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Morton looks to add more ag-tech industry to economic portfolio

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Encouraging “purposeful collisions'' between central Illinois’ leading agriculture technology entrepreneurs and community developers was the purpose behind Morton’s first AgTech Connect session, held February 25 at the Morton American Legion. Showing up for the first quarterly meeting were dozens of people representing production agriculture, agricultural technology, higher education, government and private business.

“The value is in connecting people,” said Leigh Ann Brown, CEO of the Morton Economic Development Council (EDC). “Our mission is simple: to promote economic opportunity and sustainable growth, and to stimulate innovation. Our purpose is together shaping the future of agriculture by creating a network of growth opportunities, solution providers and a resource hub.”

Those speaking included Ag Tech Connect task force leader Dan Gudeman of Earlybird Feed and Fertilizer; Pate Fandel, professor of Agriculture at Illinois Central College; Laura Bleill, director of University of Illinois Research Park and Todd Ward, director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization and Research (NCAUR) in Peoria.

Also attending were representatives from Bradley University’s Small Business Development Council, Peoria Innovation Alliance, Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and Distillery Labs-gBeta, among other local business and agriculture leaders.

The AgTech sessions are a part of the Morton EDC’s strategic focus outlined within the village’s Mission Morton 2026 economic development plan. The plan calls for enhancing Morton’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, creating new jobs and increasing tax revenue over the next five years.

“AgTech is a broad title for our mission, and maybe also a bit too specific,” Brown said. “There is certainly a lot more beyond technology that we want to embrace as we further our conversations and connect.”

Gudeman, whose fertilizer business is located in Goodfield, said the area has long been in need of an agricultural business “roundtable” such as AgTech Connect can offer.

“I don’t think what farmers or the ag industry people get are the interactions in a one-on-one setting, so we want to bring that to the agriculture sphere,” he said. “I drove by the Peoria USDA Ag Lab my whole life but never really knew what went on there, but through the task force I got the opportunity to tour it and ask some questions.”

Without his AgTech Connect contacts, Gudeman said, he wouldn’t have known about research projects and facilities in his own region that have a direct impact on his fertilizer business. “I didn’t get this knowledge from Googling. There is some power and usefulness here for us. I think these AgTech sessions could be very important to us in this area,” he added.

Fandel, a Woodford County farmer as well as agriculture professor at Illinois Central College, spoke about the many educational opportunities in ag-tech and mechanics available at the East Peoria community college campus. “We can pretty much transfer a student to any university in the United States with our transfer degree program, or for the student who wants a two-year degree and get out into the workforce, we have an intensive applied science two-year degree to get them hands-on knowledge and all the skills they need to be employable within your industries,” Fandel said.

Ward noted that a lot of household and industrial products have originated from Peoria’s USDA Ag Lab, with many agricultural materials originating in central Illinois.

“There are a lot of products you wouldn’t expect, like the glue that binds your shoe to the sole, disposable diapers to a whole lot of medical devices and materials,” he said. “In addition, we do a tremendous amount of work on food safety and public health, crop production and making ag more sustainable.”

After a series of scheduled speakers, attendees of the initial AgTech Connect session mingled from table to table over catered dessert, creating the purposeful collisions Brown and the Morton EDC envisioned. Following the meeting, Brown said she was very pleased with the attendance and participation shown. She welcomes anyone who wants to attend the next quarterly meeting (date to be announced).

“There is so much information out there these days, which is great. It can really serve to inform people, but bringing people together in a room with those who otherwise wouldn’t connect is our purpose,” she said. “The ag industry and (ag technology) businesses are a core part of the Morton economy. We are excited about uncovering these opportunities, with the Morton EDC as the hub to help propel forward our economy and growth opportunities for people and businesses.”

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