Local hub and market aims to help farmers and food producers reach consumers

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FARMINGTON — San Juan College grabbed a share of the $2.5 million the U.S. Department of Commerce offered in competitive grants to build programs that promote economic innovation and strong economies.

San Juan College won the five-year, $564,000 grant with a proposal to create The Harvest, a program operated by the college that will create a food hub and maker market, but also aim to help food producers create shelf-stable products from local produce.

The grant is part of a larger effort already underway at the college to diversify San Juan County’s economy, and work with community stakeholders to create new jobs and locally produced products.

“This is the beginning of something bigger,” said Lorenzo Reyes Jr., the college’s director of workforce development.

Reyes said the grant, which begins Monday, “is part of a larger vision for the community” and lets the college utilize its significant resources while working with others in the community to create economic opportunities.

“We’re going from concept to implementation,” Reyes said.

The college already offers individuals counseling and help with business plans and patents. Services include pairing a potential business with groups like the New Mexico-based small business development and training group WESST to link entrepreneurs with those who can help them gain financing for new ventures.

And, sometimes, those new ventures have traditional origins.

Judy Castleberry, he college’s Enterprise Center director, grew up in Farmington and remembers when there were many farms and orchards. She said that part of the community’s business world has not disappeared.

“It kind of goes back to our roots a little bit,” Castleberry said, “but we’re trying to do it with a 2018 twist instead of 1918.”

The first year of the grant will fund program staffing, which will include finding a specialist in agricultural economics, and move the program forward toward, as Castleberry put it, the point of "breaking dirt" and putting the program to work.

The next four years will be spent overseeing operations, including paying staff and buying equipment needed for the new programs.

Castleberry said the college soon will roll out the results of a separate economic planning study, which will be explained on Oct. 9 at an event downtown. There was a summer workshop, and “we have community stakeholders who have already fed into this.”

Castleberry said the effort is “kind of to put boots on the ground for the planning that has already happened.”

As part of the groundwork, college representatives traveled to Minnesota to look at an economic revitalization program already underway. No details from that planning process have been released.

“Colleges and universities play a vital role in support of locally devised economic development strategies,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in the release announcing the grants Sept. 27. “These institutions will work to build the public-private partnerships that are critical to helping America stay competitive in the 21st century.”

There were 20 grants given to colleges and universities, most of which were in the roughly $112,000 range, with the highest two at $162,500.

Contact Daily Times Editor John R. Moses via email at jmoses@daily-times.com, or at 505-564-4624.

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