The Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center (ESEC) was one of three winners nationally of a federal grant competition for agriculture innovation.
The $470,800 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow ESEC — which recently made moves to expand outreach in rural Delaware — to create the Chesapeake Agriculture Innovation Center. ESEC Executive Director Mike Thielke said the two-year grant will represent a first step toward this initiative, starting with programming and building toward a physical center. The Easton, Maryland-based ESEC has an initiative called F3 Tech, which is focused on farm (agtech), fish (aquatech) and food. Up until now, it has mostly been focused on the first two. The grant will enable the org to convene expertise that can grow the foodtech side, as well.
This will mean new programming that has a focus on value-added producers, who are farmers and food businesses that turn commodities into products, such as turning milk into cheese or ice cream. There are many up-and-coming small businesses that make and market these products, which are familiar to any attendee of a farmers’ market.
“We’re elevating the level of technical assistance that’s been typically been available to value-added producers,” Thielke said.
Next year, ESEC expects to stand up new programming that focuses on scaling these businesses, with a coverage area that includes the entire states of Maryland and Delaware. This could mean expanding the capacity to help get distribution at a supermarket, or using technology to create efficiencies, improve supply chains and use data, Thielke said.
Starting in the second quarter of next year, ESEC expects to begin providing access to CFO and attorney services, as well as subject matter experts to help entrepreneurs evaluate, structure and position their businesses to grow. ESEC is working with Grow & Fortify and Cureate, two local firms that specialize in assisting food businesses. They expect to have mentors available to meet with entrepreneurs, as well as workshops. They also expect to provide mini-grants of $2,500 for customer discovery and $5,000 for market validation, and to organize a vendor fair to bring together companies and wholesalers or food businesses.
ESEC assembled an advisory board to assist in guiding the initiative and delivering programming. The members are:
- John Torres, Maryland Farm Bureau
- Richard Wilkins, Delaware Farm Bureau
- Charlotte Davis, Maryland Department of Agriculture
- Holly Porter, Delmarva Poultry Industry
- Lindsay Thompson, Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board
- Donald Webster, Maryland Aquaculture Coordinating Council
- Roxanne Wolf, Shore Gourmet
- Andrew Rose, MidAtlantic Farm Credit
- Nikko Brady, Delaware Department of Agriculture