Can ‘Veggie Burgers’ Boost Rural Economic Growth?

City lights of Great Falls, Montana over the Missouri River.

City lights of Great Falls, Montana over the Missouri River. Shutterstock

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An agricultural economist sees plant-based proteins—like lentil burgers and tofu— as one answer for communities in central Montana.

Can biotech innovation bring good jobs to central Montana, lifting rural communities and stemming migration of their sons and daughters to other states?  

That is the hope and mission of a new arrival on the scene in Great Falls, the central Montana town of 59,000 that is at the heart of the state’s big-agriculture region.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison is a 35-year-old agricultural economist and former diplomat recently recruited by the Great Falls Development Authority to take charge of its Food and Agriculture Development Center. His goal is to attract venture capital that’s now being mostly spent around Silicon Valley and high-tech regions of the Northeast to develop plant-based proteins—foods like tofu, lentil burgers, roasted chickpeas and other alternatives to meat—that could appeal to modern consumers.

The Agricultural Economy

Sprawling farms growing wheat, and so-called “pulse” vegetables like soybeans, chickpeas and lentils, along with cattle ranches, have been an essential part of Montana’s economy for generations. As time has passed, the output of the state’s agricultural sector has vastly increased, but the number of jobs it supports greatly declined.

It’s the story of American ingenuity. Advances in hybrid seeds, herbicides, fungicides, modern tractors and mechanization have relentlessly driven productivity on the farm, steadily decreasing the need for the manual labor once essential to farming operations.

All of this takes place out of sight for big city-dwellers, who assume, observed Sporkin-Morrison, that virtually everyone in rural America is down on the farm. “Rural America is not the way they see it,” he said. “Farms are not major employers. Here and elsewhere, only 10 or 20 percent of workers have anything to do with it.”

A state website reports that farmers and ranchers make up about five percent of the total population in Montana and that 17 percent of the state’s workers hold agriculture-related jobs. Most farms and ranches are still family owned and operated, and some have been passed from generation to generation since the 1800s.

Agriculture accounts for more than $2 billion of the state’s output, with livestock contributing about half of the total. That amounts to about 5 percent of the state’s GDP of $47 billion, according to this recent snapshot of the Montana economy

The fruits of the farmers’ labor are gathered, processed and distributed in a few of the state’s larger towns. Great Falls, named for the difficult portages along the Missouri River endured by the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06, is one of them.

A recent summary by the Great Falls Development Authority portrays healthy economic activity in Cascade County, which comprises its metropolitan statistical area, during the 2018 calendar year. The report underscores how the agriculture industry in the region is shifting toward processing of crops:

Madison Food Park has purchased a 3,018 acre site in the Great Falls region to develop an $800 million food processing complex including a diary operation that will focus on specialty cheeses, a distillery, and a multi-species (beef, chicken, pork) meat processing operation. Montana Advanced Biofuels has chosen Great Falls for a proposed $365 million wheat and barley food, fuel and feed project.

Montana Eggs opened a new 58,000 SF $9 million egg processing facility. Cargill opened its new $4 million canola research and development center. CHS’ nutrition unit and AgFertilizers’ expansions were completed. Pasta Montana installed $6 million production line increasing capacity by 28%. Friesen Nutrition has just opened its new 10,000 SF facility. Hinrichs Trading opened a new chickpea processing facility. Pardue Grain is constructing an $8 million pulse processing facility. Windrift Hill just built a new 7,000 SF manufacturing plant [for goat milk products].

The release also reported that the city’s new Great Falls Agritech Park, strategically located next to rail facilities, and certified as a BNSF Premier Rail Industrial Park, is attracting new business.

All of this portrays a vibrant local economy  around the output of the state’s farms and ranches. And indeed, Cascade County’s unemployment rate was pegged at just 2.7 percent last April.

Great Falls Economic Development Authority President and CEO Brett Doney noted in an interview with Route Fifty last summer that the region is also benefiting from investment by other employers, including energy companies and “some higher-end, back-office operations--health insurance claim processing, technical customer service.”

Average wages in the county have been rising but are still relatively low—75 percent of the national average.

A Return to Montana

Despite the low unemployment rate in the Great Falls area, Sporkin-Morrison worries about the future of rural Montana, and especially about young people he encounters outside the region who cannot see ways to earn a decent living and suffer from depression and addiction.

His years of experience with rural poverty, and his determination to help improve rural communities’ prospects, brought him to his current post.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison, an agricultural economist with the Great Falls Development Authority. (Photo courtesy of Barnett Sporkin-Morrison)

Sporkin-Morrison's roots are in Montana, although he was born in Wyoming. His father found that jobs paying enough to support a family were in short supply in Montana, and so the family moved to Wyoming before he was born.  

As an eighth-grader, Sporkin-Morrison joined the Future Farmers of America, and took to heart its creed: “I believe in the future of agriculture with a faith born not of words but of deeds.”  The creed “stuck with me ever since,” he said, ”and has influenced my outlook on life.”

Sporkin-Morrison earned bachelors and masters degrees in agricultural economics at the University of Wyoming. He had a yen for public service and also to see the world, and so he prepared for and passed the difficult foreign service exam, joining the elite group of diplomats who represent the United States around the globe.  

He served as one of about 175 foreign service officers assigned to the Agriculture Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service. His last assignment was in Guatemala, where he spent two years trying to improve the country’s agricultural output, in part through introduction of genetically modified corn seeds. Political difficulties in the country eventually doomed the effort, to the great disappointment of Sporkin-Morrison.

