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Leveraging Plant Based Foods For Rural Prosperity

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #49, Tera interviews Barnett Sporkin-Morrison, the Director of the Great Falls Montana Development Authority’s Food and Agricultural Development Center, one of four centers in the state that leverages the state’s rich agricultural history. From a small town of about 300 people in rural Wyoming, Barnett received his masters from the University of Wyoming in the field of Agricultural Economics and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service in Washington, D.C. and abroad. That work included serving in the Northern-Triad of Central America as an Agricultural Attaché. Following his time at U.S. Embassy Guatemala City, he and his wife chose to relocate back to rural America settling, in North-Central Montana to raise a family. These experiences broadened his perspective on his role in facilitating economic development.

The Great Falls Development Authority is a public-private partnership with about 80% of funding coming from the private sector. Great Falls is the newest Food and Ag Development Center and, in slightly different approach than the other centers, is seeking to leverage its reputation as the “Golden Triangle” to grow its larger scale producers (as opposed to smaller scale, cottage food industry producers) for larger domestic markets. They take a very wide view of agriculture in their economic development activities and his stakeholders are interested in developing processing facilities for Montana’s pulse crops. They have a three-pronged approach to economic development.

Barnett reflected that Montana hasn’t built on the linkages of agricultural production as much as other areas like the Midwest. Most of their agricultural output is for international export, and thus, is heavily dependent on trade and trade issues. To take advantage of the large domestic food market and Montana’s existing production, Barnett sees the biggest opportunity, in the short term and the long term, in the plant-based alternative proteins foods market. However, plant-based and especially cellular based meat alternatives are sometimes met with controversy/skepticism in Montana and because it is a newer trend, the exact market potential in the space is not exactly clear.

Barnett and Tera commented that not enough money is going towards developing a reliable and diverse supply chain for these protein sources, despite the large consumer demand and large amounts of investment capital being thrown at these businesses. This is symptomatic of a larger disconnect in understanding between consumer demand from highly populated areas on the coasts and all of the actors on the supply chain. But, this is an opportunity for alternative protein food companies and rural American agricultural producers and processers to partner on a shared vision that produces high quality food, builds defensibly unique supply chains/brands for food brands and improves rural economic opportunity at the same time.

While there are difficult challenges in living in rural America, entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial spirit has been key to people providing employment for themselves. One of the key challenges that remain is getting rural people connected to larger markets outside their area and understanding the consumers in that area. In addition, there is a huge need for people not familiar with agriculture or who are not from rural areas to learn about current agriculture production to inform how they could best create businesses and systems that reflect their goals. This is especially true since the transparency and traceability that many consumers are looking for are mostly provided at the agricultural producer level, and as farmers seek to respond to climate variability and plants adapting/changing in response to things like different weather conditions and higher carbon levels in the atmosphere.

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