Ag innovation underway

By LYLE T. GALLOWAY
Posted 6/16/21

WAYNE COUNTY, PA — In early 2019, the Wayne County Agricultural Development Plan was drafted, stressing the need to revitalize the area’s existing agricultural facilities. Nothing made …

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Ag innovation underway

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WAYNE COUNTY, PA — In early 2019, the Wayne County Agricultural Development Plan was drafted, stressing the need to revitalize the area’s existing agricultural facilities. Nothing made the need for an updated agricultural model more apparent than the pandemic that struck a year later. 

Food insecurity was rampant. Food pantries were overwhelmed, many residents relied on emergency food delivery systems and supermarket shelves did not stay stocked for long. 

According to Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith, often-overlooked victims of food insecurity are the people who work to produce the food. As a dairy farmer himself, the matter is very personal to him. 

“The way I look at food insecurity is much [different] than the way other people look at food insecurity now. It is important to this nation, for our national security, to be able to produce food in our own country,” said Smith. “That’s the real food insecurity; farmers going out of business at staggering rates when we’re importing more and more food from other countries.”

In an attempt to help stimulate the area’s agriculture, help those in need and keep local farmers in business, the idea for the Agricultural Innovation Center was born. 

At the end of May, the county commissioners put together a request for proposals for the center. After hearing back from four different companies from all over the country, a decision on which would be the best fit to oversee the project was selected. 

ACDS, LLC of Colombia, MD was chosen due to the cost, their experience in designing similar facilities and the company’s familiarity of the area. The company was the one that helped design the aforementioned 2019 Agricultural Development Plan. The company plans to conduct a feasibility study, as well as scouting locations and assessing if the proposed Ag Innovation Center has room to blossom within the area. 

What is the Agricultural Innovation Center?

The center is intended to be a space for agriculture in many forms. There will be areas dedicated to food security, processing, farming, health, distribution, marketing and education. 

To help combat food insecurity issues within the county, a large central hub for the area’s five food pantries is being constructed within the facility. Refrigeration and warehouse space will be included to store the fresh, local food coming in. 

A famers’ market and areas for distribution will be included to ensure that local farmers have a place to sell their wares on-site and distribute them around the area. 

Wayne Memorial Hospital will also be implementing a “Food Pharmacy” as part of its new rural health model. It will be geared toward people with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, in an attempt to steer them toward healthier options. 

“People who are having issues with salt and all the processed food that we buy are going to be guided toward a purer food source and given recipes on how to prepare it and how to stay healthy so that they’re not just buying canned food,” said Vicky Botjer, CFO of Wayne County. 

“A lot of what we hear from the hospital is that the people who are in these unhealthy situations got there because they’re buying canned food and processed food and things that are high in salt.”

In regard to education, services related to agricultural career exploration will be offered. The center’s kitchen area will provide classes in cooking, canning, food safety and nutrition. 

Future components include a USDA livestock processing facility, mixed-use retail facilities and restaurants. 

According to Botjer, the cost of the feasibility study was paid for by grants by local private foundations. The county and Wayne Memorial Hospital will also be contributing to the cost. 

The proposed center aspires to provide solutions for a lot of the area’s agriculture-related problems. Those in need will have the chance to get fresh produce, those struggling with health problems can get a form of natural relief and the produce that is grown in the area can stay in the area, stimulating the local economy. It also provides a chance for the area’s next generation of farmers to get the knowledge they crave. 

“My big hope is that it helps tie together all the pieces of that puzzle to make agriculture successful and sustainable,” said Smith.

As the feasibility study moves ahead, a “Go/No Go” decision will be made on Phase I of the project by Labor Day.

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