Tour highlights local economic impact of ag business

There’s no doubt that agribusiness is a top industry not only in Centre County, but throughout the entire Appalachian Region.

Centre County agriculture alone ranked 21st among all the commonwealth’s 67 counties with 1,146 farms, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania reported in 2009, according to the county comprehensive plan. The county’s agricultural sales were just shy of $70 million, according to the same report.

On Monday, top brass from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Jobs and Local Foods Systems Tour visited the area, making stops at farms, farmers markets and food-related manufacturers.

One of those stops on a three-day tour of the region was in Lewistown, where Bonfatto’s Spice Cream is manufactured. The popular Bellefonte eatery on Park Place owned by Dave Letterman in June earned national accolades at the Fancy Food Show hosted by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade in New York.

“Throughout the Appalachian region, there is incredible energy around local food systems and the entrepreneurs and supporters that drive them,” said Earl Gohl, ARC’s federal co-chairman, in a news release.

Gohl was joined by ARC’s federal chief of staff, Guy Land, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy undersecretary for marketing, Joani Walsh.

The goal, said ARC spokesman Louis Segesvary, was to spur regional conversations about how local food growers and manufacturers promote economic growth and have overcome obstacles in reaching that goal.

“The market for local foods is growing,” Gohl said. “The challenge is for communities to take advantage of it and use it as an economic development strategy moving forward.”

Some of the venues on the tour included farms in Centre Hall and Mifflintown, the Boalsburg Farmers Market, as well as Bonfatto’s production facility, which the group has depicted as a poster child for a local business using regional tools to go national.

Letterman’s Spice Cream, for instance, which is ice cream infused with fruit-based hot sauces, sells in local and national chain retailers. But Letterman Enterprises has been a SEDA-Council of Governments export program client, which is, in turn, supported partially through the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to ARC.

“We look to buy products from local suppliers to the best of our ability because we know how important it is to keep investment dollars in the community,” Letterman said in the news release. “If you haven’t tried our spice cream, we welcome you to try it. Not only is it a treat, it will support our local food producers.”

“(Letterman Enterprises) was a fantastic example of a local foods business, the type that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to encourage,” Walsh said. “It’s inspiring to hear their story.”