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National challenge seeks innovative rural entrepreneurs

covid-19 economy
(© Alexander Borisenko –

Rural business owners tackling new challenges due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and entrepreneurs addressing traditional challenges for farmers and rural communities can compete in the 2021 Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge.

The American Farm Bureau Federation partnered with Farm Credit to showcase start-up companies that are addressing challenges faced by America’s farmers and rural communities. Launched in 2015 as the first national competition focused exclusively on rural entrepreneurs, the contest aims to identify up-and-coming agricultural entrepreneurs and support innovation essential to rural businesses and communities.

“In light of the impacts Farm Bureau members are experiencing from COVID-19, solutions from entrepreneurs are needed more than ever to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “We’re very interested to see how entrepreneurs will use start-up funds provided by the challenge to help support farms and ranches and grow the rural economy.”

AFBF and Farm Credit will select 10 start-up companies to compete as semifinalists at the AFBF Annual Convention in January 2021. The 10 teams will be announced on Oct. 5 and awarded $7,500 each.

The final four teams will receive an additional $7,500 and compete live on stage in front of Farm Bureau members, investors and industry representatives. The team named Farm Bureau Entrepreneur of the Year will win $50,000, and the business selected as People’s Choice winner will receive $20,000.

The semifinalists will participate in pitch training and mentorship from Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management faculty prior to competing at AFBF’s convention. In addition, those competitors will have the opportunity to network with industry leaders and venture capital representatives from the Agriculture Department’s Rural Business Investment Companies.

Lee Spiegel, founder of Pulaski Grow in Lee County, represented Virginia Farm Bureau Federation in the first challenge in 2015. She said the training helped her to better express her ideas in a limited amount of time for the competition.

Pulaski Grow trains youth for working in aquaponics—the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics to grow food indoors. Participants in the program use water from the aquaculture tanks to grow greens, herbs and other vegetables in greenhouses and sell them to community-supported agriculture subscribers.

“The competition was extremely helpful in launching Pulaski Grow, and I will be forever grateful for that opportunity,” Spiegel said.

Entrepreneurs must be Farm Bureau members to qualify as top 10 semifinalists. Applicants who are not members can join Virginia Farm Bureau online.

Detailed eligibility guidelines, the competition timeline, videos and profiles of past winners are available at Applications must be received by midnight on July 31.