable productive land hard to find, Katie decided to venture out of Berkeley and seek opportunities where a young farmer could experiment, learn and work with the land. Her first (and only) stop was Heifer Ranch, the launching pad for Farm Girl.
Over the years, the success of Farm Girl has expanded to a 30 acre wooded homestead where we first meet Katie. She leads us into their new farm store, built out of sweat equity and filled with freezers for meat shares, milk jars and timeboards for the farm. Every Thursday from 10am-6pm, the store provides customers an opportunity to come out and deepen their ‘farm-to-table’ experience. Bring the whole family for a great educational day trip!
Venturing out of the building, Sam and I, though ill prepared for the terrain and weather, set forth into the scrubby forestland in wonder at what may lie beyond the grassy slope. Through the clearings, Katie points out the landscape impact hogs create under a woodland grazing rotation. These porkers do a fantastically efficient job of clearing out understory brush, providing an ample opening to reseed the area in regionally appropriate cover crops. This cooperative act of clearing and reseeding in rye and clover helps to enrich the properties and nature of soil by replenishing nutrients to the surface layer, and, I might add, it’s nicer on the ankles to romp through.
Approaching an undisturbed section of woodlot, we are introduced to the first litter of hogs busily roaming the new terrain of lush wilderness. The pigs are rotated to a new 1 acre area twice a week in order to maximize grazing, add nutrients to the land (in the form of manure) and limit soil compaction. For all of their livestock, Farm Girl uses mobile electrical fencing for pasture rotation as it is easy to work with and adaptable for any terrain. At (4) months old they had not yet ventured too far from the grain feeder but had already started working on the vegetation. The pigs associate the grain feeder as a ‘home base’, a familiar comfort zone, when they move into the new lots. The grain is supplied as a supplement to their diet to ensure they are receiving all the nutrients that are required for their growing bodies. These are some of the healthiest and most inquisitive pigs in the region. They are a mix of 4-5 different breed lines that Katie has been experimenting with over the years in order to select physicality traits that work best for her operation as well as the overall innate nature of the pigs she raises. She tells us that she is particularly fond of the red haired pigs as they seem to cope with the sun and heat better than their fair and dark haired cousins.
Deep snarls and grunts reverberate through the trees as Katie leads us up the hill to visit the breeder pen. Sam and I meet Buster, all 3,600 lbs of him, and stand in awe at the shear amount of life in front of us. He shares the pen with three sows, one of whom, Mudpie, is due to deliver soon. Beneath this canopy of trees, another litter will soon begin their journey from woodlot to woodlot, grazing to their hearts’ content while frolicking amongst the clover.
Pigs are a big market for Farm Girl but chickens certainly have their share of conscious nurturing from brooding to customer. The chicks that are raised at Farm Girl are purchased from S & G Poultry, who specialize in breeding chickens for southern US pastures. Red Rangers and Naked Neck (or Poulet Libre) are the broilers and Grey Ladies are the lead laying flock that Katie has purchased from S&G. While sitting in the brooder surrounded by 300 baby chicks, we learn that these ‘classic’ varieties are traditionally bred and raised to naturally maximize their potential physical nature (equates to a more developed flavor and natural growth development) whereas most conventional chicken operations use breeds that were developed for speedy frankenstein-ish growth habits that are not only are detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the animal but also distort our concept of humane agricultural production. She understands that agriculture is a business and needs to be profitable and by focusing on these varieties of chicks and livestock, Farm Girl Foods is paving a middle ground for the community. By being built upon this ethical foundation for all of their animals, Farm Girl Natural Foods has recently been granted their Animal Welfare Approved status. Way to go Farm Girl!
For the final leg of the Farm Girl tour, Katie takes us to Heifer Ranch where we journey towards 10 acres of the Fourche La Fave River Bottoms leased to Farm Girl for their cattle and roaming chickens. Along the way, the mist begins to accumulate into light rain droplets and as the breeze flies through the fields I again realize that I should have brought a jacket…..what a chilly spring we have had this year.
