In North America, Nashville is the epicenter of the music industry. Silicon Valley is home to tech companies and innovation. And if you want American-grown wine, you head to Napa Valley. These are household names. Everyone knows them, and knows why these areas are special.
What makes Amarillo special? What is the one thing people think of upon hearing “Amarillo, Texas”?
A group of local leaders are working on that. And 10 years from now, or maybe 20, the answer will be clear, thanks to a new local initiative known as The Range. It’s an acronym for Regional Accelerator and New Growth Engine.
What the group hopes to accelerate is the centrality of food, fiber and fuel within our economy, turning Amarillo into an international food hub. “We have the ability, right now, to create a global food hub that will allow us to bring in new research, new products, new innovations, new technology,” says Laura Street, one of the leaders of the initiative.
To explain how, she points to those high-profile regions like Nashville and Silicon Valley, which are tied to particular industries for a couple of reasons. First, groundbreaking businesses started there and found success, from the legendary RCA Studios in Nashville to Hewlett-Packard Inc. in Palo Alto, California. The businesses grew, and the surrounding communities nurtured that growth. Much of this happened organically.
Second, that success attracted like-minded innovators within related industries. Record producers found their way to Nashville, and the industry welcomed them. Recording artists and studio musicians followed. In the Bay Area, tech startups were drawn to the university research, banking capital, and entrepreneurial spirit that followed the early computer industry. “Silicon Valley” became a household name.
Can Amarillo become a household name?
Laura Street and local scientist Matt Garner, PhD, believe it’s possible. They see Nashville potential in Amarillo, but instead of music, our specialty is food. Specifically, the meat and dairy industries. And if The Range works, Amarillo may become the world’s center of protein-related production, research and innovation—a global food hub.
It’s a bold plan. The strategy is broad: to leverage what’s happening here already into a larger collaboration that will transform the area’s economic future.
Here’s the Beef (and Dairy)
Consider the facts. Texas is the No. 1 cattle producer in the United States, and within the state, that industry is centered in the Panhandle. We don’t just raise cattle here, but process them, too: According to Texas A&M Agrilife Research, one-third of all U.S. beef cattle are finished within a 150-mile radius of Amarillo at places like Caviness Beef, Cargill Animal Nutrition and the new Producer Owned Beef, which is currently building a state-of-the-art processing facility in Amarillo.
Meanwhile, Texas is now the nation’s fifth-largest dairy state, thanks to our affordable land and arid climate, which improves milk production and fertility. Seven of the top 10 dairy-producing counties in Texas are within 150 miles of Amarillo. They account for 80 percent of all dairy production in the state.
The beef industry has been part of our story from the beginning. Dairy production is newer, but becoming equally significant. As a result, West Texas A&M University is one of the nation’s leading research universities related to the cattle-feeding industry. The new Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine is poised to improve practitioners while bringing some of the leading animal researchers to the area. Amarillo College is now widely recognized as one of the best community colleges in the nation and continues to educate the local workforce.
In other words, this area already has a major concentration of animal production and food manufacturing activity. What would happen if we leaned into that expertise and moved forward in those industries? What would happen if all the innovation related to food production—from biomedical to transportation to water management technology—started in Amarillo?
What if Amarillo became the “Silicon Valley” of food?
Those are the questions The Range is asking. Answering those questions starts by creating a framework for the future.
A New Way of Thinking
The global food hub idea originated with a study funded by the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation. In 2019, with the Texas Tech Vet School starting construction, the AEDC began looking at ways to capture the economic momentum they knew that groundbreaking project would bring. At the time, Laura Street was serving as the AEDC Board chair. Already a veteran nonprofit fundraiser and consultant, she teamed up with Garner, a microbiologist and entrepreneur known for bovine research. Street and Garner began interviewing local business leaders about the needs of this region.
