Innovation is one of the four key focus areas for the White House Rural Council, which is a convening body comprised of federal agencies and collectively draws upon the expertise of farmers, ranchers, and local citizens to help inform and carry out its work. The Rural Council seeks new ways for the government to partner with private organizations in solving shared problems, and developing new, innovative models of partnership. The core mission of the DRA is to make strategic investments with the residents of the 252 counties and parishes of the eight-state Delta region. The DRA has invested more than $140 million into projects and programs in Delta communities that have leveraged another $750 million in other public funding and over $2 billion in private capital across 14 annual funding cycles.
Mississippi was represented well at the conference with Bill Bynum, CEO of Hope Credit Union, providing opening remarks. Other panelists from Mississippi included Alan Lange, co-founder and managing director or MuniStrategies who spoke about impact investing, and Jeff Good, president, Mangia Bene Restaurant Management Group, and David Watkins, founder of Soul City Hospitality who both spoke about regional food systems. I was honored to be on the biofuels and energy panel along with speakers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Farmers Union and Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.
One of the most exciting things happening this year is the transformation of the original Mississippi Farmer’s Market on West Street in Jackson to a new food hub which will serve as a processing and distribution center for locally grown produce and market it for regional consumption. Local food is a national phenomenon that has significant impact on every state’s economy. Besides being a business opportunity for agriculture, locally sourced foods can also be an economic development tool that allows communities to maximize the impact of what is grown and made locally. According to the White House Rural Council and the USDA, industry estimates suggest that local food sales in America have nearly doubled in recent years, jumping from $5 billion in 2008 to $11.7 billion in 2014. Local food projects can help grow local food economies and drive downtown and neighborhood revitalization.
Up In Farms, a food hub created by Soul City Hospitality, received a $315,080 investment from the DRA chairman during a press conference last December featuring Gov. Phil Bryant. This endeavor is a perfect example of a public-private partnership. The existing facility is owned by the University of Mississippi Medical Center and will be leased to Soul City Hospitality. This collaboration hopes to boost the local farming economy while providing healthier, fresher and more diverse food choices in the Jackson metro. While agriculture, forestry and poultry still comprise the state’s largest industry employing nearly one in five Mississippians, fruits and vegetables are a tiny one percent (about $100 million) of this multi-billion dollar industry. Jeff Good commented that a regional food hub has the potential “to reignite the economies of the small towns of Mississippi from Collins to Clarksdale.”
Good and Watkins admit that they and their partners are just getting started and much more needs to be done. They do, however, have a long-term vision inspired by Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and the ReFresh Project in New Orleans. Good said the ReFresh Project includes a teaching kitchen for medical students and health professionals and a complete curriculum which allows for the medical students to be a part of nutrition education and counseling as well as programs to improve access to fresh foods. If you are interested in learning more about the Up In Farms food hub, please email me and I will connect you to any one of their partners.
One of the conference speakers, Andrew Jacob with CoBank (based in Denver, Colorado), spoke about the headwinds for rural America and outlined five issues: low commodity prices, decreasing trend in farm values, a strong dollar making our exports more expensive, slowing demand from China, and ironically, low oil prices. While low oil prices have been beneficial for the average consumer, thousands of jobs in rural areas of states like North Dakota have been lost due to record low crude oil prices. The reasons for the current low prices are complex and include geo-political factors besides market demand. The increase in renewable energy generation is a bright spot for technologies which can compete even in the current economic environment. During our energy panel, I discussed some of the opportunities which are emerging in the years ahead. These include energy efficiency, smart grid, energy storage and the need to more effectively integrate various forms of renewable energy with fossil and nuclear energy. These areas lend themselves to additional public-private collaboration in research and development and formation of entrepreneurial ventures in the energy space.
While we were in Memphis, similar themes were being echoed by Gov. Bryant back home during his second inaugural address. He labeled Mississippi as The Start-up State, calling it “a place where business creators and entrepreneurs flourish with government designed to support innovation and encourage economic growth.” He encouraged the citizens to become “people who demand leadership unafraid of transformational change and disruptive innovation.” Bryant added that “earnest and determined action” would be needed to turn our imaginations into reality. I think 2016 will be an exciting year for Mississippi!
» Dr. Sumesh Arora is Vice President at Innovate Mississippi, a non-profit organization with a mission to drive innovative business growth in Mississippi. His doctoral research was focused on how new ideas spread and its applications to business, economic and policy development. Follow him on Twitter @DrSumeshArora or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about developing innovation strategy for your company or organization.
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