A federal initiative that aims to help farmers in impoverished areas obtain loans and other assistance has been expanded into 23 more counties in Arkansas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed the StrikeForce Initiative in 2010 as a pilot program in 25 Arkansas counties and in counties in Georgia and Mississippi. The agency announced last week it would expand into 23 additional Arkansas counties, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Monday (http://bit.ly/1idzVW6 ).
The goal of StrikeForce is to help farmers, food producers and other businesses get access to money for projects such as new wells, greenhouses, community gardens, kitchen space, and summer meals for low-income school children. The USDA uses U.S. Census data to find areas with poverty rates higher than 20 percent.
"We're helping put people in place to do what they already want to do," said Charlie Williams, a StrikeForce coordinator in Pine Bluff.
In eastern Arkansas, farmers are focusing on producing foods for school-lunch programs, Williams said. For example, students in the Forest City School District are served sweet potatoes that are grown locally.
In south Arkansas, farmers are growing Southern peas that will be sold in produce sections of some Wal-Mart stores, Williams said.
"We're dealing with the stigma of big farms," Williams said. "One farmer can't do it. But if we form partnerships, we can. The addition of the new counties (in Arkansas) is the result of our accomplishments."
Since 2010, StrikeForce has helped oversee $9.7 billion in investments in rural farms, according to the USDA.
The original 25 counties are: Arkansas, Bradley, Chicot, Clark, Columbia, Dallas, Desha, Drew, Hempstead, Howard, Jackson, Lafayette, Lawrence, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Nevada, Newton, Ouachita, Phillips, Randolph,Searcy, Sevier, St. Francis and Woodruff.
The new additions announced last week are: Ashley, Clay, Conway, Craighead, Crittenden, Franklin, Fulton, Independence, Izard, Jefferson, Johnson, Lincoln, Madison, Miller, Montgomery, Poinsett, Polk, Scott, Sebastian, Sharp, Stone, Union and Van Buren counties.