Photo by Nick Fiala

JCEDO Executive Director Stephen Eastridge speaks at the Rensselaer Chamber of Commerce Luncheon Wednesday.

RENSSELAER — While speaking Wednesday at the Rensselaer Chamber of Commerce Luncheon, Jasper County Economic Development Executive Director Stephen Eastridge detailed a plan to keep the county and the region economically healthy.

Eastridge said the JCEDO has been essentially spear-heading a multi-county effort to “focus on developing a regional economic development strategy.”

“We’re the lead county for six different counties,” he explained. “We’re partnering with Newton, Jasper, Starke, Pulaski, Benton and White counties.”

This partnership is being made, he said, because counties effectively share one large workforce, since many workers travel among the different counties for their jobs. And the challenges each county faces are similar.

“We’re struggling with population decline, availability of housing, health care, Eastridge said. “We have very similar issues.”

He said there are no other groups of six counties that have a larger gross agricultural product output in the state. Jasper County is the No. 1 producing agriculture county in the state, in terms of its livestock and crop production. Eastridge is trying to work with other counties to build on that strength in agriculture.

The six counties are now collaborating with the Indiana Department of Agriculture, the Purdue Center for Regional Development and the Indiana Economic Development Association.

“We’re going to focus on two things,” Eastridge said, “diversification of revenue for farms and also introducing the broader supply chain for agriculture into our local economy.”

In other words, if the six counties are putting out products like soy beans or raw milk, Eastridge and others are trying to find ways for it to have the most value when it leaves these six counties to be sold elsewhere.

“It’s really more than just farming,” Eastridge said. “We’ve actually selected four industry sectors we’re digging into on this. It’s food and agri-business processing, its forestry and wood products, energy — both renewable and traditional — and transportation and logistics.”

By focusing on these areas in an organized way, Eastridge and his colleagues hope to keep the county and the region as economically healthy as possible, despite the struggles that can hit small rural communities.

As a group of small communities with no “major population center” among them, Eastridge said this alliance of rural counties uniting around agriculture is a unique strategy with a lot of momentum.

“We’re really excited about it,” Eastridge said. “The EDA has said that they’re pretty confident we’re going to be able to get some funding for it. When delivered, this’ll be an economic development strategy that’s the first of its kind in the nation.”

Eastridge said he has also been asking the Indiana Farm Bureau for help in “creating local policy that allows us to drive infrastructure decisions that help us grow in these sectors.”

Fittingly enough, JCEDO board member Kendell Culp is also vice president of the IFB, as well as president of the Jasper County Commissioners and a member of the Indiana Soybean Alliance board and the American Soybean Association board.

Eastridge said an action plan is being developed for how the six counties can accomplish its goals. And his aim is to keep that plan short and simple.

“My goal for the plan is to not have a 100-page document on how we’re going to grow the six counties,” Eastridge said. “It’s to have a 25-page document with five things we need to work on and three new things that need to be accomplished in each of those buckets to get it done, and then to grow agriculture in the community.”

He said communities too often come up with big documents that they get excited about, only to become stagnant sooner or later.

“What I want to focus on is a 25-page document that’s an action plan full of steps and next items to work on,” he said.

His own includes finding ways to embrace agri-tourism more fully, at sites such as Fair Oaks Farms, in ways that would benefit all local farmers. He would also like to increase opportunities for entrepreneurial farmers to invest in unfamiliar crop options.

“Beyond that, I think I’m pretty open to what it can be,” he said. “And we’re going to let the folks at Purdue, who can engage everyone and figure that out, do what they’re supposed to do.”

Now that all of the local economic development leaders of all six counties are on board, Eastridge and others will be trying to sell the concepts throughout the counties.

“We have cooperation from all six counties at the economic development level,” he said. “The next step is engaging the stakeholders that are going to be most impacted by this plan — the farming community and local business.”