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Starting out more than 15 years ago, April Harrington was her business: no building, no plan, just a dream.
A bout with ovarian cancer had piqued her interest in organic food. But how to sustain, much less grow, a business was beyond her.
That’s when the the skies seemingly parted and the Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center stepped in.
Now, Harrington has six full-time employees with an additional eight she brings in to handle larger orders for Earth Elements, which takes the seconds and the surpluses of local farmers and processes them into a variety of products that are baked, canned, frozen or assembled as ready meals.
The company now puts out more than 300 products.
She’s also opened a commercial kitchen Downtown, where she processes and cans all her vegetables and rents it out to 10 other businesses.
“I think I was one of their first clients,” she says of the center.
Today, Harrington uses the center for processing authority letters, which are required to ensure the safety of all processors of canned foods.
But her business contact list is full of FAPC staffers, who offer guidance with business planning, equipment procurement and marketing development.
It’s a common story, says Jim Brooks, business and marketing services manager for the center.
“The mission of [FAPC] was to work with existing industry in the creation of new products, expand markets, food safety and training employees,” Brooks says.
The center sits on the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater, but isn’t a degree-generating program. The staff interacts with the agriculture and horticulture programs offered by the university, but has little to do with academics. That is, unless you count the lessons the center teaches Oklahoma entrepreneurs.
Rick Huebert, owner of Huebert Brewing in Oklahoma City, still remembers the day Brooks walked through his door.
“They actually found me,” Huebert says.
“They were hunting for people to take care of. That’s very rare. When you talk about things like that, it’s kind of cool.”
To date, FAPC has assisted more than 1,000 clients, ranging from well-known staples such as Head Country barbecue sauce, Chef’s Requested and Cusack Meats, to OKC startup Suan Grant, whose Suan’s Scotch Bonnet Pepper Jelly has been marketed throughout the region with FAPC’s help.
“It’s a long list,” Brooks says. “To me, it’s been an evolution. The food center has been such a resource for businesses in Oklahoma. It’s surpassed my expectations. It’s been amazing to me to have been the first person there.”
He means that literally.
IN THE BEGINNING
When the Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center opened in 1997, it was Brooks and one other employee wandering around the 96,000-square-foot facility on the OSU campus.
Brooks moved over from private industry, where he was part-owner of Bake-Rite.
He sold his stock, left Bake-Rite and started his own food brokerage company. During that time, he got a call from a friend at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
“They had been trying to recruit Bar-S foods to the state, and no one on the recruiting team knew much about the
business,” he says. “I said I would be happy to help.”
Turns out Brooks knew two of the five Bar-S representatives from his days with Bake-Rite.
To this day, Bar-S still has its corporate headquarters in Phoenix, but all its factories are in Oklahoma.
He was asked to pitch the idea of a food and agricultural product center to the OSU Faculty Council. The idea had enough interest and business behind it to make FAPC a reality.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
The facility is almost a one-stop shop for farm-to-table products. Animal harvesting, food manufacturing, grain milling, sensory profiling, food microbiology and an analytical laboratory are all housed in one location.
“Industry dictates the direction we go.
We try to keep up with all the innovation in manufacturing and processing and equipment needs,” Brooks says. “We pretty much try to keep up with what our stakeholders want. We try to incorporate everything we can within the borders of Oklahoma, because if it helps one company, it’s going to help another and another.”
It has helped Huebert. Originally, he was buying his packaging from a company in Canada. Thanks to the center, he now gets it all from an Oklahoma supplier.
For Harrington, the relationship has been tantamount for her business. She shudders to think where Earth Elements may have gone without all the help.
“Oh, wow,” she says. “I really don’t know what we would do. The greatest thing about FAPC is I’ve been able to build a relationship with them over the years to where they understand my business. Them being there for me to call with questions and gather enough information to make a good decision — it’s hard to quantify how that would be without them, because it’s been such a huge positive. Where would I have gotten those resources? I don’t know, because I don’t know of another organization like that.”
Huebert says in his company’s 10-yearrelationship with the center, “I’ve never paid them a dime for anything.”
“Education costs a lot of money,” he says. “Believe me, [in business] you get educated one way or another.”
–Photos by Shannon Cornman