It wasn’t long ago that Scotty and Suzi Owens were typical gardeners who enjoyed sharing some of their harvest with friends. The hot sauce they made with homegrown peppers got rave reviews, and people said they should go into business selling it.
When Scotty got laid off from his work in tool and die during Michigan’s economic downturn, he and his wife did just that.
Fast forward to today and bottles of Scotty O’Hotty hot sauce and salsa are in grocery stores around the country. The couple’s business is operating with seven employees out of a 17,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, and in 2019 they’re on track to go nationwide in Kroger stores and begin exporting their award-winning products to China.
So, how in the world did that happen?
“We had the dreamiest stars in our eyes, but I was almost at a brick wall at what to do,” Scotty Owens said. “MSU really steered us in the right direction.” The Owens came across the Michigan State University Product Center in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. There they received guidance on the rules and regulations involved in making a food product, took classes on bottling, learned about labeling and in 2012 got licensed to work out of a commercial kitchen.
A year later Scotty O’Hotty was on the shelves in small grocery stores that the Owens connected with through MSU’s Making It In Michigan food show, and the business has been growing ever since. Earlier this year the MSU Product Center named Scotty and Suzi Owens their entrepreneurs of the year.
Scotty O’Hotty is just one of many success stories at the MSU Product Center, which helps start or expand businesses in the agriculture and food sector. Just last year, the Product Center helped launch 87 new Michigan businesses that invested $35 million into the economy and created 350 new jobs.
But the MSU Product Center is just one way that MSU has been helping to grow the state’s food and agriculture system over the past 160 years. As the country’s pioneer land-grant institution, the then-Michigan Agricultural College has been a leader in practical, science-based education from the start, and even though the name has changed agriculture remains an important area of research, with a big impact on the Michigan economy.
“The idea of us being here to help support and build and grow the agriculture and natural resources industries of the state goes back to the very beginning,” said Douglas Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch and assistant vice president of research and graduate studies.
Back in the mid-1800s, MSU was established by federal law as an agricultural school — the first to teach scientific agriculture. It became the prototype for the nation’s land-grant institutions, which were created to promote both the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes. Though MSU now carries out that mission across a wide range of disciplines, the original focus was agriculture.
Before the start of the 20th century, MSU had birthed groundbreaking agricultural advances including the development of hybrid corn to increase yields and the discovery that a swath of Michigan is fertile ground for sugar beets. Pioneering work has continued on everything from the process used in the homogenization of milk to how Michigan farmers can grow hops for the state’s booming craft beer sector.
MSU has played no small role in Michigan’s massive food and agriculture economy, which fuels more than 800,000 jobs and makes an annual impact of more than $100 billion, according to a 2018 study. Here are just a few glimpses of the breadth of MSU’s engagement in the industry:
Preparing tomorrow’s agricultural leaders
Today, MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources includes nearly 5,000 students studying in dozens of degree and certificate programs in forestry, animal science, crop and soil science, horticulture and many others.
“Through our educational programs we train the next generation of agri-food leaders both in the public sector and in the private sector,” said Bill Knudson, a professor in MSU’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics. “We have a lot of two-year programs as well, geared primarily toward people who will be working on the farm both in the crop area and the livestock area.
Among those thousands of students is Loren G. King, who comes from a family farm in southwest Michigan and is learning about agriculture technology. Looking at global population estimates during his lifetime, the 20-year-old knows that the food and agriculture system will have to produce more and, to remain sustainable, do so while using fewer inputs such as fertilizer.
So, he’s studying how farms could deploy autonomous vehicles and drones to become more efficient. He envisions a completely cloud-based farm where managers can use mobile devices to gauge moisture and nutrient levels to see how crops are doing.
“It’s about expanding the efficiency of the farmer right now,” King said. “You’ve got to feed more people while using less.”
Bringing innovation into everyday life
Embedded in the DNA of a land-grant institution like MSU is the drive to use cutting-edge scientific tools to address problems and forge new opportunities. Because of that, food and agriculture study at MSU is definitely “not a science for science’s sake operation,” Buhler said.
A benefit of MSU’s research is that Michigan has developed the country’s second most-diverse agricultural economy. In addition to staples such as corn, milk and eggs, the state’s agriculture sector is full of smaller, specialty crops from asparagus to wine grapes.
Some of Michigan’s fruit varieties, for example, have been developed by MSU on nearly 20,000 acres that are used for agriculture and natural resources research and education throughout the state.
Michigan State University professor Rufus Isaacs is a leading researcher on the invasive spotted wing drosophila insect.But that diversity also breeds new challenges. Fortunately, MSU also is at the forefront of combating new crop diseases and pests. For example, professor Rufus Isaacs this month made a list of the world’s most Highly Cited Researchers for his work on the spotted wing drosophila, an invasive insect that damages fruit crops. Isaacs is just one of many MSU food and agriculture experts on the list.
“The large companies that are there to support major corn, soybean and dairy are not available for a lot of these smaller, more specialized industries,” Buhler said. “If we’re not there to help them with their latest insect, there aren’t a lot of options. If we weren’t here I don’t know who would fill that gap in all these specialty areas.
“Not many years ago there were almost no hops grown in Michigan. Had MSU not been here to help people learn how to manage hops and control diseases I don’t think it would have happened.”
Aside from immediate threats, MSU also is researching long-term challenges from food waste to world hunger through efforts including the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy. Climate change poses another problem, and MSU’s Plant Resilience Institute is working to improve the ability of crops to handle weather extremes.
“Minor changes in weather could have a real impact on us,” Buhler said.
Helping communities grow
Not only does MSU do research to support Michigan’s food and agriculture system and educate the next generation of industry leaders, the university also takes what it learns and shares it with the broader public. That work takes many forms including the new “Food @ MSU. Our Table” program, which helps people make better-informed choices about food.
In an era where the population is both growing and becoming more urbanized, it’s easy for people to be even more disconnected from the sources of the food they eat. That’s why MSU also is active in urban agriculture around the state, including the new MSU Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and Innovation.
“When you’re growing food in an urban setting it’s very different than in an open space,” said Dave Ivan, MSU Extension director of community, food and environmental programming. “This new center really will provide an opportunity for us to plant a flag in an area, working with a lot of the existing leaders in the Detroit urban ag movement in terms of how we can help you address the challenges you’re facing.“
We have a lot of credibility in communities, so people trust the information that we provide. They know that we’re scientific in terms of guiding our recommendations or framing an issue.”
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