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Morton EDC initiative connects local ag professionals and employers

Tim Alexander

Several dozen area agriculture industry professionals and employers met at the Peoria USDA Ag Lab last week for two hours of what AgTech Connect organizer Leigh Ann Brown referred to as “purposeful collisions” designed to spark economic growth in the Greater Peoria region.

According to Brown, who is the CEO for the Morton Economic Development Council, the agriculture industry is a major socio-economic driver in central Illinois accounting for thousands of local jobs and billions in economic stimulus. Connecting current and future employers with a capable local workforce is the goal of AgTech Connect, which has held a few local meetings since organizing a little over a year ago.

“(The ag industry) is economic development, it is innovation, it has been the foundation of so much that has been developed throughout our region and beyond,” Brown told meeting attendees and speakers, which included Peoria Ag Lab Director Todd Ward along with various USDA researchers and business development specialists who are seeking local partnerships with ag tech businesses to bring new products and technologies to market.

“We’ve all experienced how hard it is to connect with others to further your development along with supply chain needs and opportunities. We need to bring this industry closer together and have purposeful collisions for creative solutions and innovations, and uncover opportunities to yield greater growth for all of us,” Brown told the employers present at the event, which included representatives from Peoria’s Distillery Labs, start-up ag software company GoodFarmSolutions of Morton and many other local ag-related businesses, start-ups and spin-offs.

Public-private partnerships sought by USDA-ARS

Brown said the AgTech Connect program is “moving throughout the region” to bridge the gap between qualified entry-level and experienced employees and farmers to high-end, tech-related companies, organizations and other resource partners. Those partners include the USDA Ag Lab, which is officially known as the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) National Center for Agricultural Utilization and Research (NCAUR).

Tim Alexander

Current research projects underway at NCAUR include work to improve climate resilience and sustainability of cereal crops, reduce insect and disease pressure on crops and create products intended to improve pollinator health. According to Ward, once ready for release into the market many of the products and technologies being developed at the Ag Lab will be available for commercial development through partnership agreements with the USDA.

“We’ve always been focused on bio-based solutions here, whether in terms of renewable agricultural materials or developing entirely new products, such as pennycress, and commercializing those crops or the products of those crops,” the NCAUR director stated. The “handing off” of government-produced product and technology research to public, for-profit companies– or the opposite– is achieved through processes known as technology transfers and cooperative research partnerships, according to USDA researcher and scientist Dr. Ken Doll, who also acts as NCAUR’s “tech transfer liaison” to private industry.

“To get technology into the world we have to have some kind of delivery system. Technology has to be transferred to have any real-world impact. It’s not a new thing; this goes back at least to Harry Truman,” said Doll, adding that because the Ag Lab uses public funding and resources for its research and development, it is appropriate that public industry should have the opportunity to bring USDA products and technologies to market.

“Cooperative research partnerships are between the ARS and private partners–maybe one of you,” Doll said, gesturing to the business representatives present at the session. “But the pieces all have to fit. A lot of times you guys have the technological marketing expertise we don’t have.

That’s where your piece of the puzzle and our piece of the puzzle come together.” Doll spoke extensively on the licensing process for public-private partnerships. He recommended that local ag-tech entrepreneurs who might want to bring a USDA-ARS research project to the marketplace– or introduce their own– through a cooperative agreement contact him at Kenneth.Doll@usda.gov.

Unlocking USDA resources for small businesses

Opportunities exist for businesses and small communities to receive funding from USDA to help develop and bring ag tech products to market, according to Matt Harris, a business programs specialist for USDA. Harris told the AgTech Connect crowd that business funding programs such as the federal Rural Energy for America (REAP) program and Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan program can provide up to $25 million in loans and grants through USDA’s Rural Business Cooperative Service.

More than $17 million has been extended to Illinois businesses through the REAP program, which contains a grant component of up to 50 percent of the loan, since 2018. The B&I Guaranteed Loan Program generally provides a 60 percent to 80 percent federal guarantee on business loans depending on the size of the loan as a guarantee against loss. Harris also discussed smaller, more specific loan and grant opportunities for rural business development available through USDA.

“An example that falls into ag tech is Stumpy’s Spirits (Distillery) down in Columbia (Illinois). The owner was an engineer at Anheuser-Busch and part of a family farm. He decided to start his own on-farm distillery that uses his family farm’s grain to produce various spirits. He’s received two (USDA) value-added producer grants for working capital meant to expand his markets and make his business more sustainable long term,” said Harris, who can be reached with questions at Matt.Harris@usda.org.

ICC, U of I offer start up resources

Higher learning was well represented at the May 2 AgTech Connect session by the presence of Illinois Central College Agriculture Professor Pete Fandel and Dr. Kimberlee Kidwell, associate chancellor for strategic partnerships and initiatives with the University of Illinois. While Fandel noted that job demand in the ag tech space is currently at the “highest point” he’s seen, Kidwell said that the U of I Extension can help entrepreneurs and rural communities “connect the dots” between employers and employees. She offered information on university assets that are available to assist fledgling start-up and spin-off businesses through Extension’s Small Business Development Center.

“We want to keep this talent in our state,” said Kidwell.

For more information on Extension services and programs that aid small businesses, visit https://web.extension.illinois.edu/sbdc/index.html.

Brown concluded the meeting by noting that along with being home to 27 million acres of farmland, Illinois also boasts the most product and technology patents among food-related industries in the nation.

“We know that ag tech is a critical vibrant industry for our region and Illinois. We are blessed to have USDA and the Ag Lab here to help drive so much of the research and technology that is happening,” she said. “We already have an ag tech ecosystem that exists in the Greater Peoria area, but the goal of AgTech Connect is to elevate and advance that ecosystem.” For more information on the Morton EDC and AgTech Connect, visit www.mortonedc.org.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.