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Tennessee Creates Big Appetite for Food Production

Learn how Tennesse's agriculture industry and food production leverage location and innovation.

By John Fuller on February 4, 2017

Tennessee Agriculture
Tennessee / Michael D. Tedesco

Tennessee has a healthy appetite for agriculture and food production. With more than 67,000 farms that generate more than $3.6 billion in cash receipts, agriculture is essential to the state’s economy. Overall, agriculture contributes nearly $52.6 billion to the state’s economy.

Additionally, Tennessee has a vibrant and growing food and beverage production industry. Globally known food and beverage brands operating in the Volunteer State include Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Bush Bros., Little Debbie, Goo Goo Clusters, Unilever and General Mills. Food, beverage and agriculture exports from Tennessee totaled more than $2 billion in 2015.

More than 4,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in new investment has been poured into the state by the food and beverage industry in just the last six years. The state now boasts more than 1,000 registered food and beverage manufacturers, drawn in no small measure to an ideal location, excellent transportation access, water resources and a business-friendly state and local government environment.

Investing Big in Tennessee

It was both location and helpful government that influenced Harry’s Fresh Foods’ move to Nashville. The Oregon-based company announced in 2016 that it would locate a 200,000-square-foot production-distribution facility in Nashville, a $34.3 million project that will create more than 300 jobs.

The company, which produces refrigerated and frozen soups, dinners, sides and desserts, will be able to improve its efficiency in delivering its fresh and organic products in the Midwest and Southeast.

“It has been a pleasure working with Tennessee’s Economic & Community Development Department,” says Michael Donovan, chief financial officer of Harry’s Fresh Foods. “The staff went out of their way to answer questions and provide the information needed to keep this project moving forward.”

After a four-state search for a North American facility, Develey Mustard & Condiments Corp. decided to invest $20 million in a new manufacturing operation in Dyersburg, where it will produce mustard, dressings and sauces. The company will create 150 jobs in Dyer County over the next five years.

Roots in Research

Academic institutions in the state support the food and beverage industry in three important aspects: research, teaching and extension.

“These three disciplines greatly aid our state’s food and beverage industry,” says Dr. Mark Morgan, who heads the University of Tennessee’s Department of Food Science and Technology.

The department’s important research in food safety and quality assists not only federal programs, but also aids companies in establishing rigid food safety and health guidelines for the products they produce.

“Our research program has two major emphases, microbiological food safety and food biopolymer chemistry,” Morgan says. “Allied to these areas are food quality enhancement and sensory evaluation.”

Outreach or extension is an important role for department faculty, Morgan says. That outreach includes workshops for entrepreneurs wishing to start new food processing businesses, personnel in large food processing plants and food service workers in hospitals, child care facilities and nursing homes.

The department’s Sensory Science and Innovation Center has worked with numerous food companies as part of its work in measuring consumer perception of products.

“The center has provided superb expertise, customer service and facilities along with a diverse respondent base that has enabled us to ensure and maintain product quality as well as introduce successful new products to the marketplace,” says Gloria Gaskin, senior manager for sensory and consumer services at Bush Bros. & Co., a Knoxville-based bean producer.

Brother’s Fine Foods, a producer of sauces, relishes and salsas based in Lewisburg, considers the Food Science & Technology Department a key ally in its business.

“We have been utilizing the resources provided by the department for 19 years now,” says Matt Harris, owner of Brother’s Fine Foods. “They are extremely important to our business.”

Innovation In Agriculture

Tennessee’s agricultural innovation is also evidenced by new growing techniques and the application of technology to farming.

One example is the growing use of hydroponics, an approach that uses no soil, instead adopting a system that circulates nutrient-rich water across the plants’ roots. The method uses about 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture methods and reduces fertilization requirements. Hydroponic produce is typically grown on vertical structures.

Utilizing hydroponics, Jeffrey Orkin’s Greener Roots Farm grows herbs and leafy greens and sells them to restaurants in the Nashville area, as well as Turnip Truck, Produce Place, and Hendersonville Produce.

Orkin began building Greener Roots Farm in March of 2014 in an empty Nashville warehouse. Since its first harvest, Greener Roots has grown about 12,000 pounds of produce.

“Nashville has a vibrant local food scene, which is supportive of local produce and chefs and consumers who care about where their food comes from,” says Orkin.

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