Growing Local Food Businesses for Community Economic Development

Author: Michelle McGrath, Executive Director, Gorge Grown Food Network, and Sarai Johnson, Assistant Director, NEDCO

Publish Date: Spring 2014

Throughout Oregon, interest in leveraging enthusiasm for local food as an economic development tool is growing. Two community food system organizations, Gorge Grown Food Network (Gorge Grown) in Hood River, Oregon and Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) in Springfield, Oregon have launched programs to support new food entrepreneurs in their regions. Both organizations were responding to a growing demand for assistance in acquiring the skills, knowledge and tools fledgling food businesses need to succeed.

Gorge Grown’s Food Biz Incubator

In 2006, Gorge Grown launched the Hood River Farmers’ Market as a way to facilitate sales of fresh, local produce and meat to local customers. Since then, they have seen the market grow from a six vendor affair to a vibrant 32 vendor must-do Thursday activity. New food businesses have joined the market, and other nearby communities are also building thriving, community farmers’ markets, and the result has been an overall increase in both demand for local food and infrastructure to support small farmers and food businesses.

The increase in viable farmers’ markets and small farms has laid the foundation for a burgeoning value-added product sector. Take the story of thriving Hood River-based company PocketFuel for example. Founded in 2010, PocketFuel produces an almond-based whole food fuel for athletes. They started their company by renting the commercial kitchen at the Columbia Gorge Community College, selling their product at the Hood River Farmers’ Market, and taking advantage of local business planning classes. Today, they have a state-of-the-art facility of their own, a staff team of five and growing, and distribution in more than 400 locations. Using local fruit to flavor their energy fuels and creating local jobs, PocketFuel’s success contributes to the local economy.

Gorge Grown officially launched their Food Biz Incubator in the spring of 2013. The program relies on connecting local farmers and food entrepreneurs to regional experts in value-added production. Logistics, outreach, evaluation, and demand documentation are supported by Gorge Grown, and local resource providers share their skills or knowledge in a workshop with an audience of aspiring food entrepreneurs. Workshop topics are determined by surveying the needs of aspiring value-added producers. Examples of courses include Food & Farm Law 101, Food Safety Basics for Value-Added Producers, Communication Planning for New Value-Added Businesses, and the three-day Marketplace Readiness Series (a collaboration with OSU-Extension Hood River County). This series included a review of state and county food laws with local officials, production and labeling related training with the Food Innovation Center, and a marketing component with several local graphic designers.

The Food Biz Incubator will also result in an online resource hub to include a guide to the area’s commercial kitchens and a road map for local food start-ups. The program is only as successful as Gorge Grown is in facilitating collaboration amongst resource providers for the benefit of value-added production in the Gorge. This work has been informed by a value-added needs assessment and is funded by Meyer Memorial Trust. For a copy of the assessment or the survey used to conduct the assessment, email

NEDCO’s Sprout & Hatch Programs

In 2010, in response to a lagging economy and high unemployment, NEDCO partnered with the City of Springfield to create and launch Hatch Business Incubator. With three initial enrollees, the program offered comprehensive business technical assistance and education, affordable retail space on Main Street, and access to capital through matched savings accounts and, as of 2011, NEDCO’s affiliate Community Development Financial Institution, Community LendingWorks.

It quickly became apparent that the food industry - the only industry in Lane  County to see growth in the depths of the recession - was ripe for entrepreneurial development. Food carts, farmers, and other food businesses were ready to get started or to grow, but they were constrained by limited access to commercial kitchens and lack of access to capital. Simultaneously, NEDCO observed consumer demand rising for year-round access to fresh, local food as its customers at the seasonal Springfield Farmers’ Market, opened in 2008, expressed this desire. In late 2011, NEDCO purchased the First Christian Church in downtown Springfield in order to house the idea that would later become Sprout! Regional Food Hub.

Today, Sprout! offers a 3000 square foot kitchen for rent by small food businesses, such as farmers who are ready to expand their businesses by producing value-added items, but who are not quite ready for copacking or other arrangements. Springfield Farmers’ Market became Marketplace@Sprout!, operating year-round in the former sanctuary of the church facility. Hatch Business Incubator has grown to focus intently on supporting the food industry, while Community LendingWorks, in tandem, has created a suite of loan products appropriate for a variety of food businesses at various stages of growth. Many Sprout! businesses work through the programs and quickly grow, obtain capital, and move on to larger packing and space elsewhere to keep building the local and regional economy. People who move through Sprout! programs are apt to agree that “Food Grows Community.” It does, in so many ways - from the farmer to the consumer, to the small business, to the full community, food business opens the door to economic security for the community.

For more about Gorge Grown Food Network and FoodBiz: