Wooster’s Local Roots founds incubator for food and farm businesses

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Small farmers near Wooster, Ohio, could get more support from a new food and farm business incubator in their area soon.

Local Roots Market and Cafe, a community-supported, year round market founded in 2009, has been informally helping farmers and food entrepreneurs grow their businesses for years. Now, it’s building on those efforts with a new nonprofit, FoodSphere.

“We realized that Local Roots was doing a lot of work with producers to help them,” said Tiffany Leeper, co-leader of a steering committee for the nonprofit. “A lot of it was literally just staff people spending their own time volunteering to help producers … it’s great that we do this, but we needed to somehow fund it.”

Elizabeth Schuster, co-leader of the steering committee and environmental economist for Sustainable Economies Consulting, got involved after reaching out to local small businesses about how they were impacted by the pandemic last year. She learned about how Local Roots was already working with food producers and farmers through its commercial kitchen, and was blown away.

“[I said] wait a minute, you’re telling me that you’re already serving as a business incubator … and nobody’s talking about this?” Schuster said.

She helped run a feasibility study to see if there was interest in a business incubator. The study found that Local Roots was already contributing to creating and supporting jobs in the area — and that there was interest in a more formal program.

But first, the steering committee needs to figure out exactly what type of services, like help with branding or with accessing supply chains, the nonprofit should offer.

To find out what farmers and food producers in the area need, FoodSphere got a $70,000 research project grant from Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation.

Plans

FoodSphere will be a separate entity from Local Roots, with each having their own board of directors. But they will be connected.

Leeper said FoodSphere’s board will have positions reserved for members of Local Roots, and they may share resources, like offices or staff. The steering committee is considering housing the nonprofit in Local Roots’ building.

“We’re still trying to figure out what that’s going to look like,” Leeper said. “I like to say they’re siblings. They’re going to be separate, but also share a lot of things.”

Research

The research project should help answer questions about what type of support farmers and food producers need — whether it’s with packaging, branding, accessing supply chains, transportation or something else — and how to structure and price trainings.

“We’re trying to design training programs that will help small scale food producers access new markets,” Leeper said.

Schuster said the nonprofit may charge some money for some programs, but said many farmers who work with Local Roots are micro producers, who earn less than $10,000 in revenue.

“Being a nonprofit means that you never let the smallest of the small producers fall through the cracks,” Schuster said.

The research project will include partners from Ohio State University, the College of Wooster and Sustainable Economies Consulting, also based in Wooster. It will include a case study of food incubators, by the College of Wooster, and focus groups and surveys in Wayne County and surrounding counties and states.

Impact

It’s hard to predict how many people FoodSphere will impact yet. But a 2020 feasibility study showed that, already, Local Roots contributes to 100 full time and 175 part time and seasonal jobs, and has helped add 47 jobs at farms and food businesses in the area over the years.

“We believe that if we’re able to achieve those numbers without having formalized programs, we could increase them with the right type of programming,” Schuster said.

She added that job creation is just one metric that will measure FoodSphere’s success. Other factors, like revenue streams and quality of life for farmers, are also important.

Beth Ladrach, of Autumn Harvest Farm, said selling at Local Roots helped her farm extend their season year round and grow their customer base.

The Ladrachs, who have a third generation family farm in Wooster, started selling vegetables and, later, beef at Local Roots when the cooperative began in 2009. Beth Ladrach is now the board president at Local Roots and is also on the steering committee for FoodSphere.

“Local Roots has always been working with the small farms and businesses … it’s great because they are committed to working one on one with you,” Ladrach said.

Community

She added that staff have helped pass information between farmers on things like licensing and labeling products.

“Local Roots is kind of a nice space so that producers can exchange information back and forth,” she said.

FoodSphere will be open to working with both farmers who sell at Local Roots, and farmers who do not sell there. Leeper said the committee is also working with local business supporters, like the chamber of commerce, as they make plans for the nonprofit.

“We think it’s really important not to duplicate efforts or organizations already in the region,” Schuster said. “We’re trying to find a niche that is helpful.”

The research project is underway and will continue through the end of the year. The steering committee is nailing down strategic planning and intends to wrap that up and get nonprofit status by spring 2021.

“FoodSphere is already kind of growing,” Leeper said. “We have a mission statement. We’re now working on what are our goals and what strategies to meet these goals … it’s hard to say when it will really take off, but we’re kind of already going.”

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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