Growth industry

October 29th, 2018

By Rick Farrant for The Journal Gazette

Beth Bechdol, whose family has been farming between Auburn and Garrett for seven generations and today tends to 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, sees a shining star on the horizon for the northeast Indiana economy.

That glitter of promise, she says, is the food and agriculture sector – a conglomeration of businesses that touches all of the region's major industries and is so much more than the endless rows of corn and soybeans the casual observer might notice. Or worse, Grant Wood's 1930 “American Gothic” painting of a somber farming couple posing with a pitchfork.

These days, the sector is indeed production agriculture (plants and livestock). But it is also food processing and manufacturing (capitalizing on local raw materials), agbiosciences (innovation, research and technology), and it is the food that ends up on your plate (including culinary and direct-to-consumer). Within agbiosciences, the innovation comes in plant sciences, animal and health nutrition, human food and nutrition, and high-tech agriculture.

The way Bechdol sees it, northeast Indiana has a strong foundation in most of those areas and is uniquely positioned to expand opportunities within the cluster.

“It is important that people recognize how significant an economic driver (food and agriculture) can be in all of its forms to local communities, especially to rural communities,” says Bechdol, president and CEO of AgriNovus, an Indianapolis-based promoter and facilitator of agbiosciences throughout Indiana. “I would challenge just about anybody to name one other industry from the local level to the global level that offers the most long-term business and economic opportunity as food and agriculture.”

She is not alone in her assessment, and there is a groundswell of regional support to grow the food and agriculture sector as both an economic engine and a workforce talent retention and attraction catalyst. At a September meeting at Huntington University co-convened by Northeast Indiana Works, 30 selected business, education and economic/workforce development leaders gathered to begin charting a strategic, collaborative plan to build on what already is a thriving interrelated collection of businesses and occupations.

Among those at the meeting were representatives of the banking, insurance, higher education, health care and agricultural industries, including Bechdol; Parkview Health President and CEO Mike Packnett; STAR Financial Bank Chair and CEO Jim Marcuccilli; and Huntington University President Dr. Sherilyn Emberton, whose university will soon graduate its first class in agricultural studies.

A steering committee that includes Northeast Indiana Works CEO Kathleen Randolph and STAR Wealth Management President Keith Davis intends to soon convene a larger forum of leaders to continue focusing on the food and agriculture sector. In the meantime, Northeast Indiana Works has contracted with longtime educator Wylie Sirk, program director of educational leadership at Purdue Fort Wayne, to begin developing a career pathways structure for food and agriculture.

“It is critical,” says Randolph, “that we seize this opportunity and create a cohesive approach to filling the talent pipeline in food and agriculture to meet current and future needs. Regional leaders are just now beginning to understand the scope and importance of this sector.”

A study commissioned by Northeast Indiana Works and carried out by the Purdue Fort Wayne Community Research Institute highlights the strength of the food and agriculture sector in a 12-county swath of northeast Indiana. The report showed that production in most categories is robust and growing, wages for some food and agriculture occupations exceed U.S. averages, the concentration of many operations tops national numbers, the numbers of food/ag companies and jobs are increasing, and the farm gross domestic product in northeast Indiana has risen in the past 10 years.

Also growing in the U.S. are technological advances in food and agriculture production that should make the sector attractive to a wider audience of career-seekers. There are autonomous robots that can weed or move tons of produce from one location to another; GPS guidance systems that can help farmers reduce fertilizer overlaps and minimize spraying gaps; and data-based genetic protocols that can enhance yields.

“(The sector) is more technology-driven at all levels and the skill set that is required to manage a farm is significantly different than it was 25 years ago,” says Davis, who is also a Northeast Indiana Works board member. “We're going to take the lead in articulating that.”

Rebecca Schroeder is a member of Indiana's Governor's Workforce Cabinet and president of Whiteshire Hamroc, an Albion-area swine genetics provider and farming operation that manages 4,100 acres of row crops and markets 27,000 to 30,000 pigs a year. Whiteshire Hamroc is one of the region's operations employing innovative high-tech agricultural solutions; it is a leader in creating data-based genetic indexes for swine that help produce not just more pigs but healthier ones, thus increasing total pounds of pork. The company's genetic indexes are used around the globe.

Like Bechdol, Schroeder is enthusiastic about the attention being focused locally on the food and agriculture sector: “For me, it is extremely exciting to see ag being viewed as an economic driver, as something we can get behind and say, 'Look at all the things that can come through agricultural improvements.' Improvements in human health, economic development and jobs among them.”

Consider too that not all of those economic boosts will come from the more traditional agriculture-related activities. Think vineyards, which have been cropping up around the region, and craft beer with locally sourced ingredients, and farm-to-fork restaurants. You may also want to think ducks the next time you order one in a restaurant here or anywhere in the U.S.; northeast Indiana accounts for roughly one quarter of all duck sales in the nation.

There will be challenges in moving the food and agriculture sector forward, not the least of which is the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, which seems to rear up whenever new or expanded farming operations are proposed, especially operations that involve livestock. The sector may also be unattractive to those job seekers who view it simply as rows of corn and soybeans stretching out for what seems like forever.

For Bechdol, the answer to those and other challenges is to do a better job of telling the story about the widespread economic importance of food and agriculture to the region – and the sector's associated 21st century careers, such as food science, robotics engineering, data analytics, biochemistry and genetics.

“We need to connect the dots for people,” she says. “We're not telling the story very well for young people especially. We've got a public perception issue that we all clearly need to work on.”

Put another way, northeast Indiana can ill afford to ignore a sector that, up until now, has very quietly in all of its variations become a vital piece of the region's economic future.

Rick Farrant is director of communications for Northeast Indiana Works, the region's nonprofit workforce development organization.