GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Once the purview of hippies and food faddists, plant-based protein alternatives – think tofu, pea milk and ranch-flavored chickpeas – are now decidedly main stream, and a Montana agricultural economist wants to capitalize on the trend by inviting potential investors to the state this June.

Great Falls Montana Development Authority’s new Food and Agricultural Development Center Director Barnett Sporkin-Morrison is fine-tuning the Plant Protein Possibilities Tour, P3 for short, which he hopes will connect key players in the plant protein supply chain – end users, farmers, brokers, food processors and universities – giving each a better understanding of the other and the marketplace.

“My role is to look at ‘What does agriculture a few years from now look like?’ and then to position our Montana economy as forward thinking so we can pursue where the economy is going, not only where it has been,” Sporkin-Morrison said.

The P3 Tour will be based out of Great Falls, a long-time agricultural and emergent agri-processing hub. The tour will showcase both the region’s vast pulse crop acres and its cutting-edge research and bio-science facilities clustered in and around the Great Falls AgriTech Park, home to heavy hitters like Pasta Montana, Columbia Grain, Montana Specialty Mills and Helena Chemical.

Plant proteins – raw ingredients derived from plant sources including cereal grains and pulse crops – are big. A new World Economic Forum report called for more plant-based protein alternatives in the world’s diet to improve human health and environmental sustainability. Market indicators suggest it’s already happening. Growth in sales of plant-based food went up 20 percent in the United States between June 2017 and June 2018, a value of $3.3 billion, according to Nielsen research.

Sporkin-Morrison wants to put Montana at the center of it all. At last month’s Alternative Protein Show in San Francisco hosted by the International Alliance for Alternative Protein (IAAP), he led sessions on why alternative protein startups and investors should consider locating in North Central Montana and other rural areas.

“I want the startup community and venture capitalist community to recognize that they need to have more connection with rural America if they are going to throw money into a sector that may disrupt traditional agriculture,” said Sporkin-Morrison, the conference’s vice president of state and regional relations.

Some of that has to do with animal rights and vegan-inspired messaging obscuring what he says is ample common ground.

“There’s a lot of attacking that goes on about agriculture,” he said. “Agriculture isn’t ruining the environment, agriculture is responding to consumer demand in the marketplace.”

In other words, as the global population becomes more affluent their diets become more meat and dairy intensive. Producers in Montana and elsewhere are simply meeting that need. But there’s also plenty of room in the marketplace for Montana-grown and processed plant-based protein products.

“Rural America is not the way it was in the ’20s and ’30s,” he said. “There’s a huge grouping of people in rural areas that if someone came in and put in a plant most people would be extremely happy.”

But the marketplace is straight-up disorganized, according to Sporkin-Morrison.

“If investors keep focusing all this capital on the coasts they’re missing an opportunity for rural inhabitants to become strong supporters of alternative protein,” he said. “Rural people feel pressured when people say, ‘You’re ruining the environment.’ They feel backed into a wall and fight back. You need to engage with the people in a proper manner.”

One idea is to channel funding into existing university plant breeding programs to up the protein content in widely-grown pulse crops here in Montana. Another is to fund a pulse processing facility to extract the pea protein isolates that are the building blocks for alternative proteins.

Andrew Bishop, owner of Ag Processing Solutions, a Great Falls-area business that designs agricultural processing facilities around the North West, sees a bright future for pea protein. Bishop, an engineer, would like to one day build a wet fractionation facility to extract the protein from pulse crops.

“My dream is to create a value-added product that can be produced on a large scale in the state of Montana, and it’s difficult to do that now without that kind of facility,” Bishop said. “Peas are an easy crop for farmers to grow, and processing them is an easy way to add value to the region. Farmers win by not having to guess on the export market, which everyone should cheer for right now, and a processing facility means high-paying jobs for the region.”

The Great Falls Development Authority (GFDA) is offering sponsorship opportunities and seeking advisors and organizers for the P3 Tour slated for the week of June 17.

“Montana has a unique opportunity to get people together to organize this market, which will result in primary, secondary and tertiary effects for the rural economy,” Sporkin-Morrison said. “We want to work directly with growers to build the agriculture of tomorrow.”