Stepping out onto the land toward the chicken pasture, my eyes soak up the blurred scenescape of rolling mist, clouds and green hills. Our route through the tree break creates a corridor of vibrant colors and sounds as the wind blows the pine branches above us. This technique of planting trees along the fence row provides not only an aesthetic function but multiple purposes for the farmer: a wind break, shade for livestock and firewood. Breaking through the pathrow of pines, Katie takes us onto a fenced patch of land where the mobile chicken coops are housed. Currently there are 2 houses in production with two more houses ready for action. After 2 weeks in the brooder, the chickens are relocated to a mobile chicken house where they are moved twice daily with the help of a living tractor: the antiquated farm donkey. Again Katie points out the lush vegetated patches where the chickens have moved through providing generous nutrients for cover crop reclamation.
Heading to the last pasture of our tour, we follow Katie towards a mob of grazers: Jersey cows, a donkey and a Shetland pony. Being managed by a practiced grazier, this ultra high density forage-cattle interaction, know as mob grazing, produce quality gains for cattle (a grass-fed diet) and much higher than average gains from the land (a manure-fed diet). As Katie talks about how she utilizes the Jersey breed for both milk and meat, the donkey makes a bee line straight for us. After a few pets and acknowledgements of our attention, we learn more about the efficient physiology of Jersey cows to convert grass into fat providing both flavor and marbling that customers seek in meat products as well as flavor and fat content for milk products. These cattle are rotated through the pastures twice a day and are milked every morning. Milk shares are a new venture at Farm Girl, for more information please contact Katie Short. Be sure to check out their blog.
At Farm Girl, they are aspiring to capture the land of their flocks and herds, the ‘terroir’ of Perry County. Try their offerings of sausages, chicken, pork or beef available on littlerock.locallygrown.net, Argenta & Bernice Garden Farmer’s market and see if you can taste the place. Before we head onto the next leg of the journey, Sam and I give a cheer to real food with fresh raw milk and share our delight of this liquid ice cream that only Jersey cows grazing on the county of Perry County flora can naturally express.
Savor local flavor y’all!
by Angela Gardner
A Cheese Fish in a Vegan Pond
because Kent makes cheese, and “vegan” is the opposite of cheese, and Little Rock only has one artisan cheese maker, so he’s the only one in the pond. Get it?
Kent and I are sitting in Diamond Bear Brewery’s tasting room, talking about his new cheese shop. The visit didn’t begin here; it began in Kent’s kitchen, which he leases from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, but at some point in our conversation it became clear that we were going to have to continue with a beer at Diamond Bear. It fits Kent’s style: he loves fermented products (like cheese, beer, & wine), and tends to drive every interaction towards something more relaxed. Plus, I hadn’t had a Diamond Bear in a long time.
I have to apologize because I am jumping over some of the basic fact nuggets on Kent’s artisan cheese operation. I’ve interviewed him before and wasn’t crazy about rehashing the same questions, albeit for the benefit of those new to Kent’s work. Here’s a summary to catch you up: Kent started hobby making cheese while he worked at a winery in Oregon. He moved to Little Rock, started making so much cheese that the only logical step was to start selling it, and subsequently birthed Kent Walker’s Artisan Cheese. His milk is sourced from Coleman Dairy and a local goat farm. Someday, Arkansas legislation willing, he’ll use raw Arkansas cow’s milk. He does things in the artisan fashion, meaning with simple ingredients (milk, rennet, and the naturally occurring molds that make aged cheese possible) and old school techniques. His current cheeses are aged 3 months in his mock cheese cave (it’s a party tent in a giant walk-in, in which Kent created a 80% humidity environment and other things cheese caves need. Kent is nothing if not thrifty), and the usual list includes Habanero Cheddar (a spicy young cheddar), Garlic Montasio (an earthy Italian cheese), Leicester (a funky English cheese, named for one of Kent’s dog), Bluff Top Feta (a briny goat’s milk fresh cheese) and Ophelia (a very funky wash-rind goat’s cheese, like feta times ten. Also named for one of Kent’s dogs).
