By RICK A. RICHARDS
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — For decades, a complaint from Indiana’s agricultural community was it played second fiddle to industry when it came to economic development policy. Ag people said Indiana’s political leadership – regardless of the party in power – took agriculture for granted.
That argument is starting to disappear; in his first State of the State address last month, new Gov. Mike Pence promised his administration would look at the entirety of agriculture – farming, food processing and research – with an eye toward creating what he called an Agriculture Innovation Corridor.
Lt. Gov. Sue Ellsperman, who oversees the state’s Department of Agriculture, is charged by law with implementing Indiana agriculture policy and said the idea of an Agriculture Innovation Corridor is long overdue. Citing a recent report by Indianapolis-based consulting firm BioCrossroads, in which such a corridor was proposed, Ellsperman said she and the Pence administration “are in firm support of the BioCrossroads report.
“There are assets of great importance in agriculture, but not everyone is as leveraged as they should be,” she said. “Everyone from the Department of Agriculture to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation should be involved to allow more investment in the state.”
It’s a view supported by Brian Stemme, project director of BioCrossroads, who added, “We’re still working on an action plan, but there needs to be partnership for it to work, a partnership between the state, private companies and universities.”
5 main segments of ag
Stemme said the key is creating a network of value-added products from Indiana that will boost not only agriculture, but employment and the state economy. The BioCrossroads report divided state agriculture into five main segments: wood, grains, canning, pork and beef and baking. Stemme said those five account for 84 percent of Indiana’s agricultural output.
The report stated: “Indiana should establish a central authority to drive economic development in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors. This authority should be charged with prioritizing strategies to defend and expand top-supporting clusters, and position Indiana to attract investment in future food and agricultural technologies.”
Specifically, BioCrossroads said Indiana should develop policies and create regulations that would increase the state’s competitiveness for its high-quality hardwood products; maximize its competitive advantage in bioenergy; revitalize pork production with an eye toward doubling it over the next 20 years.
Participate more in national and global policy discussions; improve regulatory issues involving agriculture; identify diversified production models for all of the state’s farmers; and set up incubators for innovative food products that use Indiana agricultural commodities to support nutritious and healthy diets.
“It’s important that everyone understand what we want to accomplish,” said Stemme. “Indiana needs to tell the story about agriculture under the theme of innovation. We see this as being similar to the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, that’s been successful there.”
Among other innovation corridors created around the country, he said Indiana can learn from the University of Wisconsin Biotech Center, the North Carolina Biotech Center and the University of California-Davis Center for Science and Innovation.
To succeed in Indiana, he said state ag officials need to work closely with Purdue University and Fortune 500 companies in Indiana such as Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences and Elanco Animal Health, a part of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co.
“Agriculture is an important part of the state economy, given that Indiana’s diverse production base contributes $16 billion to the Gross State Product, accounts for over 19 percent of the statewide workforce (some 680,000 jobs) and exports $3.4 billion in product from 62,000 farms and 14.8 million acres,” according to the BioCrossroads report.
While the report doesn’t designate a site for the corridor, Stemme said the idea is to incorporate the entire state into the project. Since agriculture is spread throughout the state, it’s important to bring all regions of Indiana together in the effort.
“Innovation isn’t occurring in just one spot,” he said. “The ag industry is valuable and we’re coming at it from the perspective of it being an innovative thing. We are the equal or better than other areas of the country, and it’s time to capitalize on that.”
Ellsperman said she sees the corridor being spread across the state. “There are great companies and great research taking place across Indiana.” She noted agriculture is much more than farms – individual farms are important, but to make Indiana a true national leader in agriculture, the state needs to nurture innovation and encourage research.
“In the coming years it’s no secret that food production around the world has to increase,” she said. “We can best support that effort by validating practices in place and working to find better production practices.”
Private investment vital
Ellsperman said a key to making an Agriculture Innovation Corridor work is communication. She said the state, universities and private companies need to talk with each other and work with each other to reach a common goal.
“Connecting the business community, startups and technology is crucial,” she explained.
For the effort to be successful it is going to take hundreds of millions of dollars, and this is where BioCrossroads can help. Over the past 10 years, the firm has raised $150 million for life-sciences companies. Moving forward, Ellsperman said that kind of effort will need to continue – which is why the private sector, which has capital for research and development, is an important part of the puzzle.
“It is clear the economic vitality of Indiana depends on the continued strength and advancement of the food and agricultural industry,” stated the BioCrossroads report.
“Because of the industry’s existing base of innovation and technology and the need for greater productivity improvements to meet increasing global challenges, there are significant opportunities for Indiana to reposition itself as a global leader in agriculture production and technology and science-driven innovation, through efforts aimed at fostering collaboration, facilitating technology commercialization, promoting the sector and leveraging assets.”
Ellsperman said as plans evolve for the corridor, announcements will be made with an eye toward holding a public discussion of the effort.
“Indiana food and agricultural innovation stakeholders are well positioned for their own business growth and expansion,” stated the report. “However, greater coordination and collaboration among the various agricultural leaders could foster more economic development and help to reshape Indiana’s agricultural landscape, but it will require greater collective attention and engagement.”