The Iowa Farm Bureau Fed­eration’s (IFBF) Renew Rural Iowa (RRIA) program, a business mentoring, networking and funding program to help strengthen the economic sustainability of Iowa’s rural communities, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Renew Rural Iowa is important for the state’s rural communities, and for farmers, said IFBF President Craig Hill.

"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," Hill said. "Encouraging small businesses helps maintain young families in rural Iowa, which keeps schools alive and Main Street 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 2014, AccuGrain in 2015) 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 a salmon farm," said RRIA Economic Development Administrator Sandy Ehrig.

Small business success

Joe Sweeney, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, says RRIA played a huge role in helping him launch fish farming start-ups.

"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 addition, RRIA helps advocate for young entrepreneurs in the state, Sweeney said. "That is helping us develop a vision and grow it right here in rural Iowa, where we live."

Growing in Iowa

Renew Rural Iowa also helped Performance Livestock Analytics (PLA), which was founded by northern Iowa cattlemen Dane and Dallas Kuper, bring their Cattle Krush management platform to cattle farmers.

The company’s founders were working in California, but wanted to return to Iowa. Their call to RRIA helped make that return home a reality, the Kupers said.

"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.

Better candles

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.

The company’s 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. 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," said 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