Eric Bergman and his wife Audra own and operate Groundworks Farm in Fort Shaw. Recently Eric has assumed a new role as Director of the Food and Ag Development Center in Great Falls. Eric is very active with MFU as President of Cascade County Farmers Union and in other capacities. In this article Eric shares his vision as center director.
1.) Can you talk about your new position and what it entails?
The work directing the Great Falls Food and Ag Development Center is truly dynamic. Our work at GFDA is focused on providing any service we can to assist in the success of our clients. These services may be in business planning, navigating regulations, accessing financing through grants and lending, government contracting, or simply advocacy for a project. Clients include farmers and ranchers, entrepreneurial start-ups, existing business, and companies outside of the state. My work is focused particularly on development in the food and agriculture sectors with emphasis on expanding the agricultural processing industry in our region. Currently, around 80% of the farm products grown in Montana are shipped out as raw commodities. We have a lot of opportunity to add value to these products here in the state to capture more of the “food dollar.”
2.How will your position work with the food and ag development network?
There are four Food and Ag Development Centers in the network, and there is some variation in focus and strengths between the Centers. We coordinate with each other by referral between Centers, setting mutual goals for the Network, sharing contacts, information and resources, and by trying to pull in the same direction. We share some clients and projects, but largely work independently. However, it’s important we collaborate on strategic planning so that we can at least complement, and ideally multiply, one another’s efforts.
3.Why do you feel it is important to support local agriculture?
I like the adage that exposure and experience cultivates understanding, understanding cultivates appreciation, and appreciation leads to thoughtful action. Knowing directly where a food item comes from, how it was produced, what skills and technologies are involved, and maybe even who produced it, is a way for anyone to recognize his or her connection with agriculture. In our modern society where fewer and fewer individuals are directly involved in food production, I think direct relationships between farmers and other eaters can help people understand one-another.
4.How has being a producer helped prepare you for this position?
We are still farming, but the operation will be much different now that Audra and I are both working full time off-farm. By initiating and operating our own small farm we received a crash-course in business management, for one thing. Some lessons were certainly learned the hard way, but there is no substitute for experience. Through our work as farmers, we have connected with a lot of people and organizations in the industry, including our involvement with MFU. This network is important in my current position because much of what I do is based on relationship building and connecting the appropriate dots. Also, having a more direct knowledge of agriculture, and science in general, is an asset I bring to our team at GFDA. I’m climbing a steep learning curve relative to other aspects of the work.
5.What are some of your goals moving forward in this position?
Broadly speaking, my goal is to play a role in
the development of new and more agricultural processing in Montana, and specifically the Golden Triangle region. GFDA has created 8 agri-processing business cases that outline specific industries that would fit well in our region. I invite anyone interested in copies of these to contact me. I think this work gives me the opportunity to help facilitate the growth of thriving communities.
6.How can the public get more involved in supporting economic growth of Great Falls and the growth of agriculture in our communities?
One project that GFDA is just initiating is a series of public discussions focused on economic development activities in the region. These are being called “What’s Up with Great Falls Economic Development?” and will be held once a month at Great Falls College MSU. The goal here is to create a venue to discuss the work that GFDA clients and others are doing, and anyone interested can participate. If someone wants to know the dates and times of these, they can contact GFDA or look at the website www.gfdevelopment.org.