More than 3,000 Iowans mentored through program

The calendar may show this is the start of Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) Week, as proclaimed by Governor Terry Branstad, but the state’s largest grassroots farm organization has always believed that agriculture thrives, when rural Iowa thrives.  That’s why 10 years ago, IFBF started Renew Rural Iowa (RRIA), a business mentoring, networking and funding program to help strengthen the economic sustainability of Iowa’s rural communities.

“Nearly 90 percent of Iowa’s farmers rely on off-farm income, so it’s important to encourage entrepreneurs as well as helping existing businesses grow,” said IFBF President Craig Hill.  “Encouraging small businesses helps maintain young families in rural Iowa, which keeps schools alive and Mainstreet open, which is integral to Iowa’s rural heritage.”

The last 10 years of RRIA has seen measurable success.  “To date, our Renew Rural Iowa program has helped more than 3,000 Iowans realize their potential by participating in business mentoring or a financial guidance seminar,” says Hill. 

So far, the program has resulted in more than $125 million in economic impact for rural Iowa, and garnered national attention along the way.  “Our mentoring helped two young Iowa companies become national American Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge winners (ScoutPro in ’14, AccuGrain in ’15), and helped two more young entrepreneurs win semi-finalist recognition--Performance Livestock Analytics (PLA) and Inland Sea, a Harlan-based company that is breaking ground now at an Atlantic salmon farm,” says RRIA Economic Development Administrator Sandy Ehrig.

Small business success          

Joe Sweeney, the 25-year-old Inland Sea founder, says RRIA played a huge role in helping them not only get national attention in the Challenge contest, but also helped influence their path early on.  “We participated in the RRIA seminars to help define our path, develop a business plan, and find investors and experts.  I talked to RRIA’s Adam Koppes about business ideas and learned how to develop my vision and I think RRIA helped me focus on finding the best approaches for what I wanted to do. Their support and expertise were a huge help.  In fact, I know they are huge advocates for young entrepreneurs in the state, helping us develop a vision and grow it right here in rural Iowa, where we live.  Renew Rural Iowa is simply the best source for anyone who wants to see their small business dream become a reality,” says Sweeney.

Performance Livestock Analytics (PLA), founded by northern Iowa cattlemen, Dane and Dallas Kuper, helped bring their ‘Cattle Krush’ management platform to cattle farmers.  Cattle Krush brings real-time market insights to cattlemen, commodity advisors and other cattle industry stakeholders. This software is accessible on any mobile, laptop or desktop device.  Kuper says the program helps cattle farmers make decisions regarding the buying, selling and marketing of cattle.  Co-founder Kuper is a young Iowan whose interest in entrepreneurship started young.  “I started my first business selling snow cones in college.  Snow cones helped pay my way to college at ISU.  After college, I worked for a 24-person startup installing software for row crop farmers in California. But I always wanted to make something happen to help me return to Iowa. The cost to run a business has more advantages here than anywhere else.  Iowa is the place to start.  It’s where we grew up on our family farms,” says Kuper.

Their call to RRIA helped make that return home a reality.  “RRIA helped us on our mission to create an innovative platform. They helped us build a scalable business, find access to capital and an employee base.  They helped us put the whole framework together to get us from the blackboard to the boardroom, which is just what we needed.”

Helping existing businesses grow is another way IFBF’s entrepreneurship program helps rural Iowa succeed.  Milkhouse Candles started out as a candle-making hobby for founders Eric and Janet Sparrow.  They soon realized the need for clean-burning, non-toxic candles, because unlike most candles made from paraffin, Milkhouse Candles are made from beeswax and soybeans.  Their entire products, from the wicks to the recycled candle containers, are now the talk of the country, thanks in part to the mentoring and promotional help offered by RRIA.  “RRIA has been a great supporter of spreading our message, which has helped us grow. We have 32 employees in two locations: Osage and New Hampton.  We’ve expanded our brand and our message, and are contracting with other candle manufacturers out of our New Hampton location, for companies that don’t have the ability or market access to make soy candles.  I don’t know where we’d be without RRIA, giving us the guidance and recognition, and getting a lot of good people to help spread the message,” says Milkhouse founder, Eric Sparrow.

“We see the value in nurturing good ideas and helping others get new ideas off the ground,” says Ehrig.  “We found that most programs stop at the seminar, but RRIA is unique in that we continue to offer a business mentoring component and networking to connect these businesses with the resources they need to succeed. To date, we’ve hosted 46 seminars with more scheduled in 2017.”

For more information on RRIA and its “Journey to Your Vision” seminars, visit