Harmful Algal Blooms cost Ohio over $815 million

Since 2010, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) have cost Ohio over $815 million. In addition, they have caused the deaths of Lake Erie pets, wildlife and plants and has caused illness in humans through physical contact or consumption. This cost includes damage and devaluation of lakeshore property, loss of tourism, loss of recreation, and additional municipal water treatment costs. How can farmers limit their fertilizer runoff and impact on the watershed? HABs tend to occur in bodies of surface water with excessive concentrations of certain nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. For Lake Erie, the primary source of these nutrients is agricultural runoff from high-production watersheds in Ohio and Michigan. The Center for Food Innovation wants to ensure that growing the agriculture cluster in Northeast Ohio doesn’t mean further degrading the health of our waterways. Through an interview with Max Herzog, Program Manager at the Cleveland Water Alliance, we learned about resources new and existing farmers can leverage to minimize their impact on the surrounding watershed.

2011 Algae Bloom in Lake Erie
(Source: NASA)

What are Harmful Algal Blooms or HABs? Contrary to their name, HABs are a rapid growth of aquatic bacteria. In Lake Erie, these population bursts are primarily composed of “cyanobacteria”, more commonly known as blue-green algae. As the algae dies and decays, dissolved oxygen in the water is consumed. This lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, means that animals and plants die off, increasing the amount of decaying organic matter and creating a dead zone, where the oxygen levels are too low for most life. 

Best management practices are well-documented. Techniques like buffer strips can help intercept pollutants, while practices such as crop rotation and cover cropping can help limit the need for fertilizer in the first place. Unfortunately, these techniques require significant time and resources, but the Ohio Department of Agriculture has been making direct payments to farmers who have completed Voluntary Nutrient Management Plans through the H2Ohio program. The program is expected to pay $2.1 million to 1750 farmers by the end of May 2021. For more resources on best practices, farmers should look into the 4R program which helps with proper fertilization, or the Ohio State Agricultural Extension which has a wealth of information ranging from best management practices to helping farmers with their taxes.

There are also plenty of new technologies and techniques being developed. For instance, drones have been used to apply fertilizer more efficiently by either spraying the plants directly or seeing which areas need fertilizer the most, minimizing overall fertilizer use and therefore, nutrient runoff. Drones can also be used at the regional level to see which farms are more likely to erode.

Max specifies that the increased use of fertilizer, while a main factor, isn’t the only cause of increased nutrient pollution. The wetlands which would naturally capture and filter these nutrients have been depleted. Fortunately, the H2Ohio Program is also working in this area. Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources has been rapidly designing and breaking ground on innovative wetland restoration efforts in the Maumee watershed and Sandusky Bay. This is another area where imaging technology will help maximize efficiency of resources. IoT based water-quality sensors may help find sources of nutrient pollution and deliver high-frequency data for real-time performance monitoring and adaptive management.

A buoy used by The Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health to track water quality in real-time.
(Source: The Great Lakes Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health)

For more information, check out Cleveland Water Alliance’s website and webinar series which focuses on different topics of water data. It features an expert panel and Q&A. They will also be hosting the third iteration of their Erie Hack. This is an opportunity for residents across the Lake Erie region to bring the technical skills they have to the table and pitch an innovative solution to Lake Erie challenges. Participants are connected with mentors and advisors who help them perfect their idea. In the past, winners of the competition have received $100,000 to help launch their idea.


Author: Gus Jaynes

As consumers across the country and around the world quickly found out, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the way the food system operates.  In the last year, it has become clear just how much the food supply chain, among others, is being challenged by COVID-related disruptions.  At the supply end, we have borne witness to farmers dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk, and ploughing millions of pounds of unmarketable crops back into their fields, as they were left without a place to sell those goods.  Simultaneously, many US consumers lost their jobs and found themselves facing severe financial stress, causing the need for food assistance to skyrocket.

Additionally, thinking around food systems has been plagued by “siloization,” with groups working on nutrition, the environment, employment, trade, and other sectors all relatively isolated from one another.  What COVID-19 has laid bare is that all these diverse sectors with a stake in food do not operate separately from one another.