Over an Irish Red ale and a Paradise Porter, Kent turns his attention to the future and, in relation to me, the unknown. Big things are afoot. He grabs a pen and scribbles on his coaster. The little lines and geometric shapes formulate into Kent’s future plans: the cheese shop he’s moving into on Main Street. What I see are four rooms of different geometric shape: a production room, an aging room, an office, and the tasting room. The production and aging rooms are where Kent’s head is: his own production space and adjacent aging room are going to allow him to multiply his cheese output by, like, ten, as in the 250lbs of cheese a week he puts out now x 10 = 2500 lbs of cheese a week. Don’t quote me on that, but the point is that he will be making a lot more, with the help of his new 500 gallon cheese vat. For a guy working out of an incubator kitchen on rent and aging his cheese in a warehouse walk-in fridge 5 miles away from his kitchen, this is a big deal. The answer to his logistical prayers, the future of his business.
What I’m interested in is the tasting room. In the tasting room, according to Kent, his cheeses will all be available in whatever quantity your heart desires, alongside a few very rare imports (including a 50lb wheel of 10-year aged parmesan) plus wines (his parents are wine brokers, so you know the wine will be good), charcuterie, and beer, either by the bottle or on tap. From this little foodie haven of a room, customers will be able to observe the cheese making process through windows that overlook his production and aging spaces. All in the renovated basement of the historic Main St building off 6th. It’s going to be a cool place.
Ultimately, Kent and I both are both jazzed about the cheese. At the moment, Kent is hitting his rented kitchen’s roof, and he hasn’t got the capital or space to age his cheese past 3 months. This side of the cheese business I haven’t considered much, but it’s worth appreciating that, for cheese makers (as well as brewers, wine makers, and distillers), a return on their product can take years. It hurts the brain a little to consider the schedule: Kent has to think 3 months in advance when he makes his cheese, or in reverse, he has to deal with whatever decisions he made three months earlier.
When it comes to good cheese, three months is, Kent will tell you, not the sexiest time frame. Really good cheese needs to age longer, and the new space is going to free Kent up a little to do some longer aging. Last September, he put aside a few wheels of Cheddar and Montasio to age for 1 year. Come this September, when he celebrates the grand opening of his new space, those suckers are getting wedged open, and they will be good. But that’s just the beginning, and the prospect of more specialty cheeses, more varieties and experiments, longer aging, is exactly why having a local artisan around is fun. At any point, you’re able to ask Kent what he’s got up his sleeve, and the list can be ever changing, so ever changing that it’s hard to conceive of his cheeses inhabiting the same world as Kraft singles and Velveeta.
This brings me to the final slice of future about which I am excited. Are you still reading? Pay attention to this part. Reserve Cheese. Kent’s done a little creative business planning, and he’s using the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model for his aged cheese. Like a CSA program, the customer pays up front to help offer a little financial security to the producer and receives the product in due time. For Kent’s cheese, this is how it works: you request a wheel of cheese for reserve and pay a portion of the cheese’s cost up front. Then, Kent ages it as long as you want him to, like a delicious round wheel of investment. At this moment, you can have him start a 2-year cheddar for you, and in 2 years you can try a core sample and even say, “Know what, Kent? Let’s age it another two years.” Your call. In addition, Kent invites any reserve customer to participate at any stage of the cheese making process, from fresh milk to flipping your aging wheel. In return, Kent get’s some of the profit up front to help his business out. Know what I think? This is a fantastic gift in the making. I can’t wait (but will have to wait) to give my folks a 2-year cheddar.
To boil it all down, Kent Walker is a cheese fish in a vegan pond indeed, and he is enjoying the space to grow. His cheese is available in retail spaces all over Arkansas and beyond, courtesy of Ben E Keith, as well as a big handful of restaurants. Tusk and Trotter of Bentonville did a special dinner just for Kent last week: a four course meal, of which each course was paired with one of Kent’s cheeses. As long as Kent makes cheese, the chef told him, Tusk and Trotter will buy it exclusively. You can count on that kind of community response in Arkansas, where the local food market isn’t saturated and people love their roots. I can personally say that, as long as Kent makes his cheese, I will enjoy my cheese locally.
