Turkey for Me, Turkey for You…

 In News

No better time to talk about food than now. As we head out to the grocery with Normal Rockwell-like visions of the perfect Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinner that likely never quite lives up, food is central to holidays. We need it and it is big business.

Food production in Blair County is the largest part of the economy.  Our food producers like Benzel’s Bakery, Boyer Candies, DelGrosso’s Foods, Gardner’s Candies, Shirley’s Cookies and Kunzler’s employ hundreds and add millions of dollars in economic output. Our farms supply the nation’s largest food processors like Land O’Lakes who churns locally produced milk into butter – Yes, another slab of that please.

The big food trend is all about local connections. Communities are getting back in touch with their local farms. It is expected that when you dine at independently owned and operated eateries you will experience food unique to the community’s farms and culture.  The National Restaurant Association reported that local sourcing and farm-to-table concepts have been long-standing elements in culinary circles…but the mainstream dining public has only caught on in recent years…Farm to table options are becoming the new normal.

This fall the Blair County Conservation District celebrated our local food connection with it’s first Farm2Fork dinner. The event brought together hundreds of local foodies to experience new twists on traditional First Frontier fare. The event will now become a marquis annual gathering for Blair County so look for the 2018 date when announced.

How do we leverage and encourage more economic opportunity in the food industry? We need to first understand where it is heading and distinguish fads from lasting change.  Consumers demand fresher, and faster, which for big industry require more complex systems of production.

Site location consultant Scott Kupperman recently reported in Area Development Magazine his observations (complete article here). “More consumers are skipping the supermarket to buy direct from farmers. Farmers who engage in direct sales and consumers who buy direct win big; consumers get the highest quality food, and farmers get a premium price for their products. Expect to see more farmers’ markets, roadside stands, food buying clubs and other direct sales opportunities.

Consumers are also continuing to seek out more organic options. “Organic is the fastest growing sector of the food industry.,” said Kupperman. “Healthy fast food wins big in 2017. Consumers have become more health conscious in recent years, but also busier. When seeking fast food options, health conscious consumers choose restaurant chains like Chipotle and Panera over mainstay McDonalds,” he added.

To remain competitive in a changing market, food producers large and small must be nimble. They need to change product quickly and provider fresher, healthier ready to eat options like never before. This means smaller but more numerous and highly capitalized facilities closer to the markets they serve. It also means the need for fewer but more highly skilled workforce with advanced training in food production.

“The days of a making one product in a facility have been replaced by the need to quickly put new ideas and concepts into production, with minimal disruption and new investment. Being able to quickly change or modify processing lines, ingredients used, waste streams, packaging materials and sizes, brand messages, and marketing tactics will continue to be viewed by food companies as critical to their success, “ explained Kupperman. “Clearly, the regional mix of labor skills and availability will play a major role in food facilities’ operational success as defined above.”

As with most modern competitive businesses, talent and innovation is king. Food producers are doing more with less, which means continued up-skilling with a focus on innovation. ABCD Corporation has worked closely and promotes Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation (CFI) as a key partner and value proposition for our region. The CFI is a unique, cooperative research venture between the food industry and academia.

CFI’s mission is to lead industry and university initiatives that create and enhance science and technologies applications while providing the food industry with unbiased world-class information and products developed with the purpose of promoting nutritious foods. Building those relationships and telling their stories can help to attract new investment and employment opportunities.

Food production has been a big part of our economic history and will remain a part of our future. It just may look differently than those mega factories of the past as production adapts to consumer taste and use of technology. Food is equally apart of community building as it is about growing our economy. They are inseparable and will remain an area of focus and preparation for ABCD.

As we in the First Frontier gather around the table this Thanksgiving, think about the food and where it comes from…or just take a bite and enjoy. I leave you with a classic pop culture song that may bring back memories of that traditional meet up with old school friends at Zach’s Pub the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  Cheers everyone and…can you please pass the gravy?

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