We applaud today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) of $400 million to support the creation of Regional Food Business Centers through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The Centers will provide coordination, technical assistance, and capacity-building to small and mid-sized farm and food businesses in order to build resilient local and regional food systems.
The Centers follow a call from AFT, in partnership with the Agricultural Viability Alliance (the Alliance), for USDA to set aside a portion of Coronavirus relief funding for one-to-one business technical assistance. More than 110 organizations joined AFT and the Alliance in urging USDA to prioritize this type of technical assistance to small and mid-sized farm and food businesses. In addition, 50 Members of Congress similarly encouraged USDA to support business technical assistance.
“The pandemic underscored how critical local and regional farm and food businesses are to the resilience of our food system,” said Tim Fink, Policy Director for American Farmland Trust. “Through business technical assistance, the Centers will help producers and food entrepreneurs build the skills and access the opportunities they need to succeed long-term in a challenging industry.”
Business technical assistance (BTA) covers a wide range of one-to-one services offered to farm and food businesses by nonprofit organizations, state agencies, private consultants, and extension services. Customized to meet the unique needs of individual businesses, these services include coaching, skill development, and planning related to financial and labor management, marketing and business strategies, farm transfer and succession, and access to land and capital. BTA has proven effective at creating jobs and supporting local economies. One state program found that two years of business planning support helped businesses generate a 62 percent increase in net income and add jobs at a rate three times that of the sector on average.
The Regional Food Business Centers will provide business technical assistance to small and mid-sized farm and food businesses to help them strengthen business skills, engage new markets, and access federal, state, and local resources. The Centers will also provide direct financial assistance to support projects focused on regional needs and businesses that are working towards expansion and other investment. There will be at least six centers, with one focused on tribal communities and three focused on the high priority areas of Appalachia, the Colonias (counties on the US/Mexico border), and the Delta and the Southeast. Special emphasis is placed on working with underserved communities.
“USDA’s inclusion of producers as a key audience, longer grant terms, and requirement that the Centers be supported by partnerships of multiple organizations reflect the results of USDA’s earnest engagement with stakeholders in developing the concept of the Centers,” said Tim Fink. “We especially appreciate the inclusion of funding for capacity-building grants in order to enable the recipients of business technical assistance to immediately make progress on newly-identified opportunities.”
The announcement of the Centers comes less than two weeks after a separate announcement by USDA’s Farm Service Agency of a $300 million Increasing Land, Capital, and Market Access Program. AFT is also highly supportive of this program, viewing it as complementary to the Centers and essential to improving opportunities for new, beginning, and historically marginalized producers while also ensuring that agricultural land remains in farming.
“We want to again thank the congressional champions, especially Senator Leahy and Representative Delgado, for their critical leadership on this issue,” said Fink. “We also want to thank the many stakeholders, including business technical assistance providers, that helped to raise both the importance and visibility of business technical assistance nationally.”