The coronavirus pandemic has upended so much. It has exposed the fragility of our food supply and made us revalue domestic agriculture and producers, including the front-line workers who harvest, make and deliver our food. But we’re now reworking our supply chains for national food security and elevating agriculture back to a noble profession.
With a new focus on these issues, can we use this moment to rebuild and rebrand rural America?
In today’s wired, knowledge-driven economy, talented people are making new choices about where to live and work. Many heartland communities possess attractive attributes, such as a “know-your-neighbors” sensibility, good schools and open spaces, undergirded by a comfortable cost and pace of living. As folks place health and safety at the fore, the opportunities to be part of the rural renaissance abound.
Rural America already plays a sophisticated global game — delivering the nation’s prodigious agricultural output (valued at $3 trillion annually) with $140 billion headed to foreign markets. But the Midwest is more than the world’s breadbasket — it is an innovation center as well.
Today, shifting consumer preferences and market dynamics are creating new opportunities for ag and food tech. New entrants are growing hyperlocal, farm-to-table experiences, and foodies of all socioeconomic statuses are gaining access to food that aligns to their tastes and values.
Ag and food tech entrepreneurs are developing and using innovations to produce nutritious food while protecting natural resources. For example, cloud-based irrigation software can boost crop yields and save water and energy by connecting to in-field sensors to deliver the correct amount of water to each plant.
Another startup is working to end the annual U.S. waste of 20 billion pounds of “ugly” produce with a business-to-business marketplace that allows growers to connect with food companies to offload surplus or imperfect food.
According to Finistere Ventures, $25 billion has been invested into the ag-food sector since 2012, as entrepreneurs bring additional health, environmental and consumer benefits to the marketplace.
A lot of this work is being driven by young leaders. As fifth-generation farmer and co-founder of Clear Frontier Ag Management in Omaha, Nebraska, Justin Bruch says: “It is satisfying to develop new technology to help … leave the farming breadbasket in better shape for future generations.”
Innovation starts with education, including programs like Iowa State University’s “Science Bound,” which inspires young minority students to pursue STEM-based careers in food. Michigan State research is pioneering urban food systems and sustainable global agricultural practices. The World Food Prize hosts youth institutes to engage students and educators to solve global food security issues.
Rural America is producing solutions to the big challenges of today, from climate change to clean water to nutrition. With the support of higher education and venture capital, along with consumer demand, opportunities to create high-tech lifestyles beyond Silicon Valley — while having a meaningful impact on the world — have rarely been more promising.
To achieve this vision, we welcome next-generation innovators to the heartland, where there is important work to do and wonderful places to do it. We hope the young people growing up in small towns will stick around and help solve today’s global challenges from home. And that those with capital looking to invest in a brighter, more resilient future will turn to rural America to get good returns and make a huge social impact.
Paul Schickler is former president of DuPont Pioneer (now Corteva) and founder of III Ag. John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a nonresident senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Brookings Institution. They wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.
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