F2S Farmer Focus: Bill's Best Arkansas Fresh

Local strawberries are the best treat for some lucky students in a few schools in Northwest Arkansas. This love connection was created when Andrew Carberry and his team at the Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) went searching for more local farmers to participate in the state wide Farm 2 School network.

Connecting local farmers to this new market has been exciting and a learning experience for folks on both sides of the farm2school transaction. Arkansas is the leading U.S. rice producer, but grew just $34.8 million of fruits, nuts and vegetables- less than 1 percent of its $5.3 billion crop of grains and oilseeds. The value of the state’s niche crops, such as strawberries and watermelons, has increased 53 percent since 2010, out pacing traditional field plants such as rice and soybeans.

Bill Landreth is the owner and President of Berries by Bill, Inc. He grew up in Traskwood, AR and moved to Newport in 1978 where he farmed with another gentleman before starting to grow his own strawberries in 2000. Currently, Bill farms about 300 acres, including about 6 acres of strawberries, 10 acres of peas, 10 acres of cantaloupe, 30 acres of sweet corn, and 60 acres of watermelon. They operate a farm stand located just off exit 83 at Newport. Beginning in late spring you can buy strawberries from the stand or bring the family out for a u-pick strawberry patch experience. In early summer, Bill also sells sweet corn, watermelons, & cantaloupes.

You can find Berries by Bill on the Arkansas MarketMaker. Just in case you don’t know, MarketMaker is a “national network of states that connect farmers and fishermen with food retailers, grocery stores, processors, caterers, chefs, and consumers”. MarketMakert has been really helpful to small farmers and large as they connect to “food and agricultural organizations investing in a coordinated effort to build a virtual infrastructure that brings healthier, fresher, and more flavorful food to the average consumer”. http://ar.foodmarketmaker.com/business/905128-berries-by-bill-inc

Beverly Dunaway, U of A Program Associate/MarketMaker and Bill Landreth, Owner/Farmer

Beverly Dunaway, U of A Program Associate/MarketMaker and Bill Landreth, Owner/Farmer

Most of Bill Landreth’s produce is sold to a nationwide distributer, H.C. Schmieding Produce, located in Springdale, AR. The history of Schmieding Produce dates back to 1936 in the town of Springdale, Arkansas, where Herbert and Hubert Schmieding, identical twin brothers, “founded a company based on a simple premise – to serve their growers and customers. Soon the brothers were supplying much-needed, farm fresh produce to wholesalers and retailers across the country”. From their early beginnings with potatoes, this local company has grown to include a packing plant and a 1,800-acre farm, located in the San Luis Valley in Colorado and a network of farmers nationwide. They are known for their high standards in food safety.

Mr. Landreth’s farm is “Global Gap” certified, so he has the capacity to sell directly to institutions, distributors or ship directly to Canada. Maintaining rigorous certifications around food safety is very important to Bill and his whole crew – all of his strawberries are hand picked with gloves and placed directly into small clamshells to preserve the shape and freshness of each berry. Now that Bill Landreth is selling directly to schools feeding local kids, he can’t stress food safety enough when he talks with other farmers about this market.

Bill says his biggest challenge in selling wholesale directly to local schools was in making the transportation costs work out on small orders. Working with a few schools, they found one school with a central location so Bill can meet personnel from three or four schools in one place and make the sale. Bill has successfully dropped off $5,000 strawberry orders in this way and the local school kids are benefiting.

More and more schools are gaining the equipment and staff capacity to begin processing fresh foods when they are ripe and serving those throughout the school year. This move to preservinglocal produce makes getting to know your local farmer even more important! Think about all the new markets open to you through schools in your area.                                               Pam Kingfisher

Pam Kingfisher