Despite dangerous winter weather and a federal government shutdown, 85 agriculture experts converged in Powell Jan. 22-23 to discover how to retool their industry for the future.
Some promising ideas to emerge from the conference included development of a food innovation center, more widespread adoption of organic farming practices and exploration of precision farming and specialty crops.
The leaders of the Diversified Ag Summit will distill those ideas into a white paper to be distributed to the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) Executive Council, an initiative formed by Gov. Matt Mead and the Legislature to build a more resilient Wyoming economy.
“We brought in researchers and agribusiness leaders from around the country, learned about public-private partnership opportunities to remove barriers and mitigate risks for private businesses and provided a forum for private industry leaders to expand their networks,” said Christine Bekes, executive director of local economic development organization Powell Economic Partnership. “The energy was higher than I could have hoped because the ag community was hungry to come together in a strategic and focused way.”
Bekes, one of the event organizers, said she looks forward to learning how many of the business conversations and handshake agreements she witnessed during the conference turn into fruitful economic partnerships.
Researchers from the universities of Kentucky, Oregon State, South Dakota State and Wyoming all joined panel discussions on innovative research, while industry experts from Washington, Kentucky, Wyoming and D.C. talked about business trends and best practices.
One model for driving research into new methods and products was a facility described by Oregon State University researchers as a food innovation center.
“We are planning a visit to Oregon to take a look at the facility,” Bekes said. “What goes hand-in-hand with that is a conversation about research between local companies and the university. We have a University of Wyoming Agricultural Research Experiment Station here in Powell and in Torrington, so this could be an expansion of that.”
Small family farms, which comprise the majority of operations in Wyoming – don’t have the resources to conduct research and design. A food innovation center could be one way to provide Wyoming farmers with the latest data and practices in their industry.
Higher education is going to play a starring role in growing Wyoming’s ag industry, said Dr. Lesley Travers, president of Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington.
The school boasts a comprehensive ag program, but the program has never had its own home. That will change thanks to a nearly $9 million public and private investment in the new Agricultural Technology Education Center.
The facility will include lecture space, a demonstration area and laboratories that will allow the school to expand its program offerings.
Construction is expected to begin in April, and the facility should be complete by the summer of 2019.
These investments in the future of agriculture are vital for all of Wyoming, said Goshen County economic developer and grower Wally Wolski.
“Agriculture represents a large segment of the Wyoming economy, and nearly 300,000 residents live in unincorporated areas,” Wolski said. “It is apparent that our colleges are going to play a critical role for preparing our young people to take high-paying, ag-related jobs in Wyoming.”
Those jobs may require anything from data analysis for precision farming to drone training for monitoring.
No matter what technology is involved, Wolski is optimistic Wyoming can move its ag sector away from raw products subject to wholesale commodity prices and into more valuable economic areas that are in demand not only regionally but internationally.
He listed off topics covered in the conference like organic farming, vertical hydroponics and hemp crops.
Wolski sees unlimited possibilities and potential for his industry, and he hopes to see partnerships with initiatives like ENDOW and new programs like Grown in Wyoming, which was recently launched by the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency.
Grown in Wyoming seeks to connect producers with retailers and consumers. Producers will reap the benefits of expanded markets, retailers will be able to market local, fresh, sustainable foods and consumers will enjoy better tasting food that benefits their neighbors, too.
“This is not your granddad’s, not even your dad’s, farm anymore,” Wolski said. “The way to survive is going to be to use advanced technology and to be more innovative. That said, I’m optimistic about agriculture’s future and the unlimited possibilities it holds for rural Wyoming.”