By Sam Hedges
Here is a guide to Little Rock’s Farmers’ Markets. You can buy local almost any day of the week!
The Argenta Farmers’ Market (Certified Arkansas Farmers’ Market): @ Argenta Market, across Main St. Saturdays, 7am – 12 Noon. An all-Arkansas certified market, with a wide variety of local products. Tokens available for EBT, debit, and credit cards. Live music and community events. Lots of regular, local vendors.
Bernice Garden Farmers’ Market: @ the Bernice Sculpture Garden. Sundays, 10-2pm. All-Arkansas producers, with plenty of urban farms and community gardens. Lots of veggies, pasture-raised meat, treats, artisan cheese, coffee & pastries, live plants, dog treats. Live music and special events frequent. Root Cafe, Boulevard, and Loblolly Soda Fountain open for brunch.
Farmers’ Market at Shoppes on Woodlawn: @ the Shoppes on Woodlawn lawn. Thursdays, 4:30-7pm. Another Arkansas producers certified market in its first season, in the heart of Hillcrest. Organic produce, organic apparel, pasture-raised meats, and fresh pastries. Perfect for after-work shoppers and happy hours.
Farmers’ Market at The Village: @ the Village Shopping Center, in the Whole Foods parking lot. Wednesdays, 4-7pm. A first season market, featuring certified Arkansas producers, with a focus on natural and organic. Fruits, veggies, and pasture-raised meats!
Hillcrest Farmers’ Market: in front of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, 2200 Kavanaugh Blvd., year-round. Summer hours: 7-12 Noon. Winter hours: 8-12 Noon. All-Arkansas vendors: organic fruits and veggies, pasture-raised meat, baked goods & coffee, live plants, food trucks.
The Little Rock Farmers’ Market: in the River Market’s two open-air pavilions, 7 AM – 3 PM every Tuesday and Saturday, April 30th , 2013 through October 26th, 2013. Lots of crafts, value-added products, fruits, and vegetables! River Market’s food purveyors open. Space to walk along the river & access to the Trolley.
Little Rock Local Food Club: Saturdays, 10-12pm & Mondays, 4:30-6pm, @ Christ Episcopal Church. Little Rock’s online farmers’ market. All Arkansas producers, open year-round. Loaded with pasture-raised beef, chicken, pork, duck, elk, lamb, & goat. Lots of fruits, vegetables, artisan bread, artisan cheese, fresh eggs, live plants, herbs & spices, and value-added products. Order online between Sunday 12:30pm – Wednesday, 7:30am, @ littlerock.locallygrown.net.
Westover Hills Farmers’ Market: adjacent to Westover Hills Presbyterian Church, 6400 Kavanaugh Blvd. Tuesdays, 4-7pm. Fruit and vegetables, cut flowers, crafts, and art. A good midweek market for the Heights’ business district.
An Evening of Local Food and Farmers
On Friday, May 31st, celebrate a new growing season at the Arkansas Local Food Network’s Southern Roots: An Evening of Local Food and Farmers, hosted in partnership with the Oxford American. The event will be held at the Oxford American’s highly anticipated new space on Main Street and will feature South on Main’s Chef Matt Bell’s delicious, Southern-inspired menu designed around the food locally grown by ALFN’s farmers. We’ll also showcase the best of Central Arkansas’s breweries and other adult libations while enjoying live music and our local farmers and artisans share their stories. Proceeds from the fundraiser and silent auction will support ALFN’s next edition of the FRESH Local Food Directory.
May 31st, Friday, 6-9pm.
Tickets: $60 per person, including all food and beverages.
**Get your ticket for only $50 until May 10th!**
Tickets available here, ALFN’s Food Club pickup, and the Green Corner Store!
