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New support for farm and food businesses in local, regional markets


University of Missouri Extension is one of 14 partners to organize the new Heartland Regional Food Business Center serving Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and northwestern Arkansas.

The Heartland Regional Food Business Center will help farm and food entrepreneurs build the businesses and supply chain connections needed to meet growing demand for local and regionally produced food, said Patty Cantrell, communications lead for the Center.

The Heartland Regional Food Business Center is one of 12 established across the nation in 2023, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to support development of a more resilient, diverse and competitive food system, Cantrell said. In addition to 14 key partners, more than a dozen collaborating partners are part of the Center’s work.

Local leadership

“MU Extension will provide on-the-ground assistance to local food and farm businesses and support the dissemination of business builder sub-awards to selected applicants across Missouri,” said Bill McKelvey, MU Extension senior project coordinator. MU Extension will provide technical assistance to new and expanding businesses, share information via a newsletter and other communication channels and develop food safety resources for farmers with limited English proficiency. “The effort will complement related programs in Missouri focused on agricultural entrepreneurship and value-added production, along with new funding coming to the state for food systems equipment and infrastructure,” he said.

MU Extension’s Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems (C.A.R.E.S.) will support the new Heartland Regional Food Business Center by providing asset- and resource-mapping tools, evaluation systems and general website support. C.A.R.E.S. will work with partners in the Heartland Regional Food Business Center to map existing assets, uncover gaps in support services for food and farm businesses and develop an online resource that help Missouri farmers and business owners connect to information, funding, research and one-on-one support. C.A.R.E.S. will also support the Center with an evaluation system that aims to capture the impact of its partners on the local economy and the overall food value chain in Missouri. Finally, C.A.R.E.S. will support the initiative with the development of the Heartland Regional Food Business Center’s official website at heartlandfoodbusiness.org.

About the Heartland Regional Food Business Center

The Heartland Regional Food Business Center connects and strengthens small, mid-size and diverse farm and food businesses, as well as local and regional food sector initiatives. It aims to grow the farm and food enterprises, markets and community connections needed to make local food an everyday, easy choice. The growing multistate resource network will provide farm and food businesses with:

Technical assistance, including business training and counseling, planning and mentorship, help with accessing financing, and other support. Business counselors at partner organizations will work together and with other resource providers to support underserved and underrepresented entrepreneurs, from small rural and urban farms to people of color and indigenous and immigrant communities.

Coordination, including connection to other needed businesses, such as distributors, and to local, state and national resources. Partners will assist entrepreneurs locally while also working together regionally to identify and address challenges, such as gaps in local food storage capacity or distribution services. A region-wide asset mapping process will further this work.

Capacity building, including grant funding to support farm and food entrepreneurs in making next-step investments and business assistance to local and regional food sector initiatives. The Heartland Regional Food Center will dedicate $11 million of its total four-year USDA funding of $25 million to business builder sub-awards designed to help on-the-ground entrepreneurs.

Local economy and food security

Building local and regional food supply chains is critical for long-term growth and the sustainability not only of our region but the country, said Steve Schulz, associate professor in the Department of Management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His team will support the Heartland Regional Food Business Center’s work to analyze and assist in developing local and regional food supply-chain logistics.

“We’ve seen how vulnerable our supply chains can be since the pandemic,” he said. “The school lunch program being shut down, restaurants closing, empty grocery shelves.

"Adding more food and farm businesses and building shorter, local and regional supply-chain links will build resilience and strengthen communities," he added.

Ready access to healthy and affordable food is a major objective of USDA’s $400 million investment in establishing Regional Food Business Centers to serve the entire U.S.

“USDA recognizes that local and regional food systems are essential to the overall food supply chain, and the new Regional Food Business Centers are the cornerstone of our efforts to support them,” said Jenny Lester Moffitt, USDA under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

The Heartland Regional Food Business Center will advance the region’s ability to put local food on more tables and help smaller rural and urban farm and food businesses thrive, said Katie Nixon, food systems director at the rural Missouri community development corporation New Growth. She is co-director of the Heartland Regional Food Business Center with Mary Emery, executive director of Rural Prosperity Nebraska at University of Nebraska Extension, which administers the Center.

“The small- to medium-size farms and food entrepreneurs, who often embrace social, environmental and economic sustainability, face an increasingly challenging food system,” Nixon said. This Center is for these businesses, to help them succeed and provide good food for their communities in a way that helps them sustain their operations.”

Regional resource network

Emery said a large part of the effort is to support and advance work that is already underway and to connect more entrepreneurs to existing resources.

“You have all these different entities working with local foods — producers, grocery stores, local distributors, nonprofits, business developers — and these are all puzzle pieces,” she said. “What we want to do with this project is put the puzzle together and see the picture of how regional food systems work.”

The Heartland Regional Food Business Center invites collaboration with other organizations that work with small businesses and in agriculture and community and economic development. Outreach efforts will include learning about other resources and how to support them in working with food and farm businesses.

Get connected

• Website: www.heartlandfoodbusiness.org

• Newsletter and inquiries: www.heartlandfoodbusiness.org/contact

• Email: hrfbc@newgrowthmo.org

• Partners: www.heartlandfoodbusiness.org/partners

Learn about USDA Regional Food Business Centers at www.ams.usda.gov/services/local-regional/rfbcp.

Key partners

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, New Growth CDC, Center for Rural Affairs, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, UNL Indigenous Food Trade Coalition, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Kansas Rural Center, Kansas State University Research and Extension, KC Healthy Kids, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, No More Empty Pots, Oklahoma State University Food and Agricultural Products Center, The Food Conservancy, University of Missouri Extension.