What this all demonstrates is the pressing need to pivot toward a new mode of thinking about the food system, one based around the principle of interrelatedness.  This might be referred to as a “systems thinking” approach; a holistic way of looking at the inter-relationship, boundaries and perspectives of all the stakeholders. As David Jarry outlined in his initial blog post, developing an agricultural cluster in Northeast Ohio would provide a great economic boon to the region.  At the same time, increasing firm networking and knowledge sharing by developing a cluster would also work to adapt the agricultural supply chain to a post-COVID world.  While it can be argued that “just-in-time” supply chain architectures have always run the risk of being overly brittle, the pandemic has demonstrated just how substantially disruptions can impact business operations, and the very people those companies ultimately serve.

The time has come to build back in redundancy and diversity into the food supply chain.  We can achieve this by regionalizing the food system in Northeast Ohio, ensure resiliency and nimbleness across more flexible, shorter supply chains.  Working toward this end while simultaneously improving cross-functional communication between corporations, research networks, suppliers, and distributors, we can effectively ensure that there be more equitable access to food, that farmers have more stable markets for their goods, and that the food and agriculture industry in our region be better prepared to respond to shocks and uncertainties.  To that end, we have assembled a board of accomplished community leaders with diverse perspectives from within the food system in Lorain County and Northeast Ohio.  To instigate a formal process of systems thinking, we are launching three initiatives: CONVENE, GROW, ATTRACT.  These initiatives in combination will serve to bring together all the member stakeholders across the value chain to provide information and resource sharing; inspire startups and scaleups in all aspects pertaining to food; and attract established year-round farms and agtech companies.

We have certainly all learned a lot from 2020; one major lesson is that the time has come to rethink the way we organize our supply chains and industry structures, which is just what we at the Center for Food Innovation are out to do for Northeast Ohio agriculture.

Container Farms Offer Affordable, Sustainable Solution

Author: Nina Liloia

So, you want to be a farmer. How do you get started? Freight Farms, an agricultural technology company headquartered in Boston, MA, has created an easy and affordable option for those interested in food production. The company manufactures vertical, hydroponic farms built into shipping containers. The containers are able to produce hundreds of pounds of produce every month. 

Traditional farming requires years of knowledge, expensive equipment, and a great deal of land and water. In colder climates like Ohio’s, farms might also struggle to produce food during the winter. 

To combat the knowledge barrier of farming, Freight Farms developed farmhand, a hydroponic farm management and automation software. It allows farmers to detect and control their container farms’ conditions, such as pH, humidity, and nutrient levels, from an app. Lexy Basquette, the Farm Manager at Freight Farms, clarifies that “the programming is very easy to operate… it creates an ideal growing environment, so a farmer can come in, do a couple things, and leave with the peace of mind that the farm has taken care of the rest.” 

Marigolds grow inside a Freight Farms’ “Greenery”

Other than a lack of knowledge, another barrier new farmers face is the expense of land, water, and equipment. Although the container farms might seem like a big investment, they are each equal to two or three acres of farmland while only taking up three hundred twenty square feet of space! Also, the entire container uses only about 5 gallons of water per day. Other than farmhand, no extra equipment is needed to maintain them, and they can operate 365 days a year in any location that has access to electricity and which can hold their weight.

Freight Farms projects that container farm owners will make back their investment within just two to three years. Additionally, the Freight Farms team works with lending agencies to help small businesses afford their products. There are also grants that schools and nonprofits can apply for in order to purchase Freight Farms products. 

Shipping container farms allow businesses and individuals to take food production into their own hands in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. Basquette feels that one of the best things about agricultural technology companies like Freight Farms is that they “empower individuals to make a difference in their local communities and economies.” She believes that overall, by “facilitating connections with where one’s food comes from, we are able to build a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable food system.”

Link to Freight Farms website: https://www.freightfarms.com/

A farmer harvests lettuce heads from Freight Farms’ “Leafy Green Machine”

New Organization Seeks to Strengthen Food Networks in the Region

Written by Ella Moxley, Ella Moxley, News Editor for the Oberlin Review, December 2020

After months of work on the part of College students, faculty, and community members, a new organization called the Center for Food Innovation officially launched last month. The organization, led by Executive Director Bara Watts, seeks to create a more substantial food network within Lorain County and turn Northeast Ohio into the breadbasket of the Midwest.

Watts, who spent the last three years as the director of entrepreneurship and the Center for Innovation and Impact at the College, is heading up the new initiative. She explains that the central goals of the organization will be to convene stakeholders, grow local businesses involved with food, and attract startups and farmers interested in new agriculture techniques such as vertical and 12-month farming.

