Can Lorain County Be Home to the Next Big Thing in Business?

Northeast Ohio currently produces only 5%-10% of all the food consumed in the region. That means we import up to 95% of our food (about $10.7 billion), despite being one of the top agricultural states. Research has shown* that if the region were to increase production to meet at minimum 25% of local consumption, over 20,000 jobs would be created in farming, farm supply and food-related secondary industries. Additionally, the region would see increases in annual output of up to $4.2 billion, and state and local tax collection growth of about $126 million. How to reach this ambitious goal? The Center for Food Innovation has been launched to grow essential jobs and to build businesses by developing a collaborative, inclusive, advanced agricultural industry cluster in Lorain County. 

The concept of the cluster goes beyond that of firm networking, as it captures all forms of knowledge sharing and exchange to overcome complex problems and reduce risk inherent to innovations. A “cluster” is a geographic concentration of interconnected firms, suppliers, and institutions in a particular field that has the potential to affect competition by increasing the productivity of the companies in the clusters, driving innovation, and stimulating new businesses in the specific field. Within clusters are groups and networks of interdependent firms, knowledge-producing institutions (e.g. universities, research institutes, technology-providing firms), bridging institutions (e.g. providers of technical or consultancy services), and groups of firms related in the production and distribution of good and services such as suppliers, research and designer centers, engineering and technological companies, and distributors and customers, linked in a production chain which creates added value together.

Lorain County has many of the right ingredients for a cluster: its legacy expertise is in farming and manufacturing. Lorain County has The College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH; The Center for Innovative Food Technology in Toledo, OH; and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, OH (which, by the way, is the largest and most comprehensive agricultural bioscience research and development center in the country) – all within a couple hours drive. There is a strong history of  “traditional” seasonal farms and a growing community of year-round environmentally controlled farms. Additionally, the county has empty factories and shopping malls that could house even more year-round vertical farms. It has a bustling transportation corridor, renewable power and easily accessible water. According to TeamNEO, there are 670+ food processors and manufacturers in Northeast Ohio; and food manufacturing is a $3.4 billion business.

However, “the mere colocation of companies, suppliers, and institutions creates the potential for economic value; it does not necessarily ensure its realization,” states Michael Porter, the renowned Harvard academic known for his theories on economics and business strategy. The Center for Food Innovation seeks to establish links between all these players and to put Lorain County on the map as the headquarters to a regional agricultural cluster.

The Center for Food Innovation is modeled after the Netherlands’s FoodValley Org, a nonprofit that transformed their country’s agricultural industry. Within fifteen years (2005-2020), the Netherlands has become the second largest agricultural exporter next to the United States! If the Netherlands’ can achieve this goal with only a little over 16 thousand square miles compared to the USA’s 3.7 million square miles what could Lorain achieve? Check out the “The Economic Potential of Vertical Agriculture in Lorain County & Northeast Ohio” produced by Oberlin College Students.

Going forward, we at the Center for Food Innovation (CFI) will be releasing periodic blog posts exploring cluster development, advanced agricultural and ag-tech concepts (i.e. vertical farming, new efficiency techs) and speaking with leaders in the industry. If you are interested in staying updated, please sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. If you want to get involved please contact Bara Watts, barawatts@gmail.com.

*The 25% Shift, The Benefits of Food Localization for Northeast Ohio & How to Realize Them, by Brad Masi, Leslie Schaller, Michael Shuman, December 2010. Sponsored by The Cleveland Foundation, ParkWorks, Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Neighborhood Progress, Inc. Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition

Written by: David Jarry, 11/2020

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