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Indiana officials look to boost agriculture research

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The state's agriculture department under new Gov. Mike Pence is planning a push into the science behind food production by trying to build a network of university and commercial researchers for what's being called an Agriculture Innovation Corridor.

Pence included the initiative in his State of the State speech, and Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann said she has started talking with leaders from Purdue University and elsewhere about its prospects.

The concept comes from a report released last summer by BioCrossroads, an Indianapolis-based life sciences investment and development group supported by numerous companies and foundations.

That report highlighted what the group believes is an opportunity for Indiana to attract and encourage companies developing agriculture innovations. It points to the agriculture-related research being done at Purdue, along with existing companies such as Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences and Eli Lilly and Co.'s Elanco Animal Health.

"This is really an effort to try to be sure that we're in the very forefront of an initiative that we really can lead because we've got the right natural resources and the right companies here," said BioCrossroads President David Johnson, a former adviser to the late Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon.

While agriculture no longer has the over-arching impact across Indiana that it once did, some 680,000 jobs — about 19 percent of the state's workforce — in 2010 were tied to farm and farm-related businesses in rural communities, according to the BioCrossroads report.

The state hopes to boost the agriculture research initiatives while continuing its traditional promotion of farming and crop and livestock markets, said Ellspermann, who heads Indiana's agriculture agency as lieutenant governor.

"Connecting the dots between the business community, the startup community and the technologies is critical," she said.

BioCrossroads provides a possible guide for the Agriculture Innovation Corridor with its work encouraging medical-related research. The group has raised about $150 million in venture capital over the past decade for life-sciences companies, Johnson said.

"Where the state really helps is to make the policy receptive and to make the economic climate here one that really promotes that kind of growth," he said. "Then the private sector often brings the investment dollars to make it happen. I think that would probably happen here, too."

Ellspermann said some sources of state money would already be available if needed to help spur certain ventures. But she said whether additional funding will be sought for research facilities or other projects might not be known for a couple of years as business plans are developed.

The state agriculture department under former Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed for the construction of ethanol plants in the state and promoted increased hog production. While the Pence administration hasn't set such specific goals, it has been supportive on farmland tax concerns and other matters, Indiana Farm Bureau spokesman Andy Dietrick said.

The Agriculture Innovation Corridor could help the state's farmers, especially if it opens up new technologies and innovations sooner, Dietrick said.

"It is a very competitive business and farmers want to be on the front end of that," he said.

Republican state Rep. Bill Friend, who owns a hog farm in northern Indiana's Miami County, said he believed Indiana has an opportunity to attract more high-skill jobs in agriculture research.

"Technology has to keep improving as our population increases," Friend said. "We're not making any more land to raise crops on, so we have to have higher yields in order to feed the growing population not only in our country, but around the world."

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