“There are many people in Oberlin that would love for it to stay a small rural community,” said Janet Haar, Executive Director of the Oberlin Business Partnership and board member of The Center for Food Innovation. “I think that if we don’t support economic development [which is] true to the resources and the abilities that we have in our county, we just aren’t going to be sustainable. … I don’t think we are the kind of community that would entice Amazon, for instance, to come in. But if we worked really hard on things that would be appropriate for and possibly successful in our community and surrounding area, I think we have a better chance.”

Watts envisions that the center would support not just jobs directly related to farming but also in agricultural technology startups, robotics, and shipping.
“You know, how Southern California… is the major food basket,” Watts said. “And I said, ‘Why can’t [Lorain County] be the Southern California of the East Coast? Why not?’ … We need more control over our food sources. Cleveland is a one-day drive to 60 percent of the United States population. … We could be building these farms here.”

With hopes of connecting food systems across the region and facilitating the growth of this sector, Watts came to Professor of Politics and Ex-Officio: Senior Advisor to the Center for Food Innovation Board Eve Sandberg. Sandberg’s consulting group of College students, the Oberlin Research Group, helped put together the initial research that led to the further development of the center. The students carried out research on agriculture and now work as content managers for the center’s blog.

“Student researchers who participated in the Politics Department’s [ORG] as Analysts produced a document that demonstrated where Lorain County stood with regard to vertical, year-round agriculture and where we could go,” Sandberg wrote in an email to the Review. “With the conclusion of the research we realized that Lorain County could truly benefit from pursuing this sector of growth if it was done as a cluster and not through individual efforts.”

The center hopes to address several structural issues facing the region related to food such as the deindustrialization that has led to unemployment and unused buildings across the region.

“The industry that was here before left a bunch of empty buildings, and we’re like, ‘What do we do with those?’” said college third-year and Content Manager Nina Liloia. “They’re just sitting there. It’s not good for the environment. It’s not good for the economy. So basically the idea would be to have vertical hydroponic farming, which uses a lot less water than traditional farming. It doesn’t need any more space because we already have these empty buildings, and individuals can start doing it themselves.”

The center’s launch comes at a critical time for Northeast Ohio. In the last week of November, unemployment in Lorain County was up 58percent from the week before. Watts envisions that the center can help increase the amount of produce the region produces, which could create over 20,000 jobs in Northeast Ohio.
“More than this pandemic causing the issues, I think it’s just showing the issues,” Liloia said. “There’s already been issues with not enough water to go around, there’s not enough food close to where people need it. [With] hydroponic farming … you can farm 12 months of the year — you don’t need to ship things from overseas to get the food that you need. Or if there’s a food desert where people aren’t able to buy the food that they need, they can grow with themselves.”
The initiative is partially funded by a grant from the Nord Foundation, a prominent philanthropy group in Northeast Ohio. The group has also applied for grants from the USDA and has brought in community partners from Oberlin College, Lorain County Community College, and The Ohio State University.

The Board will meet for the first time next year to lay out goals and develop a five-year plan. In the meantime, Watts expects that the content managers will continue to educate the community about innovative agricultural methods and eventually launch a webinar series.

“Anything that’s worth doing is worth being persistent about,” Haar said. “I don’t think this is going to be easy, but I also think if we get the right people involved and get the funding needed then we won’t look back.”

St. Louis AgTech Cluster

Our last blog post explored how we could create an agricultural cluster in northeast Ohio and why we should develop a self-sufficient food economy in the region. We know that an industry cluster can be defined by a set of firms that can benefit from their physical proximity and shared expertise. But it can sometimes be difficult to grasp the full meaning of industry clusters and to develop a working strategy around them. Today we will explore the St. Louis agtech cluster and discover what is behind a successful cluster. 

The 500 miles around St. Louis, Missouri has access to 77% of all U.S. corn acres and 81% of all U.S. soybean acres. But geography alone did not create the city’s booming agtech cluster. 

A Brookings report in 2018 highlighted the agglomeration effect of St. Louis’s agtech industry: firms share not only facilities, suppliers, and skilled labor, but also industrial knowledge and long-term developmental goals. Biotech firms, research institutions, and economic development organizations partner up to create the infrastructure and build a community for innovation. 

39 North is located at the center of St. Louis County and within 10 miles of St. Louis Lambert Airport (STL). The 600-acre innovation district is anchored by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, BRDG Park, the Helix Incubator, Bayer Crop Science, and the Yield Lab.
Images from St. Louis Economic Development Partnership ©2020

Innovation districts like 39 North and Cortex were developed to give the cluster a physical anchor and key partners such as BioSTL, Danforth Plant Science Center, and St. Louis Economic Development Partnership build the cluster’s development strategy together. 

