Ross analyzes food system innovation

AFRE's Brent Ross, assistant professor of food industry management, believes now is the perfect time to study how rising public interest in food can create opportunities for entrepreneurs.

March 9, 2015

Brent Ross

AFRE’s Brent Ross, assistant professor of food industry management, believes now is the perfect time to study how rising public interest in food can create opportunities for entrepreneurs.

“It’s really an exciting time in food and agriculture because there’s a lot of innovation and new business models are being introduced to the marketplace,” Ross said. “One of the reasons for this is that the food system has become more fragmented, and this creates entrepreneurial opportunities for new and existing food businesses. My research focuses on the strategies and new business models that food firms have used to exploit these opportunities.”

His latest focus is on food hubs, which work to aggregate and distribute locally grown and processed foods to mainstream commercial outlets such as grocery stores and cafeterias.
In 2014, Ross received a $495,000 competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Working with AFRE colleague Rob Shupp
and two professors from the University of Missouri, Ross will study how food hubs are organized and how they create value. Food hubs generally focus on providing source-identified or values-based products for distribution and sale; some also are involved in training food entrepreneurs or in operating farmers’ markets, Ross said.

“The food system is moving away from standardized food products and looking to provide innovative food solutions,” he said. “We’re also seeing food being used not just for sustenance  but to provide other benefits, including giving consumers an avenue to communicate their values. These changing preferences can create opportunities for entrepreneurs.”

Ross’s prior research on entrepreneurship in the Midwest wine and grape industry helped set the stage for the food hubs project. In 2012, he joined professors from the University of Missouri and Cornell University in winning a $499,000 competitive grant to look at new strategies to help wineries in Michigan, Missouri and New York survive and grow.

Not all of Ross’s research is on small firms. He also is exploring the ways in which large food companies have taken advantage of consumers’ burgeoning social conscience to expand their businesses and extend their reach.

“They’re looking to increase their citizenship, and that can be good for business,” Ross said. “Companies that used to talk about the bottom line now refer to ‘the triple bottom line’ – incorporating economic, environmental and social costs into their decision making.”

At MSU, Ross has been able to extend these research interests into the classroom. 

“As much as possible, I use examples from my research as mini-case studies for students in class,” Ross said. “I’ve found that students learn best from getting their ‘hands dirty’ with real problems, and the truth is, I end up learning a lot from them as well.”

A Canadian by birth, Ross grew up on a dairy farm outside Stratford, Ontario. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Guelph, he moved to the United States for graduate study in 2000. He completed a master’s degree in agricultural finance at the University of Illinois,  where he continued for a Ph.D. in food and agribusiness management.

Settling in mid-Michigan has been a good geographic and cultural compromise between his native Ontario and earlier home in Illinois, he said. His interest in entrepreneurial opportunities and the organization of the food system “is one I think will be fruitful going forward. I foresee a significant amount of demand for research and teaching in this area,” Ross said.

-- Christine Meyer

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