WORDS and IMAGES Jenny Boulden
There are only so many Amazon boxes you can take. Sooner or later, if you’re anything like me, you find yourself yearning for something authentic. Fresh. Local. Maybe handcrafted, even. Something grown from the earth. Something that supports communities, not billionaires.
A few months ago, following my Google maps app, I found myself heading from Little Rock on a quest for that sense of fresh authenticity, to a small place in the outskirts of North Little Rock. Driving slowly around a bend on U.S. 70, there it was, a sign with a bright red truck pointing towards a place I wanted to be: Me & McGee Market.
Me & McGee is a year-round, family-run farmers market that, honest-to-God, looks straight out of a Hallmark movie about, say, a big-city lawyer who visited her grandfather’s strawberry farm, fell in love and realized her dream was not tax law, but selling local produce and handmade goods.
For Logan Duvall, whose family owns Me & McGee Market, that (minus the rest of my imaginary Hallmark movie) is exactly the dream. “I’m born and raised here in Arkansas,” he says over the phone, his three young kids playing in the background. “I’m really proud of our state and the people in it. Being able to highlight other Arkansans and be part of that community, I’m just kinda passionate about that.”
The family business is packed with classic Arkansas charm. Visitors wander among rows of healthy, flowering plants. I see stands of fresh fruits and vegetables; shelves of breads, jams, spice rubs, sauces and baked goods; bins of fried pork skins; coolers of farm-fresh eggs, cut herbs and bagged lettuces; and sundry bits of décor like hand-built birdcages and garden art with more live plants filling in all the nooks and crannies.
I take pictures of everything. They’re all Instagram-worthy, and it’s exciting to be somewhere outside, and away from the house where my family, like everyone else’s, has been hunkered for months. It’s the experience I’ve been missing, and the local products I didn’t know I needed.
Arkansas Grown, Arkansas Made
Among the shelves are signs and stickers indicating Arkansas Made or Arkansas Grown products. You’ve likely seen their logos in other businesses around the state. They’re eye-catching, by intent. Seeing them always makes me happy. It feels good to buy local.
“My grandparents started this place,” says owner Logan Duvall. “It happened by accident, really. They just put in a garden and people started stopping by on the side of the road. My mom suggested they put up a stand and just offer what they had on site. Then my grandparents became members in the Arkansas Grown program about seven years ago … We don’t grow anything ourselves now, but we have stayed in the program because we have a lot of farmers and others in the program who sell here.”
The Arkansas Grown and Arkansas Made programs are administered by the state’s Department of Agriculture. Americans have long known to look for and take pride in products with the official “Made in the USA” badge on them. But here in Arkansas the notion of a branding program that would enhance state pride and help promote the state’s farmers and their wares has been around less than a decade.
The Department of Agriculture’s Arkansas Grown program was established in 2012. Today the program and its sister branches, Arkansas Made and Homegrown by Heroes, collectively have nine hundred members. Arkansas Grown members are farmers and ranchers, growers of agricultural products. Arkansas Made members are makers of edibles and goods who sell their products directly or indirectly to the public. Homegrown by Heroes is a national program that encourages, honors and promotes U.S. armed forces veterans who have turned to farming. Also under this agriculture umbrella is the Arkansas Grown School Garden program which encourages the state’s youngest growers.
Members who matter
For all its appeal to me on that Wednesday afternoon, Me & McGee Market is just one among one hundred eleven farmers markets in the state recognized by the Arkansas Farmers Markets Association, which works closely with the Department of Agriculture. The markets and their growers are an increasingly cohesive community of local communities.
Agriculture Program Director Karen Reynolds runs the Arkansas Grown and Made programs. “If you’re a farmer or maker, the networking, the relationships formed through these programs are really the best reasons to join,” she says in a phone interview weeks later. “Our members support each other.”
The Grown and Made programs together have nine hundred members, many of whom overlap. Reynolds says, “The programs work hand-in-hand. There are a lot of farmers who have Arkansas-made products. They’re raising tomatoes and have too many, or maybe they’re not attractive enough, so they make them into salsa. It all goes together.”
Other examples: Rabbit Ridge Farms in Bee Branch sells its organic beef, heritage pork and free-range chicken at farmers markets, online and to restaurants, but also makes products like broth, sauces, bacon jam and dog chews sold in its online store. In Van Buren, M&M Farms are members of Arkansas Grown. They sell their grass-fed beef, sheep, lamb and eggs. In Logan County, the Benedictine monks at Subiaco Academy are members of Arkansas Grown and Arkansas Made. They grow their own habanero peppers, then cook them into their famous Monk Sauces, sold on their website along with other monk-crafted products ranging from peanut brittle to calligraphy, wood carvings and even cremation urns.
Among the makers who don’t double as farmers are businesses like the famous Serenity Farm Bread baked in downtown Leslie, its artisanal loaves shipped all over the country, or the handmade, all-natural soaps sold by Everberry Botanicals in Huntsville.
Arkansans can search for any products or members at ArkansasGrown.org, the online hub of the programs. All members, who come from every part of the state no matter how small the community, receive a free listing on the site. The site allows users to search by program, county, type of product, even the types of places their products are sold. The programs are free to join, but have incentivized membership levels ranging from $30-$500 per year for member benefits beyond the free listing.
“It’s a useful tool for finding what products you want, or discovering farmers in your region, whether you’re a consumer or someone looking to connect to others in your industry,” Reynolds says.
Keeping up (and uplifted) with 2020
Another free tool Reynolds wants everyone in the state to know about is UpliftArkansas.com. Started by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau as a central repository of local business, restaurant and nonprofit updates related to COVID-19 shutdowns and reopenings, the site has since incorporated farmers and businesses and organizations all across the state.
Reynolds says that, like every other small business, the members of Arkansas Grown and Arkansas Made have had to adapt to the sudden changes of 2020.
“During this COVID pandemic, our farmers have been very innovative,” she says. “Some of them have established drive-throughs where you can order and pay online, then they can pull the orders together. You drive up, they put it in the trunk of your car and you drive off.”
Others, she says, have worked with restaurants to establish pop-up markets where the patrons can shop for fresh local produce from the restaurant. Some have expanded local food networks. Quite a few have been establishing an online presence for the first time.
She says UpliftArkansas.com has free listings that users can claim or can create their own if their organization is not already listed, then customize with their news. The site is easy to use and the changes appear in real time, so the site is always current.
Logan Duvall says the Arkansas Grown and Made programs keep people connected, to each other, the land and often, shared goals. “I love that there’s a government entity that’s trying to push to help everyone in this industry. You’ve got to have members working together. That’s how this works.”
Back home, browsing through ArkansasGrown.org, there are so many tasty-sounding foods and intriguing products and gifts, I get lost in the possibilities. Clearly, I have a lot more exploring Arkansas markets to do, online and off.
And I dare say, next time a delivery shows up to my door, there’s a higher than average chance it’s going to have an Arkansas postmark, not another Amazon swoosh.
Find local vendors at ArkansasGrown.org. For information on Me and McGee Market, visit MeandMcgeeMarket.com.