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USDA reaches out to small businesses 
in Alaska

Dave BendingerBristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman

“Look at this Swiss chard, look at the color of those stems; it’s so beautiful!” said a customer at Dillingham’s small but highly appreciated Farmer’s Market last Wednesday afternoon.

“That’s called Northern Lights, and it tastes as good as it looks,” said Toni Herrmann of Warehouse Mountain Farms, setting out the rest of her produce.

Impressed by the bounty of chard, kale, pumpkin blossoms, herbs, jams and more was Dr. Kitty Cardwell, a national program leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Small Business Innovation Research program. Cardwell has been on a trip through several parts of the state getting a feel for the business climate and touting the unique federal program. SBIR, she said, is a research grant program that helps solve big problems so small businesses can thrive. She sees opportunity all around her.

“In talking with some of the area farmers, they told me that the local grocery stores are somehow regulated against buying produce locally and selling it to customers. Why is that? How do you change it? That’s exactly the kind of problem the USDA would like to help these small businesses look into and perhaps do something about.”

Imagine, she said, if the handful of local farms could sell their produce directly to the local stores. That would enable them to pick their harvest as soon as it’s ripe, not waiting until the Wednesday or Saturday markets. Perhaps they might expand their production, or sell earlier or later in the season, or ... who knows? The USDA believes entrepreneurs often see and understand the market’s potential best. The department’s goal is to help them clear a few hurdles.

Alaskans, however, are not taking advantage of the program, which offers hundreds of thousands of dollars for research and development. “We don’t get many applications from this state,” Cardwell said, adding that Alaska is in the bottom five states for participation. “I imagine it might be due to a lack of information, so I thought, ‘Let’s go fix that.’ ”

As she travels, Cardwell can point to several successful examples of how entrepreneurs made use of sizable USDA grants to research solutions to problems. One is a company called Forest Concepts LLC, which developed a weed-free, long-lasting straw from wood straw mulch that outperformed all other mulch treatments in a USDA Forest Service field experiment in Colorado. Close to 100 tons of WoodStraw had been sold to eight customers within six months of completing the SBIR program, which is exactly the sort of commercialization and profit the USDA hopes to see.

Cardwell said the sonar used by Fish and Game to produce escapement counts was developed with an SBIR grant through the U.S. Navy. Another innovator used the grant to find a feasible means of turning fish heads into marketable Omega 3 oil. And the RivGen Power System being installed in the Kvichak River to hopefully provide clean, renewable power to Iguigig was also sponsored in part through SBIR.

What’s next for Bristol Bay? Maybe how to get fish strips to an eager market in the Lower 48. Or how to use windmills to power local farms. Cardwell said entrepreneurs who know the opportunities and the obstacles should bring their ideas forward.

“What is the problem you’re trying to solve, and how does that move a product to market? That is how you want to start your proposal,” she said.

Grant recipients can receive up to $100,000 during Phase 1, which is designed to study the feasibility of a problem for up to a year. If the project moves to Phase 2, the recipient can receive up to $500,000 for the research and development of the solution. In Phase 3, the USDA can assist the recipient with commercializing the project, helping secure the necessary loans or other grants. Throughout, the SBIR program ties the entrepreneur in with experts in the field.

To find out more or to begin an application, go to www.nifa.usda.gov/fo/sbir.cfm or send an email to kcardwell@nifa.usda.gov.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.