Agriculture Innovation Center to support value-added agriculture in Northeast Ohio

Fruit jams and jellies

One of Ohio’s most vibrant agricultural regions will be the recipient of a “one-stop shop,” developed by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), to help food, fiber, and fuel value-added agriculture producers set themselves up for success.

The Northeast Ohio Agriculture Innovation Center (NEO-AIC) is the result of an almost $1 million new grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, with matching in-kind funds of nearly $500,000 from Ohio State. The three-year investment was awarded through the USDA Agriculture Innovation Center Program.

“Northeast Ohio is a great agricultural region with rich prime soils and is home to a diversity of businesses and farms, including the highest concentration of women farmers and small and medium farms in Ohio,” said Shoshanah Inwood, CFAES program director and rural sociologist.

The NEO-AIC will hire four new staff members, including two new OSU Extension positions focused on value added agriculture business planning and market development in Northeast Ohio. The area is also home to a large Amish population who make up a substantial proportion of the region’s farms. For this reason, the NEO-AIC will bring on the first national and regional Amish and plain people community liaison to help bridge the cultural gap and provide technical assistance to this important sector of the value-added agriculture (VAA) economy.

Value-added products are raw agricultural products that have been modified or enhanced to have a higher market value and/or a longer shelf life. Some examples include fruits made into pies or jams, meats made into jerky, and tomatoes and peppers made into salsa. 

“We found that the services available to support VAA producers are disconnected and dispersed throughout the region,” Inwood said. “By connecting the resources to each other and promoting their availability to the community, we will make the process more efficient and better able to support their growth, development, and economic prosperity.”

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is also a proponent of the Agriculture Innovation Center Program. As the first Ohio senator to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than 50 years, he successfully secured a number of provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill, including permanent mandatory funding for USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant Program and the reauthorization of the Agriculture Innovation Center Program.

“The Northeast Ohio Agriculture Innovation Center will help grow local small businesses and support local and regional food production in Northeast Ohio,” said Brown. “When we give Ohio farm and food businesses more tools to sell their products, we can strengthen local supply chains, bring down prices, and allow small producers to better compete with large corporations.”

By receiving assistance at the beginning or early on in a venture, a VAA producer can set themselves up in the best possible situation for success. “The NEO-AIC will save producers time and money by cutting down on the number of hurdles in the business development process, connecting them to financial, legal, technical and regulatory advice, and value chain coordination services, and providing training on best practices. This will result in more successful VAA producers with higher incomes and increased quality of life,” Inwood said.  

The structure of NEO-AIC will parallel the best patient care practices in medicine. Team members will have both specialized and complementary knowledge and skill sets and will be able to offer support to any type of VAA client. “This approach ensures the NEO-AIC is holistically approaching each client, identifying new opportunities and resources, and building a team culture among the staff and clients. We will also be high touch, relationship-based, friendly, welcoming, accessible, and culturally appropriate resource for the region,” said Inwood.

The NEO-AIC board of directors includes representatives from Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, The Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Produce Growers Association, Ohio Cattleman's Association, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, and Greenfield Farms of Wooster, Ohio.   

“The key to our sustainability will be the network of cooperation between the different branches of Ohio State and the community,” Inwood said. “The widespread support of producers, commodity organizations, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and Ohio State are evidenced by their willingness to serve on the board of directors, write strong letters of support, and provide matching funds.”

The NEO-AIC will have physical space in Williams Hall on the CFAES Wooster campus, with OSU Extension educators making on-farm visits. Inwood hopes to open its doors in Fall 2024.

Sherrie R. Whaley
For more information, contact: 

Shoshanah Inwood