The Farm Bureau® Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge is the first national business competition focused exclusively on rural entrepreneurs working on food and agriculture businesses.

“Humbled, and a little surprised,” was how Ryan MacKay, co-owner of Lilac Hedge Farm in Holden, MA, described his reaction to getting the call from Massachusetts Farm Bureau executive director, Douglas Gillespie. “When he told us we were one of the top 10 teams we were just so pumped — the prize money will really help our business!” he exclaimed.

The Challenge, now in its second year, is sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), with the Farm Credit Council as a major co-sponsor. It provides rural entrepreneurs the opportunity to showcase business innovations with the goal of winning seed money to help grow their businesses.

Applicants pitch innovative business ideas related to food and agriculture to a team of judges with expertise in business development and agribusiness, and compete for a total of $145,000 in startup funds. This year, 165 rural entrepreneurs entered the competition, with the top ten each receiving a check for $10,000. The final four teams each received $15,000 and will advance to the next phase of the challenge where they will pitch their business ideas to a team of judges in front of a live audience at the AFBF’s 97th Annual Convention in January. The winner will be named Rural Entrepreneur of the Year and will receive an additional $25,000 grand prize. Additionally, a prize for People’s Choice Award is also presented.

“Massachusetts is the only New England state represented among the semi-finalists,” said MA Farm Bureau President Dr. A. Richard Bonanno. (AFBF President Bob Stallman announced that the four finalists are from Iowa, Tennessee and Michigan.) “We’re really proud of Ryan and Tom; they represent the next generation of farmers,” Bonanno said, “It’s great to see all their hard work paying off.”

MacKay, along with co-owner Tom Corbett, are the proprietors of Lilac Hedge Farm, which produces pasture-raised beef, pork, lamb and poultry. The two started their business in 2011, raising animals on several leased properties. This year, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, they literally “bought the farm,” purchasing their own 350-acre property in Holden. When asked what plans they have for their prize money, Mr. Corbett explained, “We’ll be using it toward the purchase of a walk-in freezer and packing room at the farm. Our current set-up limits the amount of product we can have on hand. We hope to increase storage capacity and become more energy efficient.” Corbett and MacKay will be presented their $10,000 check by Bonanno at the Worcester County Farm Bureau Annual Meeting on October 27 at the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield.