Opportunity abounds for Idaho food processing
TWIN FALLS, Idaho — More than 60 people representing agriculture, food processing, labor and commerce, economic development, academia, and energy met at the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) here on Friday to figure out how south central Idaho can meet the needs of a burgeoning food-processing industry.
CSI President Jeff Fox said the planets are aligning and opportunities are coming together, and it will take collaboration from many partners to bring those opportunities forward.
Success in the food processing industry has bred success, with more companies locating in the area. Southern Idaho is on the launching pad for growth and opportunity, he said.
Things have obviously changed from production agriculture that ships raw material out of the area to a vertically integrated ag community. Now the community needs to pull together to figure out how to put all the pieces together to help the processing industry get what it needs to succeed, said Ken Edmunds, director of the Idaho Department of Labor.
Food processing in the state employs 15,750 people with an annual payroll of $800 million, and there is a growing cluster of food processing in south central Idaho’s Magic Valley, said Brent Tolman, regional business specialist in workforce development with the Idaho Department of Labor.
In discussing various grant opportunities with different segments of the community, be it for education, research or economic development, Tolman realized the conversations all revolved around the same topic – food processing.
And he asked if a partnership could be aligned to collaboratively develop and establish what now has been branded the Food Science and Manufacturing Center of Excellence.
There are existing and potential opportunities for grants to develop a trained workforce in food processing and provide education and research in food science. Some preliminary brainstorming on bringing the idea of the Center together collaboratively was held in February.
The meeting on Friday was a view from 50,000 feet to get input from the processing industry on what it needs and wants now and to be able to grow into the future, Tolman said.
Representatives from production agriculture, government and the Idaho Legislature, economic development, academia, and Idaho National Laboratory were there to listen, respond and explain how they are or could address the issue of workforce training and research in food processing and waste stream technologies.
The meeting focused on gaps in resources for the food-processing industry and how to bridge that gap.
The need for a trained work force, from the base through mid-management to PhDs, the difficulty of finding and recruiting PhDs in food science and the need for in-state higher education in that area topped the list of gaps in resources.
CSI’s history is steeped in agriculture and ag education. The college is already engaged in workforce training, has received a $2.5 million grant to develop a Food Processing Technology program and is developing a curriculum to begin the program this fall, said Todd Swartz, CSI executive vice president and chief academic officer.
It also has a relationship with University of Idaho, which operates its Food Quality Assurance Lab and houses an extension office on the CSI campus, he said.
The University of Idaho has launched a food science initiative, investing money and developing an end-to-end program approach that includes sustainability, feeding a growing population and society. It is also looking at reviving the effort for the recession-hit Livestock and Environmental Studies Center in the Magic Valley as a consortium of Western universities, said Jack McIver, vice president of research for the University.
Many other challenges to the food processing industry were discussed including research and development, infrastructure and site development, transportation, trade, international investment, operational and process improvements, and access to capital.
The effort now will focus on putting together a working group to develop an action plan, with industry partners driving the project development.
Resources are available and are being offered to the region. A well-flushed-out plan makes it easier to capture those resources, said Carlene Herring with region IV Development Association.
Key elements in establishing the Food Science & Manufacturing Center of Excellence
• $2.5 million U.S. Dept. of Labor food processing technology grant awarded to CSI
• $10 million U.S. Department of Labor Ready-to-Work grant for a food science program— application in process
• $10 million investment in Center for Livestock and Environmental Studies by Idaho Legislature and the private sector
• $1.5 million+ U.S. Dept of Commerce Economic Development Association grant — applied for by Region IV Development Association
• $1 million Idaho Workforce Development Training Fund Sector grant — available to industry.