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Gilmore City: Where elementary students tackle Ag entrepreneurship

Gilmore City Bradgate Elementary

Students at Gilmore City-Bradgate are working on their own AgTech startup.

It’s part of a unique Seed to Table program at Gilmore City Bradgate Elementary, roughly 30 miles north of Fort Dodge. Students in fifth and sixth grade meet twice-a-week for a half hour with Kelsey Upah, a registered dietitian and the district’s Seed to Table Manager.

The Seed to Table program partners with the school lunch program and teaches students about planting the plants, caring and preparing them, plus ways to help their families in their food search.

“It’s a way to combine agriculture and nutrition,” Upah says. “Our superintendent is really interested in the health of students and how it affects their mind and their ability to write, read and focus in school. And it just makes sense to have a gardening program where you have the best farmland in the United States.”

Their latest project was inspired by the television show, “Shark Tank.” Upah heard a high school business class that had done something similar but she wanted to tweak it for elementary students and her program. Then after meeting Megan Vollstedt of the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator at the World Food Prize last year, an idea came to fruition.

Upah is working with fifth and sixth graders to come up with solutions to an agriculture-related problem and turn it into a business. They will present their product and company at a pitch night on May 17.

“I thought it would be a great way to get them thinking innovatively in ways to help the agriculture world and relate it back to gardening,” Upah says.

Upah said four other teachers and the school librarian are also helping students to come up with a business plan (math), marketing materials (literacy) and the product.

“That’s how the real world works, not learning one subject at a time it’s all put together all the time,” Upah said. “So it’s important to hone in on those skills, especially at a young age.”

Find a problem first

Vollstedt says she will check in once a month with the project and be a judge on May 17.

She joined the class during a video call last month as the project was getting started and offered her advice.

“I suggested they look outside the box at problems and solutions,” Vollstedt said. “Possibly the best solutions are the simplest, so I encouraged them to be creative but really identify a problem and find the best way to solve that.”

Some of the ideas the class has come up with include:

  • Solar powered chicken tractor
  • Self-seeding deer food plot
  • Combining animal shelters with agriculture, including large animals such as pigs, cattle and horses.

“We will practice what it’s like to do a pitch, bidding and negotiating,” Upah explained. “So far some of their ideas are really surprising and what they come up with that they see are problems that sometimes as adults you overlook. They look at smaller, minute details.”

Upah said she hasn’t come across another Food to Table Manager in Iowa and the only other school district she’s seen this program in, was in California.

“We can open up so many doors for our students and teach them so many more things besides the basics,” Upah says. “They get to create something that’s their own.”


Gilmore City: Where elementary students tackle Ag entrepreneurship | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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