“We got about 25 or 30 interviews into this and we realized that we had something far bigger than the AEDC,” Street says. “Everyone we talked to—everyone—was saying we need to do something together. We need to collaborate. We need to innovate. We need to do something for the future of our area.”
At the same time, Street and Garner kept hearing different versions of a similar story. It went like this: A local manufacturer or ag producer would be using special technology developed in places like Norway or China. International vendors for those products
would come to Amarillo to pitch their technology. Local companies would agree to try it out. “And so they’d buy the widget—whether it’s a service or a robot or a piece of equipment—but then it doesn’t really do what they need it to do,” Street says. “Or it falters, and they need to wait until they can get a maintenance team to come in from Norway.”
Technology is great until it stops working. The externally developed products weren’t working out for local producers.
The questions are obvious. Why is Hereford using cattle-processing technology from Norway? Why is Dalhart’s dairy tech dependent on components made in China? Ideally, the innovation should start here, be tested here, and then be manufactured here. Instead of waiting for outside vendors to sell us on what they think we need—and losing productivity when it doesn’t work—the Panhandle should take control of its destiny. We should nurture businesses that will work with us to develop that tech right here.
“We started reframing our thinking,” Street says. “What if we had all our businesses and agencies in the Panhandle of Texas come together, collaborate and decide for ourselves what our needs are, what kind of support systems we need to go after, and then go do it?”
The Secret Sauce
That’s when the AEDC decided to fund a feasibility study. “We commissioned a study on how to take advantage of what we’ve got going in Amarillo,” says Kevin Carter, President and CEO of the AEDC. “Everyone who knows Laura [Street] knows to just get out of her way and let her lead.”
Having been given the reins of the project, Street contacted Bob Geolas in North Carolina. He’s a partner at HR&A Advisors, an international firm that works to build more prosperous and resilient cities. Geolas himself has a reputation for helping develop research parks, having served as President and CEO of the organization overseeing North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, one of the most prominent innovation districts on the East Coast.
So in 2021, Geolas led a team to find what he calls the “secret sauce” that makes the Texas Panhandle unique. Some communities are built around a major research university. Some benefit from a good startup or entrepreneurial community.
They realized that Amarillo had something else.
Of course, the city had a lot of wind—no surprise there—but wasn’t necessarily poised to become a leader in wind technology. The area faced water scarcity issues, but the Middle East was already ahead of us on that research.
“But what you had is an incredible resource in beef and dairy,” Geolas says. “You’ve got people who know how to raise cows, process cows and their byproducts, and you know how to ship it. The opportunity is leaning into what you’re really, really good at already—and how do you create more jobs as a result of that?”
Beyond the buzzwords, phrases like “innovation district” are actually about creating jobs, Geolas explains. It’s about growing an economy by being intentional about what sets the Panhandle apart from the rest of the world. Silicon Valley started in 1939 when Bill Hewlitt and David Packard first produced electronic equipment in a Palo Alto garage. But we’re not inventing beef production. It’s been part of life in the Texas Panhandle for 140 years.
“You’re not starting from nothing,” Geolas says. “Texas is a very dynamic, successful state. The Panhandle already has enormous resources in universities, colleges, the vet school and one of the world’s most important resources—all this food, protein.” The world needs the one thing at which we are already the world’s experts. “You’re way ahead.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, by 2050, the planet will need to produce 60 percent more food than it does today to meet the demand of a growing population. The Panhandle plays an outside role in feeding the world today. But can we increase local cattle production by 60 percent?
Not without technology. Not without innovation. Not without a plan.
Predicting Our Future
Microbiologist Matt Garner—who returned to Amarillo several years ago after doing research at Cornell University and launching companies in New York State—says the feasibility study revealed that animal production should be central to Amarillo’s path toward economic growth. Any innovation district should be built around that specialty. As envisioned over the next few decades, this will create unimaginable new jobs and opportunities.