Here are some of the main reasons why the St. Louis agtech cluster has been such a success:

Funding at developmental stages. Agtech firms often face high regulatory hurdles that are especially difficult for startups. To help startups carry their products further, many investors and incubators in the St. Louis region are willing to go beyond seed investment. BioGenerator, the investment branch of BioSTL, offers multistage investment for plant science startups. 

Accelerators like the Yield Lab focus on late-stage developments and help firms apply for governmental grants and find paths to the market. Investors are able to lure investments (3/4 of BioGenerator’s fund) from outside the region by demonstrating the cluster’s competitiveness.

Scientists are the backbones of this cluster. The St. Louis region boasts the highest concentration of plant science PhDs in the world. The Danforth Center alone employs close to 200 scientists and engages in a wide range of plant science research, such as food security, crop improvement and sustainability, and sustainable bioenergy. Danforth receives a yearly budget of $30 million and its scientists, whose 20% of research time is dedicated to commercializing their findings, bring in millions of dollars of federal grants.

Networking events to build a community with shared goals. Events and conferences such as the annual Ag Innovation Showcase create a targeted networking experience for researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers from both in and outside the region. Aside from showcasing new agtech innovations, these events help promote the goals of local agtech players and create opportunities for investments, practice-sharing, and joint ventures. Cluster-based events and gatherings, such as the Venture Café, introduce newcomers to the agtech cluster and help build strong community networks. 

Public-private partnership. St. Louis Economic Development Partnership played a crucial role in developing the St. Louis agtech cluster and filling the gaps in funding and long-term planning. It connects public and private funding to businesses and offers finance tools, tax abatements, and lab spaces (e.g. Helix Center) for agtech startups. It also spearheaded the 39 North innovation district and collaborate with private firms and organizations in cluster strategies, incubation, and foreign direct investment attraction.

Despite being significantly smaller than the region’s finance industry, St. Louis’s agtech industry has seen significant wage growth since the early 2000s, with bioscience wages 50-60% higher in the cluster than the statewide average in Missouri. It has remained a high priority for the region’s economic development over the last two decades, because of its competitiveness and the industry’s significant future growth opportunity as the global population increases. The region is committed to continuing building the cluster and their collected bet on the longer-term seems promising.

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

The Time to Innovate is Now

Crain’s Cleveland May, 2020, Author, Bara Watts

You may have heard, “Never waste a good disaster.” Out of chaos and destruction, opportunity can be born. History has demonstrated over and over again that companies willing to navigate the storm and innovate, versus those that recoil and hunker down, have reaped rewards. Consider this small list of well-known companies that were born either in the midst of or within a year of historic recessions: FedEx (1971), Microsoft (1975), Electronic Arts (1982), Google (1998), Salesforce (1999) and Facebook (2004). READ MORE

Jobs Ohio Report Highlights Opportunities and Trends In Ohio’s Food Industry

In 2019 Joe Needham, Director of Food and Agribusiness for the State of Ohio published a report that highlighting some of the development and innovation opportunities entrepreneurs should know about. READ REPORT

First off, understand that Ohio agribusiness sector contributes $16.4 billion to the state’s Gross State Product annually. The combined food and agribusiness contributes $124 Billion to the state’s economy.

Food industry challenges are driving the need for change and innovation. There is increased need to grow margins. As a result, automation, robotics and other technologies are in growing demand. Driven by the need to innovate, some companies are either merging or looking to purchase successful startups. At the same time, Needham states, “Small food companies have been able to build consumer trust and introduce new products better than the bigger established companies.”

Consumer preferences are changing which is driving innovation in packaging, preserving and recipes. Cold Storage is one of the most in-demand growth areas. The move to “clean labels” meaning organic, non-GMO, no additive or local is creating increased demand for refrigeration, freezing and other preservation strategies.

Needham notes there are three major technologies areas to be aware of: Data analytics, food science and operations (manufacturing, packaging, warehousing). The industry is accumulating tons of data but lacks useful data analytics. In the food science area there is the need to rethink food formulation and processing methods to meet the new clean label demands and manufacturers are in need of innovation in high-speed machinery, new packaging, warehouse robotics as well as new system to better sanitize the equipment.