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Q&A: Agricultural Incubator Foundationís Bernie Scott describes ag entrepreneurship efforts

Ag Incubator Foundation Chairman Bernie Scott (center) holds his 2009 OSU Alumni Citizenship Award
Ag Incubator Foundation Chairman Bernie Scott (center) holds his 2009 OSU Alumni Citizenship Award
The Agricultural Incubator Foundation , a not-for-profit organization operating in Bowling Green since 1998, supports economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable agricultural systems in Northwest Ohio. Its nearly 140-acre site is used for greenhouses, farmland, the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen (NOCK) and the Ohio Center for Aquaculture Development. Following some early visioning and futuring studies, the foundation was started mainly as an ag-business incubator to help local entrepreneurs to get started in the food business and also other ventures they and others might have. Foundation Chairman Bernie Scott fills us in on the Foundation's mission and work.

Who is on the Foundation board?

The board consists of 12 members. They range from OSU Extension educators, the Agriculture Credit Association, ag education teachers, a food scientist, agricultural industry personnel and so on. Presently, there is a preponderance of educators on the board of trustees. Some of the early pioneer board members have since retired from active status after giving great insight to its present operating mode.

Where did startup money come from?

The start-up came from the genuine interest and generosity of Northwood Realty and Joe Hirzel of Hirzel Canning Co., and then we got an RBEG (Rural Business Enterprise Grant) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the help of staff from the Center for Innovative Food Technology in Toledo, which wrote the grant application. Some very early staffing and start-up financial support came from several sources including Penta Career Center leadership.
How much interest in the Foundation's resources did you have at first vs. now? Are Ohioans taking advantage of what you offer?

2010 was our best year ever. I believe it takes a while to get the word out that a place actually exists that food entrepreneurs can come and make their own products. We also have companies that produce here that are not in Ohio. I think it is important to note that while our NOCK arrangement is our marquee and most exciting activity, much of our activities have changed or morphed since its early conception in the late 1990's.

How many current clients are on the property?

We currently have 27 food entrepreneurs -- last year we had 20; Naturally Native Nursery  ("specializing in native landscaping for ecological diversity"); and the OSU fish bait project. Plus, OSU and Hirzel Canning Company are doing tomato studies and also someone is doing sand filtration (maraculture).

How does the Foundation decide which entrepreneur to assist or project to pursue?

Our services are available to anyone we can help. That may be from helping them get their business plan going to registering their product to getting labels approved for production. We have databases that are available to anyone that needs help getting a food business up and running.

Who are some of the "graduates" -- which companies have flourished because of help from the Foundation, and what are they doing now?

We have a couple of tenants that have moved on to co-packers and are having someone produce their product. Others are just as far along but really like making their own productÖSeveral companies that produce here are also in Kroger and Anderson stores.

What is the current, overall state of Ohio agriculture?

I think it is really strong. I have seen a lot of innovation taking place and small companies that are making it through the tough economy of the state doing what they really like to do. "Buy local" is coming around again and I think that will help the small food companies that produce here get through this. "Locavores" is a name I used in a Kiwanis luncheon program last January to describe the returning phenomenon of local people growing and or consuming locally grown food. It was the champion new word a few years ago. Some people at the luncheon thought I had used a cuss word because they had never heard it used before.

Discuss the importance of Ohio farmland. Why should someone care?

A January 2011 Battelle Institute Study for Conservation Districts reported that while a healthy and sustainable environment is crucial to Ohio's quality of life, it is also of central importance in Ohio's economic future. The food and agriculture sector in Ohio is responsible for $37.5 billion in gross state product (8.8 percent of the Ohio economy), an impact that relies on the fundamental resources of productive soils and water resources. Moreover, productive land resources are of central importance to the emerging bio-based economy. Our mission and visioning statements on our website are a decade old but still relevant to our core agenda -- keeping agriculture as a mainstay of northwest Ohio's economic future. The tone of our citizenry during our current economic downturn is less, less, less government but same service. Perhaps as government continues to downsize, the incubator can take up some additional new roles in economic development. We, like government, must maintain a sufficient size and thrust to remain a working model of business incubation.
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