NRCS chief applauds UAPB, organizations for collaborative efforts in Delta

Bobbie Handcock | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences

NRCS Chief Jason Weller, far right, and other guests listen as project coordinator Theodore Eldridge, Sr., talks about the merits of a pea sheller at the UAPB Agriculture Demonstration and Outreach Center during a tour.

MARIANNA, Ark. – Jason Weller, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, recently lauded partnerships between the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and organizations working in the Arkansas Delta. After a tour of the UAPB Agriculture Demonstration and Outreach Center (ADOC) in Lee County, Weller told partnering agencies that “you’ve led the way on how we can work more collaboratively – really showing people the way.”

UAPB works with NRCS, the East Arkansas Enterprise Community (EAEC) and Heifer International’s Arkansas Delta Seeds of Change Coalition to assist local farmers and the community.

“It’s not one agency, it’s not one person,” Weller said. “It’s a family. It’s a group that’s working to get things done.” During his visit, Weller toured the ADOC and a hoop house used for growing produce. He also learned about on-site drip irrigation systems.

The ADOC is a vegetable processing/marketing center devoted to vegetable production and marketing, and provides options for growers to sell crops. Marketing for the facility is done by the EAEC, which provides technical assistance and training to people in Delta communities to foster economic development through agriculture. The Seeds of Change project addresses food security in the Arkansas Delta by teaching residents effective farming techniques and connecting them to markets.

“We are glad that (Weller) came to visit the ADOC,” said Dr. James O. Garner Jr., dean of the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences. “One of our goals is to grow our partnerships and collaborations to serve limited resources farmers and improve conservation practices in Arkansas.”

Weller met with landowners, conservation partners and NRCS employees during a two-day tour of the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative and USDA StrikeForce Initiative projects in Arkansas. During a meeting in Wynn, he met UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander, who talked about UAPB’s history of collaborating with NRCS. Dr. Alexander also highlighted the need to grow collaborations.

USDA StrikeForce Arkansas coordinator Charlie Williams said Strikeforce’s goal is to impact people’s lives through projects that promote economic development. The initiative strives to accelerate USDA assistance while working closely with community-based organizations.

UAPB and the Strikcforce Initiative support the Walmart Buy Local Initiative project where the retailer purchases locally grown peas from Arkansas small farmers and sells them in their stores. StrikeForce emphasizes the need for irrigation to produce a quality crop and combat drought. Farmers may apply to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) to help offset the cost of irrigation.

The StrikeForce is helping to tackle food insecurity and provide access to healthy food in a nine-county area through a partnership with Heifer International and EAEC. Weller’s visit to the Delta allowed him to see “the fruits of our efforts,” Williams said.

Arkansas has been a lead state in the StrikeForce Initiative, EAEC director Dr. Robert Cole said, explaining that it was among three pilot states. “The Arkansas Delta has a new partnership that consists of 42 organizations,” Cole said. “That new coalition is the Arkansas Delta Seeds of Change. A five-year plan is looking at markets, capital, entrepreneurship, production and infrastructure.”

“Our overall goal is to end hunger, poverty and take care of the earth and this can only happen if money, resources, people – which constitutes wealth – is kept in the Delta communities,” said Senchel Matthews, a project director for Heifer International.

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