Entrepreneurship@Cornell Celebration 2012
Eat Me, I’m Local!
"In recent decades, entrepreneurial interest in the food and agriculture industry has risen,” said Beth McKellips, agricultural economic development specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension for Madison County, and moderator for a panel titled “Eat Me, I’m Local! – Entrepreneurial Opportunities within the Local Food Movement."
Sponsored by Johnson’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, the Entrepreneurship@Cornell event was held at Sage Hall on April 20. Panelists included Ed Harwood, founder and CTO of AeroFarms, Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, and Kristen Rainey, MBA ’09, director of corporate services and sustainability at Sodexo.
According to McKellips, there are more opportunities than ever for entrepreneurs to transform their ideas into successful businesses in the food and agriculture industry. The participating panelists, who discussed the potential opportunities for entrepreneurship in each segment of the agriculture and food system, affirmed her assessment.
McKellips defined five key sectors in the food system:
- Production: planning and growing food
- Processing: assembling and packaging food;
- Distribution: transporting food
- Marketing and retailing
- Waste management: composting and taking care of animal waste
Harwood, an entrepreneur whose company, AeroFarms, uses aeroponics to grow leafy greens without any sun, soil, or pesticides in an entirely controlled, indoor environment, stressed the demand for innovation in the production, processing, and distribution of local food, because food safety is a major concern.
“Time magazine said that leafy greens are one of the ten most dangerous foods, and I think that’s ridiculous because it’s one of the best things for us to eat,” said Harwood. “So at AeroFarms, we came up with a solution where we don’t have to worry about security because we grow our stuff in a totally controlled environment. We need more creative solutions like that.”
Rainey added that food safety is not only a hurdle for production, processing, and distribution, but can be problematic from a marketing and retailing perspective as well. Sodexo, Rainey explained, provides food service for cafeterias at major companies like National Geographic and Nintendo, as well as at universities (including Ithaca College). It purchases locally grown produce and local, from-scratch cooking. But it isn’t easy to secure a partnership with Sodexo.
“Small farms need to pass several food safety benchmarks before we can work with them to ensure that their food is safe to eat,” Rainey said. “Small farms often can’t afford to take certain safety measures and perform certain evaluations, so they lose out on marketing opportunities like a partnership with Sodexo.” Helping small farms get the funding they need for effective marketing is a promising area for entrepreneurial endeavors, Rainey believes.
Lightfoot, whose company, BrightFarms, specializes in building sustainable greenhouse farms on supermarket rooftops and other locations, ensuring that locally sourced food is grown as close to where it’s sold as possible, believes that knowing how to solve problems is the one thing that always pays off, no matter what segment of the food system entrepreneurs decide to tackle.
“The one thing you always need to do is listen to the customer,” he said. “When you have someone that says, ‘I would pay for that product or service,’ that’s a very powerful thing. And as entrepreneurs, you need to really harness that, no matter what field you’re working in.”
Maria Minsker ’13 is a student intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson.