What is It?
The Regional Food Venture is an initiative to establish a shared-use kitchen to serve producers and consumers in our region. It is based on the business incubator concept where farmers, market gardeners and other entrepreneurs can initiate a business venture by adding value to their raw commodities in a safe environment without having to invest in their own facility. Our kitchen will provide a certified facility where producers from the surrounding region can add value to their vegetable and fruit commodities. Jams, jellies, salsas, and other vegetable or fruit products plus breads and other products will be produced, packaged, and marketed here.
The facility will provide access to the necessary processing equipment, training in production, business and marketing, product development, and oversight from trained staff to produce a high quality product for consumer markets. Secondly, it will be used as a teaching facility for regularly scheduled classes such as the cheese making classes currently held in rented commercial kitchens. The third function for the facility would be to continually produce and market at least one local product that will provide a sustainable revenue stream to help support permanent staffing and overhead costs needed for the entrepreneurial development program.
As the entrepreneurs become profitable they have the option to build their own facility. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) inspection will add legitimacy to the products. The facility is planned for the campus of Munnell Run Farm at 753 Greenville Road, Mercer, PA 16137.
Why are we doing this?
Several indications exist that there is a real need for such a facility, and that there are in fact, real people in the project area, who would become clients or users of the facility. The PA Keystone Kitchen Incubator Feasibility Study, a joint effort of Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program, identified approximately 15-20 individuals in the project area who were potential users.
Northwest Pennsylvania lost industry, population and farms over the last several decades. Although agriculture is the leading industry in most of the region, the value of agriculture products was greater 50 years ago than it is today (adjusted for inflation). Within a one-hour drive of Munnell Run Farm there are about 7,500 farms, 64% of which earn less than $10,000 according to the 2002 USDA Census of Agriculture. The region has 36 towns with populations between 1,000 and 30,000 and the overall population of the region about 900,000. These “eaters” represent a great potential market for locally produced food products.
Across the country consumers are rediscovering their interest in purchasing fresher, healthier, locally produced foods and are showing their willingness to pay to support local farmers producing their own farmstead products. Northwestern PA still has a small farm presence to take advantage of this emerging consumer market. The Regional Food Venture at Munnell Run Farm will help to stabilize the local farm based economy.
Who is in charge?
A steering committee consisting of a wide cross section of principal stakeholders from the region guided us through the first phase of the endeavor. The Small Business Developmetn Center at Gannon University completed a Management/Operational Plan after researching and analyzing data that pertained to the sustainability of a shared-use kitchen incubator in our region. We will look to establish an advisory committee as we move toward establishing a separate nonprofit organization to manage and operate the facility.
How much will it cost and who will pay for it?
We estimate that $800,000 will be needed to construct the physical plant, purchase the necessary equipment, and cover staffing and operating costs for the first two years. Grants are being sought for the construction phase of the project and for seed money for the first two years of operating expense. Our goal is to make the project sustain itself with rental fees, educational fees and sale of value-added products created at the facility. As an interim measure we will look into renting an existing kitchen and updating it to meet our needs as a way to reduce initial costs. A $50,000 Agriculture Planning Grant from PA First Industries Fund allowed us to prepare business and operating plans and will be used to design the physical plant. The Penn Soil Conservancy Charitable Trust has also committed $2,000 to the project. Preliminary discussions with agency representatives reveal that the building project is a good fit with the Appalachian Regional Commission and that staffing assistance could be supported by the PA Workforce Investment Board through job training programs. Additional grants are being sought through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Donations from like-minded individuals and groups are always welcome.
Are we there yet?
Not yet. But we're getting closer. We’re probably a couple years from turning out our first value-added product. Having completed the business, operating and staffing plans we are gearing up to hold a series of public informational meetings this spring. At those meetings we will discuss our progress to date and, with input from those attending, chart our future course of action.