Charleston man fights hunger, helps farmers

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CHARLESTON, Ark. (AP) - After 12 years in Latin America and three years in the United States working with Heifer International to support small farmers, Perry Jones has returned to his roots to do the same thing in Arkansas.

As executive director and social entrepreneur for Heifer’s domestic Seeds of Change Initiative, Jones and the people at Heifer have taken on two of the most vexing social issues in the United States in much the same way they are being addressed in developing nations - education and networking.

Jones is excited about the potential of this program and the good it can do for both the health of people and the economy. He rattles off the nonprofit’s magnanimous goals and a growing roster of farmer’s names like a memorized supplies list.

“We’re really being intentional about reaching out to people with limited resources, the socially disadvantaged, the women and minorities,” Jones told the Times Record (http://bit.ly/1fgr9r3 ). “We want to help farmers make a living wage with sustainable agriculture, connect them to markets and build an infrastructure.”

Heifer’s stated Seeds of Change Initiative goals also included encouragement of community self-reliance by meeting a demand for locally grown food, improve nutrition through increased access to healthy food, and conserve natural resources for long-term agricultural growth.

Jones said his dream has always been to make a living on the family farm. This work with Heifer is also about a personal mission to create living-wage jobs in sustainable agriculture in rural Arkansas.

“This is done through connecting rural producers to local and regional consumers who want access to healthy food and who want to keep their dollars recirculating right here at home,” Jones said. “It’s also an opportunity to leverage Heifer’s support to position Arkansas as a leader in the national local food and sustainable ag movements.”

One of those leading sustainable farmers is Jody Hardin of North Little Rock, who founded the Argenta Market and now runs the Food and Farming Innovation Center at the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas. Hardin started the center last year at the 103-year-old former children’s home on Camp Robinson Road. With 80 rooms and 54,000 square feet, along with 63 acres of land, Hardin has plenty of room to grow and is strongly tied into the state’s local food movement.

Perry said he has known Hardin for several years and was an important source of inspiration when hearing him speak on a panel of farmers to a group of international Heifer leadership. Jones was working and living in Latin America at the time, in 2005.

“Hearing him talk gave me hope for the first time in my life that it was possible to make a living in sustainable agriculture here,” Jones said. “He planted the seeds for the work that we’re now doing. He’s an amazing visionary and go-getter and a dear friend.”

Three Arkansas regions are being set up, with much of the concentration being focused now in the Arkansas Delta, where the blight of hunger and poverty is strongest.

Another branch of Heifer’s Seeds of Change program is being done in Appalachia. One in four Arkansans and one in three children in Appalachia struggle with hunger, the Heifer website states. So far, 12 small-scale farmers in the Delta have signed up for the Seeds of Change program.

The Heifer Ranch in Perryville and the Food and Farming Innovation Center are places that Seeds of Change farmers can go to learn advanced farming techniques and business practices. St. Joseph’s also will serve as a distribution point.

One farming technique deals with bio-char, which dramatically enhances the productivity of soil by using fungus inoculated charcoal to create what is known as “terra preta.” No-till farming practices are also taught at these centers using terra preta as soil restoration with hay bales as weed control.

In Crawford County, Jeremy and Nina Prater of Hobbtown Grassfed Farms at Cedar Creek, and Van Buren native Cody Hopkins of Falling Sky Farms in Marshal are taking part in a livestock cooperative that is a separate entity from the vegetable co-op, but could ultimately support the growth of the entire network. Jeremy Prater returned from Washington, D.C. on Thursday where he was part of an Arkansas contingent of the National Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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