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REX NELSON: Heifer plugs on

At the United Nations headquarters in New York City last week, an event known as the Global Solutions Summit was held a day before the UN's Science, Technology and Innovation Forum convened. One of the issues discussed was a sustainable business model for small farmers, and among the organizations featured was Little Rock-based Heifer International. This nonprofit organization, which dates back to 1944 and began its first Arkansas project in 1949, continues its historic mission of helping communities eradicate poverty and hunger. It has aided more than 32 million families through the decades with sustainable farming practices.

We tend to like shiny new objects, and I'm no different. I wrote a column earlier this year about the resurrection of a Little Rock neighborhood now being marketed as East Village. It's bordered by Interstate 30, the Arkansas River, Ninth Street and Clinton National Airport.

The respected firm Cromwell Architects Engineers has moved its headquarters to the former home of Sterling 12 Star Paint in what's now being dubbed The Paint Factory. There are 16 loft apartments on the second floor. The highly anticipated opening of Cathead's Diner at 515 Shall Ave. had foodies buzzing for months. Rock Dental Brands recently announced that its offices will move to a new East Village development known as The Distillery. Meanwhile, eStem Public Charter School is finishing the conversion of an 111,096-square-foot warehouse into a campus that eventually will house 850 students from kindergarten through the sixth grade and another 450 students from the seventh through the ninth grades.

I'm looking at the East Village construction through the windows of Heifer's headquarters. In focusing on what's shiny and new, we shouldn't forget the anchors. And there's no doubt that Heifer is an anchor for this area. It's also an organization that still has tremendous potential for growth and for being a transformative institution in the evolution of the state's most populous city.

Lunch is at the Cafe at Heifer (an outstanding restaurant that's open to the public from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday), and I'm getting tired just hearing Pierre Ferrari's schedule. Ferrari, who has served as Heifer's president and chief executive officer since 2010, has members of his board and Heifer directors from countries around the world in Little Rock for meetings on this day. He's about to head to Rwanda and Switzerland.

"We have a very conservative model when you think about it," Ferrari says. "We teach self-reliance. We give people hope, and then we get out of the way."

Ferrari was born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), received a master's degree in economics from the University of Cambridge, and earned a master's of business administration from Harvard Business School. He has served on numerous corporate boards (including Ben & Jerry's ice cream) and once was the senior vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola.

Ferrari told Forbes in 2013 that his upbringing in Africa "exposed me to a lot of issues that Heifer deals with in terms of poverty, hunger, inequities and all of the impacts of colonialism. I went off to high school and then college in England and decided I would come to the United States and make a career here. I completed an MBA degree and ended up working for Coca-Cola for a couple of decades and finally decided that wasn't really my life's calling. I left that and went to work on corporate social responsibility activities." He brought the organizational and financial skills needed to take Heifer to the next level.

Little Rock attorney Mark Grobmyer, who has joined us for lunch, says most Arkansans have no idea how the organization has evolved.

"Almost nobody here knows about it," Grobmyer says. "What I mean is that Heifer is setting the standard for how the world will go about the work of dealing with global hunger and poverty in a way that also cares for the earth. Heifer still maintains its mission of handing out cows to a village instead of milk, but the scale is amazing. Some of their projects involve organizing tens of thousands of families in a country into farmer-owned cooperatives. This not only enables farmers to grow more and receive better prices but also creates business units that can operate things like water systems, small electric grids, feed mills, dairy processing plants and health clinics."

That work extends to this country through the efforts of Heifer USA. On average, small farmers receive about 16 cents for every dollar of food sold. The other 74 cents is used for packaging, distribution and marketing. Farmers in Heifer USA cooperatives receive an average of 75 cents and use the remaining 25 cents to run the cooperatives, which in turn provide marketing and distribution services. That frees farmers to spend their time raising food. Almost 75 percent of the nation's 2 million farmers sell less than $50,000 worth of agricultural products per year, and 57 percent sell less than $10,000 annually. They're forced to supplement their incomes with other jobs.

In Arkansas, Heifer has created two farmer-owned cooperatives, New South Produce Cooperative for sustainably grown fruits and vegetables and Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative for grass-fed meats. The cooperatives provide products for restaurants, grocers and families enrolled in community-supported agriculture programs.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/13/2018

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