But by the time he left the foreign service in 2013, Morrison and his wife, Kristen Boroff, wanted to get back to America to raise children. Boroff wanted to resume her career as a veterinarian, finding a job in the small Montana town of Choteau, not far from Glacier National Park. The couple now have a son and a daughter, both under the age of 5.

Sporkin-Morrison went to work for AgFertilizers, a Great Falls distributor, as chief economist. But his heart was still in public service, and so when his new job came open, he jumped at the chance, even though it entailed a pay cut north of $30,000 a year.

Assessing the Future

As he looks to the future, Sporkin-Morrison worries about deterioration of trade relations and especially the Trump Administration’s fight with China. In response to imposition of U.S. tariffs, the Chinese have retaliated with their own tariffs and also reduced purchases of American products, including soybeans and other pulse crops grown in Montana. Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay have been ramping up their soybean production and may be in a position to replace suspended shipments from U.S. exporters.

A slight thaw came on Feb.1, when state-owned Chinese firms bought at least 1 million tons of American soybeans. The deal came a day after high-level bilateral talks yielded progress on trade issues  and the Chinese agreed to buy more American soybeans. But it wasn’t enough, Reuters reported, to alleviate concerns about huge stockpiles of the beans in the United States and other countries.

Sporkin-Morrison says producers could suffer long-lasting losses of business as a result of the trade war. “It produces dramatic uncertainty in the marketplace. Farming is a capital-intensive business, and this complicates investment decisions. And if you lose markets, it’s difficult to claw them back.”

One sick cow was enough to throw U.S. meat export markets into turmoil sixteen years ago. Diagnosis of mad-cow disease in the animal brought swift reaction from Asian markets, as Japan and other nations immediately banned imports of U.S. beef. “We still are working to get those markets back to their level of the time,” said Sporkin-Morrison.  

Sporkin-Morrison also worries about declines in funding for longer-term research aimed at achieving breakthroughs in agricultural technology. Over time, it is “dramatically down,” he said, citing in particular funding from the federal Agriculture Department (USDA). The system for finding, disseminating and encouraging adoption of new cutting edge farming techniques was once a hallmark of American inventiveness, embracing USDA research, land grant universities, state and county governments and the Cooperative Extension Service, but the network has fallen into disrepair, said Sporkin-Morrison, and “is nowhere near where it was 50-60 years ago.”

Private research has made up part of the shortfall, but does not address key issues of farm productivity, as this 2016 analysis from USDA attests.

The 2018 farm bill enacted In December boosted federal research funding, but from a depleted base. A reaction came from Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, who thanked legislators for supporting “the immediate needs of U.S. agriculture.” But “more is needed,” he added. “This is a down payment on our future and more funding will ensure we have an abundant, safe, and nutritious food supply in the face of climate change and other challenges for generations to come.”

While long-term research to find crops resistant to disease, drought, pests and other challenges is seen as essential by many agricultural economists, there’s also money to be made in the shorter term from advances in biotechnology—biofuels, plant-based protein products and more. It is here that Sporkin-Morrison sees opportunity to bring good middle-class jobs to the Great Falls area.

Consumer tastes are changing, he observed. A backlash against genetically engineered food has been strong in Europe and is growing in this country. And demand is also growing for foods perceived as healthier, including plant-based protein products that can substitute for meat. Said Sporkin-Morrison, “As urban consumers become more affluent, more vegetarian or vegan, the moral and ethical attributes of food gain importance to them, so-called credence attributes that you can’t touch or feel or taste.”

The trend was evident at last month’s Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, where Sporkin-Morrison observed growing interest in products free of genetic modification. Running alongside that show was the Alternative Protein Show devoted to “saving the planet, one meal at a time.”

Plant-based products can mimic the taste of tunafish or even hamburger. One of the show’s sponsors was promoting its “Chicken-free Stir-fry, BBQ Boneless Pork-free Riblets and everyone’s favorite chicken-free nuggets, strips and filet.” Crops in Montana’ sweet spot have seen promotion on the Boomer Nutrition website--which posted an article titled “The Protein Power of Pulses: The New Superfood of 2016.”

Companies in this growing alternative foods universe tend to start up on the coasts, near their venture-capital backers. But Sporkin-Morrison believes he can attract some of them to locate research and production facilities next door to the sources of their agricultural inputs. They would benefit from a relatively inexpensive pool of labor supply and gain a key constituency to advocate for their products, he says. And they would enjoy Montana’s great beauty and low cost of living.

This new trend has earned some pushback in ranching states, with Missouri spearheading a new law—now facing a court challenge—to prohibit the use of terms that are equated with meat, like veggie “burgers,” in marketing vegetable-based products. Lawmakers in other states have begun to file bills to follow this path.

But Sporkin-Morrison said he hasn’t heard any complaints about his organization’s push into alternative proteins, noting that companies and farms in the region are involved in all sectors of food production. He added that the issue of how to label alternative protein products does call for more deliberation, and said solutions should come from the federal government, “as opposed to a state-by-state patchwork of legislation.”

Sporkin-Morrison took a gamble when he quit his private sector job, since the program he is now running requires renewal at the end of this year. State law requires that the Montana Agriculture Department allocate funding to four food and agriculture development centers. Local economic development authorities compete for the funds every two years.

He is game for the risk, and says that he is “driven by social conscience” to pursue his goal of a better life in rural America.

Editor's note: This story was changed after publication to correct information about where Barnett Sporkin-Morrison was born.

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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