TOLEDO, Ohio — Driving across northwest Ohio, it’s clear that agriculture is big here. The land is mostly flat, and one large field gives way to the next.
But there’s more going on in this part of the state than can be seen from the road.
Agriculture across Ohio is a broad industry that not only includes farmers and growers, but also food processors, retailers, food inspectors, restaurants and grocery stores.
Helping to make the connection is a 22-year-old nonprofit known as the Center for Innovative Food Technology, or CIFT. This multi-faceted organization helps provide technical assistance and solutions to the food processing, agribusiness and ag production sectors.
Rebecca Singer, CIFT president since January, grew up on her family’s Defiance County grain farm and earned a degree from Ohio State University in agribusiness and applied economics.
After graduation, she worked at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, where she helped coordinate “Ohio Proud,” the signature program that recognizes Ohio-made and grown products.
The Ohio Proud program helped Singer see the true breadth of Ohio agriculture — and the opportunities and challenges the industry faces.
“It was eye-opening for me to see how many companies there are in the state of Ohio making foods,” Singer said.
In 2001, she had an opportunity to return to her family farm, when she began working for CIFT as a functional foods program manager. Today, she leads a staff of about 13 professionals, and continues to grain farm with her brother, Scott, and father, Dan.
She became CIFT president following the retirement of eight-year president Dave Beck, who had been with the organization since its inception in 1995.
Singer said she enjoys the perspective she gets as an actual farmer, while also helping to develop markets for farm products.
“It’s a good perspective and a good blend between the two roles,” she said.
CIFT’s primary focus is working with food companies on product development, food safety and food safety training, continuous improvement, and energy and environmental work.
CIFT also helps operate an incubator kitchen known as the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen outside Bowling Green. The kitchen allows companies or entrepreneurs to test new products, and prepare and package products in a licensed setting, without having the cost of building and maintaining their own kitchen.
And CIFT hosts a monthly ag breakfast forum known as the Northwest Ohio Ag-Business Breakfast Forum, held the third Thursday of every month, at the Bowling Green location. Past breakfasts have included Ohio State University ag sciences experts, the Spangler Candy Co., Cooper Farms, and state lawmakers.
“We don’t do enough to communicate all of the good things that we’re doing in the state of Ohio related to food and ag,” Singer said. “There’s so much diversity and people are not necessarily aware of what takes place here.”
The CIFT program helps make the connection, not only among growers, but at all levels of food production and processing.
Singer said CIFT is currently working with about 35 member-companies on a regular basis, and an additional 35 food processors. She said about 40 companies use their commercial kitchen.
The CIFT staff includes a wide range of experts, including food scientists, engineers, food safety experts and small business experts. The goal is to pair the company or entrepreneur with the kind of expertise they need — and develop a contract that helps each party advance.
CIFT helps save food companies time and money, because resources and expertise are shared, and because CIFT tries to solve problems before products are launched.
“If there’s a problem, we try to be poised to bring a solution to the table that’s going to help them (companies), whether that’s in a new product, expansion or in training,” Singer said.
Dennis Dickey owes his award-winning Willy’s Fresh Salsa to the counseling and expertise he received at CIFT. Before going to CIFT, Dickey had been making the salsa on his own, but with the help of the cooperative kitchen, he was able to develop new flavors and increase sales across the U.S.
“They take you by the hand and they walk you all through it,” said Dickey. “Without CIFT, we wouldn’t even be here.”
Willy’s Fresh Salsa now operates its own 12,000 square-foot production facility near Toledo, and has a goal of becoming the top fresh salsa producer in the U.S. The company received the CIFT Excellence Award in 2016.
Dickey said Singer will be a good leader at CIFT, and has the experience the organization needs.
“If we needed something, she (Singer) would get it for us,” he said. “She made it possible for a lot of people to succeed out there.”
Other CIFT services include helping companies design food safety plans, food safety trainings, and demonstrations related to growing berries, alternative energy crops, hoop house production, and specialty crops like hops.
The goal, Singer said, is to show how something can work on a demonstration scale — while reducing the risk and loss growers might otherwise incur on their own.
CIFT is funded by contracts with its partners, as well as the Ohio Development Services Agency, which relies on CIFT to implement a government program called the Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or Ohio MEP.
Through Ohio MEP, CIFT is charged with supporting small and medium-sized manufacturers in 18 northwestern counties.
Singer said one of her favorite parts about working for CIFT is helping entrepreneurs succeed.
“They’re so energetic,” she said. “They have the passion and the desire to take this product that they have created, and introduce it to a whole world of customers. It’s really just exciting to be around that level of enthusiasm.”