NSF Grant Administered by I³R to Empower Small Farmers

NSF Grant Administered by I³R to Empower Small Farmers
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Led by the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I³R) at the U of A, a cross-disciplinary team of university researchers, consultants and startup companies has been awarded a National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator grant for a project designed to connect regional farmers with institutional buyers and ultimately expand access to healthy and nutritious food. NSF’s Convergence Accelerator was launched in 2019 to build upon basic research and accelerate solutions toward societal impact through convergence — the integration of ideas and approaches across research sectors. 

The project, “Data-driven Agriculture to Bridge Small Farms to Regional Food Supply Chains,” — one of 16 multidisciplinary teams awarded under the NSF Convergence Accelerator’s Track J: Food & Nutrition Security — brings researchers from the U of A, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and University of Florida together with two startups, Cureate and Junction AI Inc., and a team of consultants to tackle challenges such as food insecurity while offering novel business solutions. 

“We’re excited to bring this team of experts and innovators together to empower regional food producers with data insights that could enable access to new markets,” said the project’s principal investigator, Meredith Adkins, who is currently the director for industry and community engagement for the Division of Economic Development and will be transitioning to be an assistant research professor at I³R. “By leveraging our collective expertise and engaging in an extensive planning and user discovery process to deeply understand the needs of producers, buyers and other stakeholders, we have the opportunity to make both a positive societal and economic impact, particularly here in Arkansas.”

The overall objective of this project is to empower regional food producers to understand the economic value of specialty crop assortment and food animals on their farms in comparison to market demand for institutional sales and intervening factors such as food safety considerations. The project team ultimately will create a scalable technology platform that provides market insights to small farmers via the convergence of multiple scientific research fields and modern technological innovations such as robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

“This is a unique convergence of the public and private sectors, and exactly the kind of project we envisioned I³R driving,” said Mike Malone, vice chancellor for economic development. “The team’s diverse research and business experience will yield novel solutions that we can take to the marketplace to spur regional economic development.” 

The project will engage students, including those underrepresented in fields such as food science and computer engineering, in convergence research and in human-centered design across the three Arkansas land-grant institutions. The investigators will lead outreach with small farmers in Northwest Arkansas, as well as the underserved regions of the central Arkansas Delta and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma through the U of A School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, a grant collaborator. 

“IFAI is excited to collaborate on this cross-disciplinary effort to support our region’s Indigenous food producers,” said Erin Parker, executive director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. “Supporting economic development through tribally-led agricultural investment in Indian Country is a key part of our mission, and we look forward to the opportunities this work will open up for Tribal producers.”

Success of the project will have broader societal implications for the economic livelihoods of small farmers and local businesses, for climate resiliency by creating income streams for farmers practicing regenerative agricultural techniques of mixed farming and crop diversification, and for the increased availability of safe and nutritious local food and metabolic health in local communities.

“It is encouraging to see this partnership with the Division of Agriculture, University of Arkansas and University of Arkansas Pine Bluff,” said Deacue Fields, vice president of the U of A System Division of Agriculture. “This project speaks to our mission of strengthening agriculture, communities and families.” 

“This project is an ideal fit for the university’s strengths in food law and policy and a great opportunity to collaborate with researchers here and at our partner institutions,” said Margaret McCabe, senior adviser for strategic projects and professor of law. “I am excited to see the positive difference we can help make for small farmers and underserved regions.”

The grant totals $743,651 and will support market research, hiring of graduate assistants, development of the technology platform and other initiatives. Co-investigators include Chase Rainwater, professor of industrial engineering, U of A; Kristen Gibson, professor of food science, U of A System Division of Agriculture and U of A; Thi Hoang Ngan Le, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering, U of A; and Yasser Sanad, assistant professor of food safety, University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. Multiple distinguished faculty and consultants serve as senior personnel and will advise on the project. 

“The NSF Convergence Accelerator exemplifies what I³R is and will be. Access to healthy food is an essential component of our vision for integrative health, and support for the FoodTech and HealthTech ecosystems in Arkansas will contribute to economic development in the region,” said Ranu Jung, endowed chair and executive director of I³R, associate vice chancellor and Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering. “We will create transformative discoveries and deliver them at scale to the benefit of the economy and society.”

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.

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