Iowa’s rural entrepreneurship environment, paced by the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa program, is gaining a strong reputation nationwide, according to rural development leaders and entrepreneurs who met at last week’s inaugural Agricultural Investment Summit, part of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) annual convention in Phoenix.
"Renew Rural Iowa leads the country in providing rural entrepreneurs with education and investment," said Lisa Benson, AFBF’s director of rural development. "Their work has been an inspiration and a model for American Farm Bureau’s Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative."
Renew Rural Iowa, which was launched 10 years ago, provides education, mentoring, recognition, connections and financing for rural entrepreneurs. It has mentored more than 3,000 Iowans over that decade and has had more than a $125 million economic impact on rural Iowa.
Five of the Iowa companies that have received help from Renew Rural Iowa were selected to attend AFBF’s summit, which provided education and investor pitching for 20-plus top rural start-ups from around the country.
"I think what we have is unique," said Casey Niemann, president of Dallas County-based AgriSync. "I think there’s a lot more coordination of effort in Iowa across organizational lines to say how can we band these resources together for the benefit of entrepreneurs."
Niemann said he noticed that there were a number of other state Farm Bureau organizations at the entrepreneur summit trying to figure out how to replicate what’s been done in Iowa.
"The culture and ecosystem in Iowa over the last five to seven years has just exploded," said Michael Koenig, president of ScoutPro, a crop scouting start-up that was founded in Lone Tree and won the 2015 American Farm Bureau Entrepreneur of the Year Award. "The resources that are available today versus what was there five years ago is just a testament to how important entrepreneurship, especially in agriculture, is to the state of Iowa and in the Midwest, so that’s been a great opportunity for us. Iowa Farm Bureau has been a key part in helping some of the relationships that we’ve had with our customers and opportunities."
Renew Rural Iowa’s success can be attributed to collaboration with a number of partners around the state, including Wellmark of Iowa, Iowa State University’s Ag Entrepreneurial Initiative, the Ag Start-up Engine and entrepreneurs themselves, said Adam Koppes, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation investment manager.
"Iowa has some challenges, for sure. For example, the seed stage financing gap in Iowa is very real, and we’re actively exploring ways for Renew Rural Iowa to help address it," Koppes said. "But as long as we continue to gather feedback from companies and leaders actively engaged in building our communities and stay focused on our guiding principles of educating, mentoring, recognizing, connecting and investing in entrepreneurs, Iowa will be in good position to remain a national leader in rural renewal."