“What a really well-functioning innovation district does is it predicts its own future. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Garner says. For instance, we decide Amarillo will become the world’s leading center for beef-related science and innovation, and so we develop an ecosystem that makes that happen. We cultivate partnerships with local industries like Cactus Feeders and Caviness Beef, and local trade associations like Texas Cattle Feeders and the Texas Association of Dairymen. We collaborate with the vet school and the vaunted WTAMU Meat Laboratory. We engage local leaders in banking, manufacturing and logistics.
And in doing so, we create an ecosystem that brings together researchers, capital and startups to solve the challenges faced by the global protein supply chain. Like a stretch of falling dominoes, each success leads to the next, one by one:
The Range establishes physical spaces to foster new businesses and test new products.
Seed capital arrives to launch new companies and fund research. The research potentially attracts millions in state and federal funding. Local institutions like Amarillo College help produce a skilled workforce.
Those companies create new technologies related to food safety, cattle feeding and production, health and nutrition, environmental stewardship and emissions, data management and other related areas.
Amarillo’s industry innovations expose the area to national and international audiences. We become a world leader in developing technologies that make food processing more efficient.
Top businesses notice what’s happening in Amarillo. Top research talent pays attention. They relocate here, boosting our workforce and fostering a diverse, robust economy.
And then in 20 years, Amarillo will have become the center of the world’s beef and dairy industries. The Texas Panhandle isn’t just a place where cows outnumber people. It’s a global cluster for food industry innovation and technology. We will have redefined how food is produced.
Though the “triangle” of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park refers to its three nearby universities, most innovation districts are actually managed by an umbrella organization designed to coordinate innovation. “It’s actually an organization that is serving as the touchstone, as the conduit, as the catalyst for those activities to happen. The thing about it is that those activities are not free,” says Garner. “If you want to create programming, the universities and colleges can definitely participate and put money in, but somebody still has to coordinate those activities.”
The Range will oversee the innovation in the Panhandle. It’s actually three organizations in one: A 501(c)(6) membership organization that serves as a governance board, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization that acts as a charitable foundation, and a C Corp that brings in revenue from selling products and inventions.
Laura Street is serving as the temporary president of The Range, with Garner as its Executive Director. Both are deep within the process of engaging local stakeholders in a multi-year plan.
“Ten to 15 years from now, everyone in the United States is going to hear about The Range,” says Street. “They are going to see things happening here that aren’t happening anywhere else.” She envisions companies creating innovative drip systems and robotics related to cattle production. She imagines chefs from across the United States coming to Amarillo and Canyon to learn about beef at the WT Meat Lab. “People are going to know who we are and what we do. I see a lot of activity—while we remain authentic to who we are.”
Consultant Bob Geolas has a similar vision. It includes startup spaces, research labs and new restaurants downtown. He sees a culinary institute launching, and the Food Network bringing people to Amarillo for a weekend experience built around beef and dairy. “You have a place where thought leaders around the world come to participate in conversations about how [the Panhandle’s] beef and dairy are being manufactured to meet the world’s population needs. If you’re interested in food, beef or dairy, you’re going to be in Amarillo,” he says. “You’ll retain talent. You’ll have a whole population of people staying here to build a life.”
At the same time, Matt Garner recognizes that scientists are likely already working on ways to solve the world’s food problems, from improving packing plant efficiency to improving water efficiency for farming. That research needs to happen here, simply because Amarillo is the most obvious place for it. “We want to capture the bulk of that [activity],” he says. “This is going to be the epicenter of addressing all those issues. We want to establish an identity around that.”
The Range is a lot of things. It’s about solving big problems. It’s about creating jobs. It’s about economic development. It’s about retaining talent and concentrating it in this area.
But more than anything else, it’s a bold play for Amarillo’s future—to embrace our identity as the world’s primary protein provider, and supercharge it with an intentional, organized effort. “We’ve already got the pieces here,” Garner says, as he and Street begin the process of raising capital and support. “Now we just need to coordinate it.”