A couple of “good eggs” have hatched a plan to expand a national program to Elgin that could strengthen the connection between urban demand for local food and rural supply from farmers and ranchers.
Local producers, governmental officials, and area supporters of the growing farm-to-table movement packed into the Austin Community College Elgin Campus Monday morning for a press conference announcing $75,000 in grant funding to the Texas Center for Local Food (TCFLF). United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under-secretary Lillian Salerno announced that the Elgin-based TCFLC is one of three projects in the country included in the expansion of the USDA’s Food LINC program.
The $75,000 in seed money, distributed over two years, will help launch the program aimed at providing “education and technical assistance to support rural economic vitality based on Texas agriculture.”
“The scope of the project really is about increasing farmer net income in Texas and providing jobs for rural communities in Texas by creating and stimulating local food enterprise and business development,” TCFLF executive director Sue Beckwith said. “Where we narrow that scope is we’re starting in Elgin, Texas. We’re starting here. We can do this here; we’re already doing this here. Between Hat Creek Provisions and ATX Jerky, we’ve created 28 new jobs in Elgin in the last six months. We can be this model for the rest of the state, for rural communities like ours, that are near enough to big cities with a high demand to be able to create jobs in our communities.”
The USDA’s Food LINC (Leveraging Investment for Network Coordination) program is a three-year initiative to enhance local and regional food systems – linking producers and buyers within regional proximity. Within this program, the Elgin-based Texas Center for Local Food can act as a Value Chain Coordinator.
According to the USDA, food value chains “differ from typical food supply chains in that they are intentionally structured to produce both business success and social benefit.” As a Value Chain Coordinator, the TCFLC would act as a team “to build the initial relationships with supply chain actors and to find a shared set of mission and operational values.”
Some of the roles undertaken in this capacity include identifying and connecting key stakeholders through short-term engagement; identifying grants, loans and services to support value-chain collaborators as they develop their enterprise; working with food chain members to build capacity through education and training; and utilizing grants and other external resources to test new business models.
“The part of agriculture that seems to be missing is this goofy thing we call food linking,” Salerno said. “The idea was that we need some people like Sue (Beckwith) and the people here in Elgin to be part of a system where farmers and processors and consumers and young people who want to get into farming can come… and say ‘what do I need to do?’
“I think somehow we have to get to a place where folks know there are opportunities in rural America. I have, in this position for the last five years, watched us try to make ourselves relevant as government people go into rural areas, and it’s really hard because a lot of people are struggling. What we know for sure is that economic opportunities around food really can build these communities, and we’ve seen it.”
Folks in attendance at Monday’s press conference heard from several business owners who are already on the ground floor. Martha Pincoffs of Hat Creek Provisions and Cameron Molberg of Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill and World’s Best Eggs each sat on a panel of stakeholders and discussed the impact that food linking has had on their businesses. Those two businesses, combined with ATX Jerky, have created 28 new jobs in Elgin in the last year.
“Every single week I’ve had a new farmer come through my door that is one of my neighbors that is asking me what they can grow for us,” Pincoffs said. “That, to me, as somebody with a culinary background and somebody that cares about the way the land is used in my neighborhood, has been the most awe-inspiring part of it.”
“We got started in 2005 and quickly realized there was an infrastructural void and hence we opened Coyote Creek about a year-and-a-half later,” Molberg said. “Basically, what we do is we are the only commercial organic feed mill in the state of Texas. We purchase grains from organic farmers in the region. That gives them a market so they don’t have to ship their grains cross-country and we don’t have to look for grains all across the country. At the same time, we support producers by milling high-quality organic feeds for their animals. Without the mill, the link from grain farmer to livestock producer would not exist.”
Coyote Creek produced approximately $1.5 million worth of organic feed for a six-county area last year.
“That means that the producers, or our customers, produce about $3.5 million worth of product from that $1.5 million and sell it into the local communities,” Molberg said. “This provides income for the farmers.”
The added benefit of more local jobs also means that commute times can be drastically reduced as more people in Elgin can be employed locally. Beckwith said this has benefits including lower stress, more time to volunteer locally, more time to spend with one’s family, and even the option of having lunch with one’s children in our local schools.
“It’s made a huge difference for the types of employment opportunities we have downtown,” Elgin Community Development Director Amy Miller said. “There is a greater variety of jobs in case you want to work in the community. But it also means that you have a business that has both retail traffic and is fully operational off of its wholesale sales.”
Texas spends approximately $56 billion on food each year but only totals approximately $25 billion in agricultural receipts annually, Beckwith said.
That’s a lot of bread left on the table, but with the seed money now in place, Elgin might soon grow into a force in keeping as much of it as possible in the local breadbasket.
“Everything in Elgin, Texas, is going to be big from now on, and it doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Mayor Chris Cannon said.
For more information on the Texas Center for Local Food, visit www.texaslocalfood.org.