Fresher strawberries for consumers and an economic boost for local farmers throughout the country is the aim of a $3 million donation made recently by the Wal-Mart Foundation to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

The donation will go to the Division’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, or CARS. The center will create and manage a national competitive grants program, awarding money from the donation to land-grant and other public universities with agricultural research and outreach programs with projects that will, among other things, expand where strawberries can be grown, enabling shorter trips for the berries between farm and consumer.

CARS is composed of faculty from multiple disciplines and focuses on enhancing economic, social and ecological prosperity for rural communities around the world. Established in 2007, CARS’ work includes developing tools for farmers in the U.S. and around the world that can predict greenhouse gas impacts in livestock operations, researching and teaching production methods that improve water quality and quantity, and enabling farms to provide healthy and safe produce.

“We are excited this grant will enhance sustainable production of strawberries. That means better access for shoppers to quality strawberries and better profitability for the farmers growing the crops,” said Michelle Gilliard, Senior Director of the Wal-Mart Foundation. “Through partnership with institutions like the University of Arkansas, the Wal-Mart Foundation leverages the company’s commitment to locally grown fresh produce in America by funding programs that make agricultural products better for people and the environment.”

“We’re grateful to the Wal-Mart Foundation for its support and we see this donation as a starting point for innovations that will benefit consumers, farmers and the environment,” said Mark Cochran, the university’s vice president for agriculture.

Long haul berries

“Strawberries are a highly perishable fruit with a short shelf life in the supply chain,” said Curt Rom,a horticulture professor for the university, and part of the center’s leadership team. “Strawberries travel an average distance up to or exceeding 3,000 miles from farm to market.”

Though prized for their delicate taste and texture, those same qualities can be the berries’ weakness -- especially when hauled thousands of miles.

It’s estimated that between the time the berries are picked to the time they reach the consumer, losses can reach 36 percent, with an annual value of $1.14 billion, Rom said.

Problem-solving for better fruit

To solve these issues, the center will seek proposals from research and extension teams at land-grant and public universities nationally that will expand strawberry production areas, decrease energy use and environmental impacts, and cut product losses. All of these add up to a more sustainable industry.

"The ongoing collaboration between land grant universities, agricultural producers, food companies, and retailers is critical to improving quality, safety, and efficiency and reducing negative impacts across the agricultural supply chain," said professor Marty Matlock, engineering program director for CARS.

CARS will seek project proposals through its website at http://strawberry.uark.edu and will award grants in May to coincide with National Strawberry Month.