Center leadership poses in front of Wheat Ridge Poultry & Meats during their first retreat in September 2023.
A Message from the Center: USDA Regional Food Business Centers Take Shape
In 2023, the USDA Ag Marketing Service (AMS) expanded funding for Regional Food Business Centers (RFBCs) with a goal to coordinate, deliver and provide investments to farm, ranch and food enterprises throughout the U.S., with a focus on underinvested stakeholders. These Centers are one key piece of a broader Food System Transformation framework introduced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that included several food policy developments related to improving the resilience, functionality, and sustainability of agricultural supply chains. Vilsack shared this framework with Center leadership at a November 2023 meeting in Denver, Colorado.
Tom Vilsack sharing the Food System Transformation framework with Center leadership in Denver, Colorado in November 2023.
In cooperation with USDA AMS, Colorado State University and Oregon State University are leading the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Food Business Center alongside dozens of partners and collaborators for the 2023-2028 period. We are excited to get to work for our region and be a part of this new network of RFBCs!
After officially beginning our agreement in July 2023, we had our first orientation retreat in September 2023 to strategize how to coordinate and elevate the ongoing activities in our geographic and theme areas.
The structure of the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Food Business Center.
We also got the chance to meet many of our colleagues running Centers across the country at a November 2023 Summit in Washington D.C. and look forward to leaning into that network as our programs develop.
As a network of Centers, the USDA asked us to carry out three primary functions, each of which we have well underway in the region.
Our first function is serving as regional hubs that coordinate across geographic areas with USDA, and federal, state, and tribal agencies to engage stakeholders in developing and implementing plans to serve the region. We have already connected with over 1,300 stakeholders, including almost 300 of you who have signed up to receive our newsletter.
Our second function is providing direct technical assistance to small- and mid-sized food and farm businesses. When deciding on how best to address the technical assistance needs of our region, we realized that, while geographically vast, the farm, ranch and food economies of this region share similar ecological, economic, and socio-political dynamics. These similarities helped shape our theme teams:
- Building Meat Supply Chain Capacity: Our region derives 50% of agricultural receipts from animal products, making consolidated and vertically integrated meat sectors a key focus area.
- Creating Diverse Markets for Climate Resilient Ag: Water is increasingly scarce and expensive in our region, resulting in evolving policy and market responses to land development and support for agriculture. These include climate-smart agricultural partnerships, conservation easements and emerging models for land and water cooperatives that would require new, stronger and innovative climate-smart markets.
- Connecting and Scaling Food Entrepreneurs: There is substantial growth in organic, natural, local and regional food markets, including a higher-than-average share of consumer buying dollars in these areas. While this is a promising trend, supply chain and sustainable resource challenges increase the demand to help scale food entrepreneurs appropriately.
- Supporting Right-Size Investing and Infrastructure: Our region has relatively long transportation distances between production zones and consumer markets, with relatively less access to rail-based transport options, making distribution more dependent on trucking. The region is also an innovator in using innovative capital strategies and public-private partnerships to spur new enterprises, but ag and food are often absent from those discussions. Focus on right-size investments and infrastructure will be key in helping to solve challenges to regional capital and logistical barriers.
Each of these great theme teams have community-based discussions underway and are looking for ways to expand proven technical assistance programs to a wider set of states and audiences. Additionally, teams are brainstorming new ways to elevate and invest in new businesses, markets, collaborations, and value chains.
A few examples from our theme teams:
- The Meat Supply Chain team will launch the Western Meat School Business Accelerator in March 2024 with new scholarships and investments to recruit and support broader participation from those previously underserved.
- The Right Size Investment group is creating a Capital 101 Resource guide, and actively identifying and vetting technical assistance service providers already working on the ground with priority communities as identified by USDA, with the bigger goal to launch an “Accessing Capital Technical Assistance Network.”
- The Climate Smart Markets team had their kickoff event at the Farm and Food Symposium in Spokane from November 15-16, 2023 and more broadly, is conducting a 6-state landscape assessment to identify priorities for their team’s work.
- The Scaling Food Entrepreneur team had opportunities to immediately respond to stakeholder needs by offering food entrepreneurs nominated by each state the opportunity to take a Get your Recipe to Market Course through scholarships. The team is updating the Shared Kitchen Toolkit in Winter 2024 and took 12 emerging food companies to the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show in January 2024. In addition to the connections made between potential buyers and those businesses the Center sponsored, our team also made dozens of new food industry contacts to help support the Center’s mission.
The third function the USDA has asked us to carry out as a Center is supporting projects focused on regional needs and businesses working toward expansion. Our Center’s Business Builder Grant Program will be released later this spring (more information to come).
Although not directly affiliated with our Center, we are excited to see the roll out of new Resilient Food System Infrastructure grant programs in each of our six states, as they may be the largest investment targeted at regional markets in recent history. We are doing our best to make sure the programs complement each other in addressing any potential opportunities or gaps for capitalizing regional markets.
Speaking to broadening and addressing the barriers faced previously by some of our constituents, we are also trying to diversify and create a welcoming community context, as states in the region share an acute history of disenfranchisement and displacement, particularly with respect to indigenous nations and pre-colonial Hispanic communities. Moreover, the stream of migrant farmworkers (and their descendants) represents another population with great interest in exploring farm and food enterprises as they evolve from hired workers to entrepreneurs of their own. Given USDA’s focus and relatively high populations of other underserved groups in this region, we are also focused on serving veterans, beginning farmers, small and midsize farms and hope to collaborate with those using USDA NIFA’s AgrAbility programs.
We are incredibly excited for the growth of the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Food Business Center in cooperation with USDA AMS, and our continued work with our committed partners and collaborators. We look forward to supporting our region’s farm, ranch, and food business entrepreneurs, as well as broader food supply chain enterprises, for years to come.
From the CSU and OSU Center Leadership Team
Dawn Thilmany, Lauren Gwin, and Martha Sullins