State officials, along with university researchers, are stressing the importance of rural entrepreneurship and value-added agriculture in enhancing the economic vitality of Missouri.
At the University of Missouri’s annual Agroforestry Symposium on Jan. 30, discussion focused on the less-populated areas of the state because many of those areas have not made as much economic progress as Missouri’s more urban areas.
“What is driving our low (Gross Domestic Product) growth, particularly in rural Missouri?” said Sarah Low, a University of Missouri Extension professor. “Population decline, number one — we are losing population. They are moving to St. Louis. They are moving to Kansas City. They are moving out of state.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau population projections, Missouri’s population increased about 2.5% from 2010 to 2019. Six of Missouri’s eight border states saw more growth in that span.
That is dampening the economic progress of Missouri, which has not recovered as well as its neighboring states from the Great Recession, Low said. She added that the state’s GDP growth has been lower than that of its neighbors and is in the lower tier of all Midwestern states.
Low and others hope that entrepreneurs engaging in value-added agriculture — generally defined as the use of processes or techniques that enhance the value of agricultural commodities — can help reinforce economic activity statewide.
Nicola Macpherson, the owner of Ozark Forest Mushrooms, is an example of the type of businesses that state officials and researchers hope will flourish in less-populated communities.
On her farm in Shannon County in south-central Missouri, Macpherson grows shiitake mushrooms from trees that have been cut down and inoculated. She harvests and processes the mushrooms for sale several months later.
“Our main market, 80% of what I do, I sell mushrooms to chefs, catering companies and farmers markets,” she said.
She said that state subsidies helped her offset business expenses that would have made it difficult for her to operate.
“In those days, they had grants for packaging and boxes,” Macpherson said. “That really helped me out, because if you are a small farmer, to go buy 5,000 boxes, that can cost you a lot of money.”
She was a beneficiary of an initiative now known as Missouri Grown, which helps market the state’s agricultural products. Davin Althoff, director of Missouri’s Agriculture Business Development Division, said Missouri Grown has a new website that allows producers to market their products, be it meat protein, jams or jellies.
“We have nearly 900 members as part of this Missouri Grown program, and we are looking hard to grow that,” Althoff said. “We are also looking hard to reach consumers in our urban population.”
Jill Wood, executive director of the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority, introduced another state program that assists with financing small businesses and value-added producers. It can connect entrepreneurs to loans, grants and tax credits.
They’re all part of a larger effort, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said, to boost the state’s economy by connecting Missouri’s agricultural entrepreneurs to markets.
Said Kehoe: “I look at value-added agriculture as the application of market principles to agriculture, to foster innovation and creativity, which in turn increases demand and profitability by asking two basic questions: How can I get people to buy what I make or what can I make or grow that people want to buy?”