Farming, local foods culture in Bluegrass can be marketed just like manufacturing

February 10, 2014 

Scott Smith is the former dean of agriculture at the University of Kentucky.

  • At issue: Jan. 27 Tom Martin interview, "The benefits of building a 22-county economic region; Mayor Gray discusses findings of study"

Tom Martin's interview with Mayor Jim Gray on the BEAM collaboration between Louisville and Lexington was interesting for several reasons. But one of the most important reasons was only captured, with a touch of probably unintended irony, in the photo caption.

The two mayors are pictured in the marvelous arena named for one of the world's most successful and far-flung food enterprises, YUM Brands. And their wager on the game is about which city's world-class equine venue they will showcase.

The message is that you cannot even have a conversation about advanced manufacturing in the Bluegrass while ignoring our current economic and cultural context. And in the Bluegrass, food and farms are at the heart of that context.

In fact, both mayors have demonstrably recognized this reality, although in different ways.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher has made a strong, visible commitment to development of an urban food hub and a so-called Food Life Zone.

Gray affirmed the economic significance of quality of life and environment, at the end of the interview and many times before.

The Bluegrass has economic development opportunities in food and farms, just as it has potential in advanced manufacturing. We can build on strength not only in the automotive sector but also in food and agriculture. A recent University of Kentucky study documented that agriculture reaches well beyond on-farm employment to support a large, highly credible ag economic cluster in Central Kentucky.

These results indicated that one of nine jobs in Fayette County are farm-dependent.

Kentucky's position in the food sector is also favorable though perhaps not yet meeting all the standards for a nationally recognized economic cluster. Our global, high visibility presence in food and nutrition is impressive, for example, YUM, Alltech and Papa John's.

Consider also less visible but significant Kentucky food processing employers (Ralcorp, Smucker, Fischer Packing; and in Western Kentucky Bremner, Continental Mills, Siemer Milling and several others.)

Just as positive, and perhaps more so in terms of quality of life and our identity, a vibrant culture of local foods, farm to table, farmers markets and value-added food start-ups has emerged in the Bluegrass. Can we claim bourbon, wine and craft beer in this sector? These have the same on-farm roots.

However, this is not a commentary about farms vs. factories, or development vs. conservation as a few in this community have tried to portray our economic development choices.

There are potential leveraging opportunities and synergies across the farm/food sectors and advanced manufacturing. These synergies include but are not limited to quality of work, life and regional identity.

With smart planning, investment and creative ideas we just might be able to advance both manufacturing and farming. And maybe, together is the only way we can do either one.

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