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Kentucky's Food, Farming Economy Needs Entrepreneurship, Too

Kentucky has a fascinating heritage when it comes to public unity. Everyone knows the Commonwealth was home to both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Today, different debates occupy the minds of average Kentuckians, such as UK vs. Louisville, wet vs. dry counties and urban triangle vs. rural heartland.

Ask folks what’s needed to grow our economy, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Some say we need to bring industry into this state and grow our industrial base. Others claim entrepreneurship is the key to our economic success. An energetic, but still a minority of rural citizens feel agriculture is the answer.

They’ve all got pretty good arguments, and frankly, they’re all correct. So why not combine forces? It’s time for Kentucky to consider ways it can merge its economic development approaches to industry, entrepreneurship and agriculture with one comprehensive, unified strategy. We need new industry, and we need to grow our own, right here.

In some ways, this is an intuitive approach. Consider one of Kentucky’s greatest entrepreneurial success stories: Kentucky Fried Chicken. A secret Southern recipe for frying chicken that evoked hospitality and down home atmosphere, a plucky entrepreneur who got his start in the food business serving meals from his living quarters in a gas station in Corbin before turning it into a national franchising success, and a group of savvy capitalists who turned a chicken franchise into a mega corporation. Local foods, entrepreneurship, big industry – the KFC story has them all in spades.

What are the lessons for Kentucky’s economic developers? First, we should encourage small-scale agriculture, homegrown foods and local recipes. But it can’t end there. We need to encourage these small farmers to create viable businesses with the potential for growth.  

This requires more than growing good produce, making good food and processing meals safely. It also requires branding, marketing, good corporate structure, financing and more. In other words, it requires entrepreneurship.

Eventually – as we’ve seen with local foods like KFC, Papa John’s Pizza, Kentucky bourbon – we need to be ready for major corporation assistance. We should encourage big companies to consider locating in Kentucky and building upon what’s already happening to further commercialize Kentucky foods. In the process, they will hire Kentucky workers and invest in Kentucky’s economy.

For this strategy to work, there must be an increased focus on entrepreneurship. From my vantage point, that’s the one area where we need the most work. We already have a passionate community committed to growing and producing food. Now we need to find more folks committed to taking this output and using it to create successful enterprises.

Our office, the Kentucky Innovation Network at Morehead State University, is working to do just that. Our job is to work with Kentucky entrepreneurs. High-tech, low-tech, no tech; it matters not. We simply want to find innovative entrepreneurs who can create successful and scalable businesses.

Increasingly, we are seeing passionate farmers who want to grow businesses. But they need assistance. They need help navigating regulations, help with marketing, help with new business models, and help with website development. And that help has started coming. The Kentucky Innovation Network is constantly building upon its expertise to help with all the above and much more.

Whether it’s KFC, the hot brown or Kentucky bourbon, we’ve seen the power of Kentucky foods. Today’s locally grown and produced foods can lead to tomorrow’s major corporations, but it’s going to take a team effort and a true culture of entrepreneurship to make that happen.

Now that’s food for thought.

This article originally appeared at KY Forward and is written by Johnathan Gay, an attorney and the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. To learn more about the Kentucky Innovation Network or to get involved in entrepreneurial projects, click here.

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