UC Davis, in concert with Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance (SARTA), were recently awarded a $1million grant to reinvent the agricultural marketing wheel. The federal grant money, 2012 i6 Challenge, came from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (USEDA) that obviously doesn’t realize California is flooded with agencies to help farmers market their crops.
In a wonderfully worded grant writing explanation of the program,
The AgTech Innovation Center will connect stakeholders with valuable resources that focus on accelerating entrepreneurial thinking among farmers, ranchers, and researchers in the agricultural field, and develop a network of experts to support entrepreneurs and new ventures. In addition, the Center will create an AgEntrepreneurship Academy, which will help agriculture entrepreneurs identify market needs and opportunities, and create agriculture “food chain” clusters of innovation.
Who really wanted the money?
SARTA, who will be receiving 50% of the funds under subcontract through UCD, will develop the AgStart program which will be a mirror of their CleanStart, MedStart and VentureStart series. Because SARTA has indicated that they have been interested in starting an agricultural venture program, it sounds as if they actually wrote the grant and got UC Davis to add some university weight with sponsorship.
We’re first…not last
The USEDA must know that California is the 9th largest economy in the world and we rank no. 1 in cash farm receipts with $37.5 billion in the U.S. In addition, California represents 7% of all U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. Nine of the ten top producing counties in the U.S. are in California. Amidst all of this superlative data, is it realistic to think that California is in desperate need of $1 million to create “food chain” clusters of innovation?
Replication is for research, not programs
For the sake of argument, let’s assume California is in need of a “network of experts to support entrepreneurs and new ventures”. Is it necessary to create yet another program and office when we have probably have the highest concentration of agricultural related colleges, universities, state agencies and county agricultural offices? Can anyone make the argument that no one is working on this entrepreneurial-marketing vacuum? Here are some of the resources available to farmers:
CSU Fresno, Center for Agricultural Business
Who developed “Got Milk?”
In addition, there are over 50 marketing boards in California that have the power to assess fees on producers of commodities for marketing activities from alfalfa to wine grapes. The best known and most influential is California Milk Advisory Board which has done a great job of convincing us that California cows are happy cows. Plus, their marketing efforts have led the public to believe that drinking copious amounts of milk is essential to healthy bones and it will prevent osteoporosis.
Who will the program really help?
Beyond the variety of existing agencies that are capable of “connecting stake holders with valuable resources”, has a quantifiable need or problem to solve been identified? Is California on the cusp of agricultural failure because we haven’t been “accelerating entrepreneurial thinking among farmers, ranchers and researchers”? Is the AgTech Innovation Center a subtle way to help large growers of genetically modified organisims (GMOs), such as multinational Monsanto Corporation, help market their new genetically engineered food to the public?
Perhaps the scariest part of the effusive press releases surrounding the grant award was the reference made by Rep. Matsui, “Once built, this center will have a profound impact on the region and the nation…” This sounds like she and others think this AgTech/Start/Innovation/Center will become a permanent fixture of quasi-government bureaucracies. Who is going to fund this monster once it is “operational” and the grant money runs out? More than likely it will become one of the never ending parade of programs at the budget table demanding money from the general fund but who are under little supervision and accountability.
What’s the problem again?
None of the press releases I have read indicated what a successful AgStart Venture will look like. How do we measure whether the results of the center are beneficial? Do we let them trot out 2 or 3 small farmers claiming their services were indispensable to keeping them in business? What cost-benefit analysis do we use to determine if we should continue to fund this salon of agricultural deep thinking?
In the fall of my son’s freshman year in high school he started selling pre-orders for spinach he was growing. For just a quarter the buyer would get a big bag of organically grown spring spinach that he cultivated himself in our backyard. He was pretty excited that he had discovered a new marketing angle. Unfortunately, I had to pop his balloon and tell him that he had reinvented the futures market. But maybe AtStart would like to hire him as an expert for their entrepreneurial program. My 14 year old son didn’t need a $1 million grant to realize and service an existing market.
Send the grant rain to the mid-west
The only way I can explain the USEDA grant award to UCD and SARTA is that it was a lack of competition or over the top exceptional grant writing, maybe both. Regardless, California has a bumper crop of expositions, symposiums, colleges, universities, county offices, state agencies, marketing boards, farm bureaus and several other events and organizations geared toward helping farmers remain number 1 in farm exports to the world. It highly unlikely that this AgStart-Tech-Center of innovation will be able to add much to California other than becoming another impoverished program begging for tax dollars every year. The farmers in the mid-west suffering from drought could use this grant money more than California.