Business assistance network scales up

By Patty Cantrell, Food System Network Builder, New Growth

Finding business assistance can be a chore for small and mid-size diversified farms. The Heartland Regional Food Business Center changes that. Its team of on-the-ground organizations is building up business development staff and connecting with other resources to meet the needs of food and farm entrepreneurs working in local and regional markets.

The challenge this team addresses is one that a grower keen on adding local wholesale to their farmers’ market business, for example, often faces. Few business counselors are available in rural areas, period. Small business assistance that does exist, whether in rural or more urban areas, tends to focus on non-farm businesses. At the same time, helpers in the agribusiness arena are often more familiar with larger scale operations. Multilingual assistance for immigrant and indigenous entrepreneurs is rare across the board.

Ben Jewell, Associate Extension Educator at University of Nebraska-Lincoln is one of the Heartland Center’s business technical assistance providers. He describes how the Heartland Center, with funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, is expanding UNL’s work with smaller food and farm entrepreneurs and what that can mean for local and regional food system development. Similar expansions of business technical assistance resources and networks are taking place in each Heartland Center state (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma).

Expanding Our Reach

Jewell’s own day-to-day work focuses on market matching, or helping local food producers and local food buyers connect and work together.

“We work with schools and farmers, for example, to help both sides of the purchasing equation have a better understanding of what the other needs,” he said. “We also do a lot of market meetups; networking opportunities for producers and buyers to come together.”

As part of the Heartland Center, Jewell and the UNL business assistance team will be able to provide market matching and other business counseling to more food and farm entrepreneurs. It will also have the capacity to expand its network of small farm and food business assistance beyond Lincoln and Omaha, where most activity is now, he said.

“First and foremost, we will have more capacity to work with underserved communities.”

New resources to help include indigenous organizations based in Nebraska and supported by the Heartland Center. They will assist partners in all five states working to reach and serve overlooked food and farm entrepreneurs.

One is Communidad Maya Pixan Ixim, which supports the health, well-being, and self-determination of people of the Maya civilization. Another is the UNL Indigenous Food Trade Coalition, which works with Native American communities to build food sovereignty and trading relationships.

Jewell said he is already “working with the tribal team to create a web-based platform for tribal business owners to have greater reach and a broader market audience.”

More People on the Job

UNL and other Heartland Center partners are also adding staff to help ensure that small, mid-size diversified farm and food businesses find the help they need no matter who they are or where they are.

Add your insight and expertise to the Heartland Center’s Small Business Development affinity group. Contact facilitator Jaclyn Carroll for information:

In Nebraska, Communidad Maya Pixan Ixam has hired Sergio Sosa as Regional Indigenous Food Business Manager. The Center for Rural Affairs has added Local Foods Associate Kjersten Hyberger to its small business development team. UNL added Rulon Taylor. “Rulon is based in western Nebraska, helping us put boots on the ground and, being bilingual, to reach a broader audience there,” Jewell said.

Additional Heartland Center-supported staff at other partner organizations include two business technical assistance positions at the Kansas Rural Center, a part-time addition to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and two positions at Kansas State Research and Extension.

Five-State Team

In Missouri, the rural community development corporation New Growth employs Jaclyn Carroll as a full-time farm business counselor alongside other staff working with rural businesses through its New Growth Women’s Business Center and micro-lending program.

As with all Heartland Center partners, New Growth works with resources across the five-state region to make sure and leave no food or farm entrepreneur behind. In Missouri, that includes Heartland Center key partner University of Missouri Extension and its Missouri Agriculture, Food and Forestry Innovation Center.

Getting all these business counselors talking together on a regular basis is the work of the Heartland Center’s Small Business Affinity Group, which Carroll facilitates.  Sharing best practices and resources and learning from each other is the affinity group’s baseline purpose, she said. Participants are also involved for collaborative problem-solving.

For example, “the group expressed interest in discussing the challenges faced by small local food businesses when it comes to logistics and transportation at a future meeting,” Carroll said.

The Heartland Center Small Business Affinity Group meets bimonthly. Food and farm business assistance stakeholders are invited along with Heartland Center partners. To get involved, email Jaclyn Carroll at for meeting information.