Japanese investors visit Idaho

photo of clif bar
A group of seven Japanese businessmen toured a number of businesses in southern and eastern Idaho, including Clif Bar in Twin Falls. File photo.

A group of Japanese businessmen recently toured southern and eastern Idaho looking for business opportunities.

Seven representatives from Japanese companies traveled to Idaho July 10-13 to learn more about the state and potential opportunities to partner with Idaho businesses, according to Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho (REDI).  These Japanese businesses met with an Idaho team that visited Japan in April.  They are specifically interested in investing in Idaho, REDI said.

The tour included the Koenig Distillery in Nampa, Idaho Milk Products in Jerome, Clif Bar in Twin Falls, the ribbon cutting of the NewCold freezer facility in Burley, Mart Produce in Rupert, Inergy Solar in Chubbuck, BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) in Idaho Falls, as well as meetings with local officials.

photo of nathan murray
Nathan Murray

The visitors were particularly interested in machining and industrial product design, said Nathan Murray, economic development director for the city of Twin Falls.

“I was told by a couple of them that they most enjoyed visiting Clif Bar and seeing the automated packing,” Murray said. “They were also interested in some food and the processing of local materials to make products that could then be exported back to Japan.”

Idaho and Japan business leaders have been seeing a lot of each other lately.  Sakae CEO Takashi Suzuki visited Idaho Falls in March 2016 on a sister city visit with other business executives. Ohzen Precision Machining Cutting, a partner of Sakae, is setting up shop in Idaho Falls to make titanium after-market parts for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In November, the Idaho Department of Commerce awarded a nearly $238,000 Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission grant to the University of Idaho, Boise State University, and CAES to partner with Sakae Casting on research and development on spent nuclear fuel storage and cooling capabilities.

Federal manufacturing designation expected to pay off in Magic Valley

Milk is poured into these cheese vats at Glanbia Foods in Twin Falls and then cooked and cut to make curds and whey. Image courtesy of Glanbia Foods.
Milk is poured into these cheese vats at Glanbia Foods in Twin Falls and then cooked and cut to make curds and whey. Image courtesy of Glanbia Foods.

Food production has nourished the Magic Valley economy for more than a century. But just in the last three years, Twin Falls has built a roster of food service giants including Chobani, Glanbia and Clif Bar.

The food industry in South Central Idaho now draws national attention. This summer, the Obama administration designated Magic Valley as a one of 12 manufacturing communities under the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP).

This verified the region’s brand as America’s Most Diverse Food Basket for its flourishing mix of production, processing, and research and development.

But leaders acknowledge that having two-thirds of the region’s employers in the food sector is not good enough. The region needs to strengthen its talent pool and improve transportation, including rail. And it needs to enhance its food science sector, said Carleen Herring, chief operating officer of the Region IV Development Association, a nonprofit that works with government agencies to diversify the local economy.

That’s where Magic Valley’s recent federal designation comes to the forefront.

“It puts a floodlight on our region,” said Jan Rogers, executive director of the Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization. “We think that will help us attract not only additional businesses but talent as well. We have a person at 11 federal agencies assigned to our region. We are first in line to apply for grants.”

Magic Valley officials will have direct access to the U.S. departments of agriculture, commerce, defense, housing and urban development, labor, transportation, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Commerce Department-led program is designed to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing in communities nationwide by supporting the development of long-term economic development strategies, according to a release from the U.S. Economic Development Administration within the Commerce Department.

“That basically says the Magic Valley is a good place for investment because the people in Magic Valley have their act together,” said Herring, who wrote the application for the Manufacturing Community designation.

Rogers and Herring both say tight collaboration among the region’s city, county, economic development, chambers of commerce and other entities built the diverse food-based economy. It also includes the trout producer Clear Springs Foods, Idaho Milk Products, McCain Foods, Jerome Cheese, Falls Brand Independent Meat Co, and numerous others.

“What we’re building here is an ecosystem for this industry cluster,” said Herring, adding that there are gaps to fill. “The first one is talent attraction, getting young people in the community engaged in food production and also the potential to recruit people.

“The next big item is transporting freight and maximizing freight loads. We have a lot of freight going out. Getting containers for export or getting rail cars from Salt Lake City can be challenging.”

Herring wants to use the federal designation to better collaborate with the railroad along the University of Idaho and the Idaho National Laboratories.

“One of the critical issues is suppliers,” she said. “We have to make the most of the small businesses we have.”

The federal designation gives the Magic Valley access to potential funding to achieve the tasks.

“It gives us access to additional funding streams,” Herring said. “There are some foundations out there interested in working with communities that have this designation.”

Recognition as a federal manufacturing community will strengthen Magic Valley’s hand in recruiting companies, said Steve Di Lucca, owner of Westerra Real Estate Group in Twin Falls. Westerra facilitated the transactions for the Chobani and Clif Bar properties.

“People will see this designation and they will feel more comfortable because we have other things to offer,” Di Lucca said.” It legitimizes what we’ve done so far. It gives us the ability to recruit in any area to companies that maybe have seen Twin Falls as a regional player (rather than a national player).”


If it’s edible, it probably came from the Magic Valley

“All Things Food” is one way the Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization pitches Magic Valley’s dominant food production sector.

The greater Twin Falls area is a national leader in milk, cheese, potato, alfalfa, barley, commercial trout, and sugar beets, and it’s Idaho’s top spot for cattle, pork processing, lamb and wool.

“The economy of South Central Idaho has been ag-based since the dawn of time,” said Carleen Herring, chief operating officer of the Region IV Development Association, a nonprofit that works with government agencies to diversify the local economy.

Clear Springs Foods is the world’s largest commercial freshwater rainbow trout farm with southern Idaho accounting for 77 percent of food-size trout sold nationally, according to SIEDO statistics.

The organization cites the Chobani facility in Twin Falls as the largest yogurt processing plant in the world.

The Magic Valley produces 72 percent of Idaho’s milk, resulting in Idaho’s No. 3 ranking for milk and cheese production.  Glanbia Foods ships more than 880 million pounds of cheese to more than 30 countries each year.

Con Agra/Lamb-Weston is the No. 1 producer of frozen French fries in the United States, and McCain Foods produces one-third of the world’s supply of French Fries, according to SIEDO.

The six-county Magic Valley has five categories ranking in the top 13 nationally with more than $7 billion in sales of related goods and services. Southern Idaho itself ranks in the top third of U.S. states for food processing, according to SIEDO.