Focus on diversification: Wyo. agriculture industry sets sights on diversity
Wyoming’s renewed focus on diversifying the state’s economy has extended to the agriculture industry, and recently, the University of Wyoming (UW) partnered with several local economic development groups across the state to facilitate productive conversations for ag innovators.
“Several years ago, when he was interim director of UW’s Powell Research and Extension Center (PREC) John Tanaka began working with the Chambers of Commerce and economic development groups in every county where there is a Research and Extension Center,” says UW Agricultural Experiment Stations (AES) Director Bret Hess.
Hess explains Tanaka’s work began to forge relationships that enabled the beginning of a long-term partnership with the Powell Economic Partnership. Hess took over the interim director position at PREC as Tanaka focused his efforts on serving as interim director at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) in Lingle.
“Dr. Tanaka also began working to develop a similar relationship with the Goshen County Economic Development Corporation,” Hess says.
Both entities are based in communities supported by the agriculture industry.
“In Goshen County, agriculture is their number one economic driver,” he adds. “In the Big Horn Basin, if we exclude the southern-most part of the Basin where energy extraction occurs, agriculture runs the economy.”
Developing a diversity focus
In the summer of 2017, Hess was approached by Christine Bekes of the Powell Economic Partnership,
who hatched the idea of taking the economic diversification conversation within the ag industry to the next level.
Bekes developed the idea to bring industry leaders together to have a conversation about diversifying the ag economy on a large scale.
“We started in the Big Horn Basin because Christine was a huge driver behind this effort, and there is strong present of the agriculture industry, as well,” Hess explains. “This effort is perfectly timed because ENDOW is really beginning its work to diversity Wyoming’s economy. Agriculture is the third largest industry in the state, and there’s a real opportunity to plug into that initiative and work together.”
The resulting Wyoming Agriculture Diversification Summit brought together early adopters, progressive producers and economic development professionals from across the state, along with thought leaders from around the country.
The summit, funded with contributions from UW AES, ENDOW, Northwest College, Eastern Wyoming College, Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming Department of Agriculture, University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Forward Cody and Powell Economic Partnership, focused on connecting leaders to facilitate cultivation of new ideas.
“We put together intentionally diverse panels to stimulate thought about what we can do that we normally wouldn’t think about to stimulate the ag economy in the state of Wyoming,” Hess describes. “We started with a focus on crops. Our growers can produce anything. It’s outstanding.”
Hess continues, while Wyoming producers are capable of producing a wide variety of alternative and specialty crops, as well as major commodities, all crops are exported out of the state for processing, eliminating the opportunity for added value.
“All of the added value is transported out of state, where other states’ economies get the value,” he says. “That is a major focus for us.”
Several panels of speakers, opportunities for networking and overviews of current research projects were developed to stimulate conservation and ideas.
“The response from our attendees was phenomenal,” Hess adds. “A number of producers noted the conference was extremely worthwhile. We saw connections made by people across the state who wouldn’t normally be in the same room, and they began to develop new ideas.”
After the event, Hess says copious notes will be compiled into a white paper, which includes a defined set of action items.
“Once we determine our action items, we’ll consider how to follow-up and develop a plan for implementation,” he explains. “Our hope is to take action that will stimulate the economy, create jobs and create additional income for the state.”
Hess also identifies future steps, which include the potential for additional diversification symposia focused on livestock.
“In this case, it was important to reach out to our partners and agribusiness entrepreneurs, but we also realize there are opportunities in the livestock industry, as well,” Hess comments.
With the work of ENDOW in the broader economy of Wyoming, Hess says, “The time is right to pursue diversification efforts in agriculture today.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.