Quick reminder: The Arkansas Local Food Network gave Feed Fayetteville a $500 grant in 2013 for their Care Cropping program, a program that works to collect excess local produce for communities in need. This is the first update of the year on how the project is going!
From Adrienne Shaunfield…
It’s springtime and the Fayetteville’s Farmer’s Market is back in full swing! We were so excited to see all the smiling faces on the Square on Saturday, seeing old friends and catching up with our local farmers. This week also kicks off the beginning of market gleaning. Gleaning refers to the act of collecting excess produce from the farmer’s market in order to distribute it to those in need.
Market gleaning at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market is a partnership between Seeds that Feed, Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, and Feed Fayetteville. After the market ends, leftover produce is collected, weighed, sorted and prepared for pick-up. Gleaned produce is distributed among local non-profits and churches that serve community meals or have pantries.
This year we are trying some new things to become more efficient in transportation and distribution of the produce. We are excited to be able to use our new Community Food Hub, literally as a ‘hub,’ to do the washing, weighing and sorting of the produce. We are also becoming greener gleaners by reducing the amount of plastic bags used during the process. We are also going to work hard to encourage market patrons to purchase extra for hunger relief.
This year we will also be working on a few new projects with the gleaned produce that we are really excited about. We’ve partnered with the U of A Food Science department to create some added value products using the gleaned produce. This is a trial project to create some local, nutrient dense shelf-stable food items that can be used in weekend snack pack programs at area schools. We are also part of a collaboration called Sunday Supper, a community meal that takes place every Sunday at Trinity United Methodist Church. It is a collaboration between Tri Cycle Farms, Trinity United Methodist, First Presbyterian, St. Paul’s Methodist, First Christian, Good Shepherd Lutheran, Arkansas Hunger Alliance, and Feed Fayetteville. Together we are filling the gap in meal services in our community by adding a Sunday meal. Each partner takes a turn at preparing and serving the meal, which includes live music and children’s activities and is open to all community residents. We work to include local foods at every meal. We will partner with Seeds that Feed to hand out fresh farmers market produce at the meal to those who need it. We are also expanding to be at two different Saturday markets: the downtown square and Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks, as well as our Tuesday and Thursday market days. Seeds that Feed attended a class on food safety at the University of Arkansas that will help us to focus upon proper food handling techniques at all times.
Here’s to a great market season!
The Feed Fayetteville, Fayetteville Farmers’ Market and Seeds that Feed team
Have you read Know Your Farmers: Part 1? Get to Know Arkansas Natural Produce!
Meet Mike and Patti McSwain: The heart behind McSwain Ranch
A few years ago, Mike and Patti began reading and researching where and how our society gets its food. It started with the The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. “Everyone should own a copy of that book,” Patti insists.
This book, as well as works by Joel Salatin, Allan Nation, and Greg Judy, inspired the McSwains to rethink how they eat and what they could do to change things for the better. They had acres of underutilized pasture around their home. They had once toyed with the notion of boarding horses, but their new awareness of the farming industry persuaded them to raise animals for food instead.
This Renaissance led to what is now McSwain Ranch in Lonoke, which provides beef to Central Arkansas’ upscale restaurants and lamb for ‘locavores’ and foodies from around the state. Now they are three years into their adventure with organic grass fed sheep and cattle farming. Using movable fencing, they use rotational grazing to keep their furry friends happy and well-fed with fresh grass.
Mike and Patti love sharing their passion for natural, healthy food and would love to give you a personal tour. You can learn about the underground water system that has been installed in the pastures and how they were awarded federal grants to pursue natural cattle and sheep farming. Also lambing season (March and April) is in full swing, so it would make for a great family field trip. Don’t be surprised if you get to help out wrangling sheep or get treated to an impromptu jazz concert inside their cozy cabin while visiting. They are a welcoming and joyful couple, full of pleasant surprises. Call Mike (501) 676-1572 or Patti (501) 681-1782 to schedule your tour.
Courtesy of Lyndsey Lewis