Veteran economic developer Todd Valline said it was a light bulb moment last winter when farmer Ellen Walsh-Rosmann walked into his office.
Valline is the new chief executive officer at the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce and Industry in rural western Iowa. He needs some good reasons for young entrepreneurs to build businesses and lives in Shelby County.
He never would have guessed the lynchpin to his strategy would be this young mother with a refrigerated truck.
Valline was just contemplating what to do with an empty business incubator in Harlan (pop. 5,075), the county seat. Harlan built the space nearly 10 years ago, hoping to attract high-tech entrepreneurs.
“Lucky for me, Ellen walks in,” he said.
Walsh-Rosmann, 29, was looking for a place to park her growing FarmTable Delivery business. Her refrigerated truck runs up and down Interstate 80 four times a week between nearby Omaha, Nebraska, and points in and around Des Moines in central Iowa. FarmTable started up in 2013 when Walsh-Rosmann began “peddling” products from her family’s farm and others’ out of the back of her Mazda.
“It’s crazy growth,” Walsh-Rosmann said. “I thought we were doing pretty awesome last year when my sales were $42,000. Now we’re averaging about $30,000 a month.” FarmTable currently works with about 50 local food suppliers and some 40 restaurant, grocery, school, and hospital customers.
Fast-forward six months: FarmTable is setting up shop at the business incubator in Harlan. Meanwhile the city, chamber, local utility, and other leaders are designing an economic development strategy around food and farm entrepreneurs. They see the potential for FarmTable to help them build a regional food economy, one that gets local products out and brings people in.
Jobs. Health. Place.
“Our goal is to establish Shelby County as the hub of the wheel of the local farm-to-table sector in the region,” Valline said.
‘We sit basically in a triangle of three major markets: Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City. If we can develop this hub, it will be attractive to those entrepreneurs out there in the 25-35 age range looking to take their businesses to the next level … The transportation part of their business plan is covered. That gives us a leg up compared to other places in the Midwest.”
He adds that the free-range burgers and farm fresh produce that FarmTable will help Shelby County growers bring to market represent the same foods, and farming practices, that next-generation entrepreneurs and families want.
Ken Weber agrees. He is CEO of Harlan Municipal Utilities, the locally owned provider of electricity, water, and broadband. “We need to make sure our area is attractive to those millennials, who are concerned with what they eat and how they use energy and other resources,” he said. “As a utility we are looking at renewable and local resources and at making our system smarter and more responsive to customers. Farm-to-table is similar.”
Farmers and Eaters
Shelby County is confident that its regional food strategy is right in line with where the country is going even if the approach is still uncommon.
“In economic development, we’re always looking for the next big thing,” Valline said. “It’s huge when you see companies like McDonald’s moving to free-range eggs and other chains starting to promote their use of local produce. You want to catch that wave at the front.”
FarmTable provides some good momentum to start.
“Ellen’s business has revolutionized my business,” said Danelle Myer, owner-operator of One Farm in nearby Logan. She moved back home to western Iowa from Omaha to live and work her family’s fifth-generation farm. “FarmTable allows me to stay on the farm, and everything I harvest is sold!”
FarmTable’s new headquarters in Harlan will do more. It includes services and facilities to help local farmers grow their businesses also. Walsh-Rosmann will offer use of a processing kitchen, post-harvest handling area, classroom and potluck meeting space, and things like discounted boxes and other supplies that FarmTable buys in bulk.
Then there’s the new local food diner on the square in Harlan called Milk and Honey. The Walsh-Rosmanns opened it with Ellen’s brother, a restaurant manager, in charge. The move came after the one iconic mom-and-pop breakfast place in town closed, leaving only Burger King or the HyVee supermarket deli as choices.
Milk and Honey is the type of attraction for young people that Todd Valline was looking for when Ellen Walsh-Rosmann walked into his office.
“It just made sense,” Walsh-Rosmann said. “We have eggs. We have really great bacon. And we want a cool place to go eat lunch.”
This story ran originally at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest.