I spent some time last week at the Alltech Symposium, Lexington's biggest annual international event that many people have never heard of.
Alltech, the Nicholasville-based animal health and nutrition company, has put on this flashy educational conference for 29 years as a way to strengthen relationships with its customers in 128 countries.
This year's symposium attracted about 2,000 people from 72 nations, plus about 400 Alltech employees from around the world.
Honestly, animal nutrition is not something I would normally find very interesting. But I leave this event every year fascinated by innovative ideas.
The symposium looks at the future of food and agribusiness from the perspective of natural systems and processes, which has always been Alltech's approach. That approach has become fashionable in recent years as consumers worry more and more about chemicals and genetically-modified organisms.
This year's symposium featured several technologies Alltech is working on, such as producing algae for nutritional supplements.
Two years ago, Alltech bought one of the world's largest algae-making plants, just off Interstate 64 near Winchester. Pearse Lyons, Alltech's founder and president, said the plant is now producing 10,000 tons of algae a year and is already too small to meet the company's needs.
Lyons thinks algae could become more popular than fish oil as a major source of docohexaenoic acid, or DHA, a popular nutritional supplement thought to slow the decline of brain function as people age. With the fish oil market now at about $1 billion, Lyons sees opportunity.
The symposium's theme this year was "Glimpse the future in 2020." In addition to algae, presentations and panel discussions focused on such topics as growing antibiotic-free poultry, farming at sea, finding financial rewards in reducing agriculture's carbon footprint and learning to embrace regulation.
"Enough is enough," the regulatory session's thesis statement said. "If we do not regulate ourselves, the FDA or the European Union will regulate us. Learn how to embrace regulation."
Alltech thinks successful businesses won't just come from new ideas and technology. There are big opportunities in better marketing and distribution of high-quality traditional foods that offer nutrition and unique tastes.
My favorite booth at the symposium's World Market trade show this year was Ibéricos COVAP, a farmers' cooperative near Córdoba, Spain. Farmers there have for centuries been producing gourmet cured ham from free-range Ibérico pigs that grow fat on acorns from the forests of the Sierra Morena mountains.
The co-op already distributes its products in New York and Los Angeles. Now, it sees opportunity in middle America, beginning with Kentucky, where cured country ham has been a delicacy for generations.
"We are looking for big opportunities we think we have in this area," said the co-op's director, Emilio de León y Ponce de León.
Based on how symposium attendees were devouring delicious samples of thin-shaved ham and Spanish cheeses, Ibéricos COVAP may have some opportunities.
Alltech used to offer the symposium as a free or low-cost event for customers. In the past, Lyons said, Alltech absorbed the costs. Now, each person pays hundreds of dollars to attend.
This year's symposium, which cost more than $1 million to produce, may come close to breaking even, Lyons said. In the future, he added, it could become a profit center. That is because Alltech's customers find value in the symposium's educational sessions and networking opportunities.
"What we're striving to have is a real joint venture with customers — a real meeting of the minds that creates a win-win situation," said Lyons, an Irish-born entrepreneur who moved to Lexington in 1980 and started Alltech in his garage. "There are huge returns for international business people willing to work together."
Those opportunities are a big reason Alltech has been expanding its business in recent years from animal nutrition supplements to human nutrition supplements and high-quality food and drink.
The privately held company doesn't release financial figures, but Lyons said sales this year will approach $1 billion. About 30 percent of that revenue came from acquisitions.
Lyons, who turns 69 on Aug. 3, said he expects the company to make many more acquisitions in his quest to achieve annual revenues of $4 billion in his lifetime.