Friday, July 10, 2009

Local food processing

Since moving into rural economic development I have learned many new perspectives for thinking about how to make things happen appropriately.

When I worked in heavy industry, our challenge was to get international as fast as possible. That fit the situation, and it fit the market.

Now I am privileged to be able to work with food and farmers, along with artists, and a wonderful quilt of small and large enterprises. I'm learning new markets and searching for models that will add real value to the communities I get to work in.

Entrepreneurs look for problems to solve. That's where our opportunities are. When I look around rural economic development I see a really unusual problem. There are customers galore but very little infrastructure in place to support the production and marketing efforts needed to fill the demand.

My friend Lois Federman, a farmer (Marr's Valley View Farms, their family farm since 1874), head of the great 'Something Special From Wisconsin' program, and an all round great observer of ag market trends helped me focus on this issue.

According to Lois, we have done an outstanding job of educating consumers and food retailers of the value of buying local and regional foods. We have created the demand. The problem is that we have not created the support infrastructure to fill the buy-local supply chain.

Specifically Lois Federman discussed the need for what she calls 'local food processing' to match the demand for local food purchases. I really love the phrase. It also matches the experiment we're building out in Iowa County, WI, to create a series of small, smart, nimble, interrelated food and ag processing plants at a county-wide scale.

Local food processing does not mean tiny unregulated food funnels in people's kitchens. Like technology in every other industry, ag processing tech can now create wonderful efficiencies of scale at points on that curve that used to be reserved for only the largest, most capital intensive plants. Now the equipment is faster, smarter and cheaper. Processing tools can be rapidly swapped in and out to match supply and demand in real time.

You don't need large monolithic food processing plants to reach economies of scale. Local foods can be gathered locally, processed locally, and distributed locally in ways that would be impossible for the large processors to reproduce. You can achieve economies of scale with smart new tools and business organization models that match the markets, that match the consumer demands of this early 21st century world we live in.

I know this to be true. We're running numbers for our first plant now and what's emerging looks to me like the early days of the Internet and the efficiencies that brought to enterprise. It feels like lean manufacturing and Six Sigma meet winter squash.

So I thank my friend Lois Federman for the concept of local food processing. I think it's the key to growing not only the local foods market but to growing farmers of all kinds and the communities they live in.

Lois Federman's family farm

Something Special From Wisconsin program

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