About 15 people circled a giant notepad at Casper College. They had already filled several pages and stuck them to the wall, and they were still brainstorming.
“So, do we have any other big ideas for twenty years from now in agriculture?” asked Deena McDaniels of the Natrona County Farm Service Agency.
McDaniels was leading a public discussion searching for links between agriculture and economic development in Wyoming. Three other groups like this one spread across the top floor of the Student Union, all hoping to contribute recommendations to the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) committee. As the group broke for lunch, Agricultural Experiment Station Director John Tanaka said he was pushing for one idea in particular.
“I threw out this food innovation center, where it could be kind of a public-private partnership, and do research and development for small businesses that really can’t afford to have their own research and development divisions,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka is originally from Oregon, and familiar with a center Oregon State University runs in Portland. There, researchers help business owners study things like taste, shelf life, and marketing.
Powell Economic Partnership Director Christine Bekes was also interested in opening a food innovation center in Wyoming. She and some colleagues planned to tour the Portland center, and she has already visited one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“One of the things I can tell you from my trip to Milwaukee was, wow, from a food manufacturing perspective, Wyoming is in an infant stage,” Bekes said.
Most of the agricultural products that are grown or raised in Wyoming are processed in other states. Wyoming has hardly any food processing facilities, so there is an argument for capturing more manufacturing to add to the state economy. People at the ENDOW summit reiterated the need for in-state factories and more slaughterhouses. Bekes said an innovation center could move this conversation forward. Producers could share expensive equipment, or just get information that will make it less risky to try new things. She said it could also pick up the slack for small business owners who don’t have time to experiment.
“They put on their HR hat. They put on their sales hat. They put on their [research and development] hat. They’re wearing so many hats,” Bekes said. “And oftentimes research might be the one that gets put to the side.”
But Bekes is looking for big businesses to help pay for a center in the Bighorn Basin. Many of the food innovation centers around the country are partnerships between food corporations and four-year universities. Bekes said she at least one private partner expressed interest, but no formal commitments.
Jamie Purcell of Wyoming Food For Thought Project – an organization fighting hunger in Casper - is working on a variation of this idea: a food hub for distribution, marketing, and processing. It would be, she said, “A place for people who don’t necessarily have the means to build their own commercial processing facility to come and utilize it and be able to innovate their raw product into something that is then inspected and then be able to be sold to businesses.”
Purcell runs Casper’s Farmers Market, and she works with several people who, under Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act, can sell goods like jam, eggs, and salsa on a really small scale.
“You have a lot of micro-producers in Casper at least who are making some really great foods, really great things, but because they don’t have access to a commercial processing facility, they’re not able to scale up,” Purcell said.
Stores and restaurants can’t use these foods unless they’ve been processed following certain rules in commercial kitchens, which cost thousands of dollars to build. Purcell sees these shared facilities as a way to make local food available in every neighborhood.
“You have people working in your community, going to shop at little corner grocery stores, buying locally made products, so all this money just stays in your community and continues to circle around and around,” Purcell said.
Not everyone is focused on moving agriculture toward a hyper-local future. At the ENDOW forum, people spent just as much time discussing how to market livestock internationally and how to recruit young farmers and ranchers, as well as suggesting commodities that may be promising, like hemp, hops, and goats. The possibilities for Wyoming excited participants; some will take money, and others legislation to become realities. For now, the public shared a list of ideas with members of the ENDOW committee, which plans to give recommendations to the Governor in August.
The ENDOW subcommittee focusing on advanced manufacturing will hold its own forum in Rock Springs April 12 to talk about other opportunities in Wyoming.