THE UNIVERSITY of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is the lead institution receiving a $1.8 million USDA grant that will support research to develop products and markets for small-scale producers of vegetables and fruit in Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems grant from the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service is for a three-year project. Agricultural economist Michael Thomsen and food scientist Justin Morris, both Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers, are co-directors of the project.

The other institutions participating in the project are the UA Cooperative Extension Service, the UA at Pine Bluff, Alcorn State University in Mississippi, Mississippi State University and Oklahoma State University.

“There are roughly 4,000 farmers producing fruits and vegetables in Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, mostly on small, family-owned farms,” Thomsen said. “Consolidation in the produce industry has made access to fresh produce markets more difficult, and small farms have come to rely more and more on farmers' markets, pick-your-own and similar means of direct marketing.”

Direct marketing options can't handle even the volume produced by small farms, so producers often lose significant amounts of crops to spoilage. They also lose usable blemished produce that won't sell in fresh markets.

“One of the goals is to find and develop marketing windows for value-added fruit and vegetable products,” Thomsen said. “There may be local restaurants, for example, that want to feature locally-grown foods on their menus.”

Morris, who is director of the UA Division of Agriculture's Institute of Food Science and Engineering, said developing new products and processing methods will be a key component of the project. “We're already exploring possibilities in areas like dehydration of surplus fruits and are working with entrepreneurs to develop and market value-added food products,” Morris said.