March 03, 2004

Projects born through I-FAARM continue to thrive

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Though the lights have gone out at the old I-FARRM, some of the seeds planted there have taken root in Southern Illinois and are thriving.

We weren't able to get permanent funding from the Council on Food and Agricultural Research for the initiatives that came out of this project because of state budget cuts, but we were able to continue some of them, either with outside funding or with resources that we built into them," said Raymond C. Lenzi, director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Office of Economic and Regional Development and head of C-FAR's I-FARRM project.

At SIUC, we still have the Illinois Cooperative Center, which provides technical and business assistance to value-added and alternative agriculture industries around the state, and the Southern Illinois Community Foundation, which has generated nearly $1 million in gifts and grants."

I-FARRM, an acronym that stood for Illinois Farming Alternatives and Rural Revitalization Methods, was a five-year, multimillion dollar venture aimed at helping the state's farmers and rural communities through a combination of research and hands-on assistance. Launched in 1998 and headquartered at SIUC, it involved teams from the University of Illinois and Western Illinois University as well.

By the time it wrapped up last year, it had to its credit 88 new or expanded businesses, 457 new jobs with a yearly payroll totaling more than $18 million, $45 million in increased sales, $6 million in new capital investment and $7 million in additional, project-generated grants.

We met virtually all our goals and objectives and reached nearly 500,000 people directly or through our research publications," Lenzi said.

We think it was one of the best operations in the state - and in the Midwest - in helping develop alternative and value-added enterprises."

An I-FARRM "spin-off" headed by SIUC associate economic development director C. Susan Kohler, the Illinois Cooperative Center, continues to provide advice on feasibility studies and business and operation plans, as well as the ins and outs of incorporation, finance and marketing. In addition, it offers business plan workbooks for grape and wine-related businesses and fish and prawn farms.

We have a lot of people on our (economic development) staff who have worked in these industries, and they are still active, so I expect we will continue to have some success in launching and building these industries in Illinois," Lenzi said.

Lenzi also expects the center to continue providing assistance to farmers interested in establishing new co-ops in their communities.

We've been involved with grain co-ops, wine co-ops, fish co-ops, so we have some experience here," he said. "Right now, we're looking for new leadership in this area as the staff we had have moved to different positions in our office, but this will remain as part of our mission."

As for the foundation, Lenzi credits director Margaret "Maggie" R. Flanagan and her board with pursuing the kind of alternate funding that is allowing the organization to keep running.

They were able to get a grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation (an eight-year-old philanthropic agency set up by the partnership that runs Elgin's Grand Victoria Casino)," Lenzi said.

It has a broad mission (it supports economic, educational and environmental change in Illinois), so there's a lot of flexibility there. These kinds of outside grants will help the Southern Illinois Community Foundation continue its growth."

Not many rural regions have foundations with an actual staff, Lenzi noted.

It's a plus for Southern Illinois and a way of keeping philanthropy here," he said. "People in rural regions tend to ship their money elsewhere because they don't have the institutions that can use it at home."

In light of its success, Lenzi had hoped to run I-FARRM past its original five-year charter, but ongoing state budget problems forced its foreclosure.

Still, we've had an enormous positive impact," he said.

One of the things that was different about this project was that from the beginning, we always had a practical bent. While we were interested in research, our primary orientation was never journal publication, though we had scores of them. But we were always looking to see how we could fund both research and the kind of outreach that would make a difference in the state in general and the region in particular. You can look at our final project report and see we've done that."

Enhancing economic development is among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.