Final Report for CNE11-085

Improving Technical Assistance for Emerging Food-Based Businesses

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2011: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Margaret Christie
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)
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Project Information

Summary:

Growth in demand for local food in the Pioneer Valley has created both new opportunities for sale of locally grown products, and new pressures on farmers, as some market outlets, such as farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) are currently crowded. Food-based entrepreneurs (which we define as both farmers and non-farmers who are adding value to or marketing products made with local ingredients) have a key role to play in scaling up our local food system to meet consumer demand while providing important new market options for farmers. This project, focused on improving technical assistance for local food-based businesses, is part of an effort to create a “local food entrepreneur-friendly” environment in our region through financing, training, networking and public education.

This project supported research and collaboration among technical assistance providers serving local foods businesses. CISA, which provides training primarily focused on marketing and business management, worked closely with the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, which operates a shared-use kitchen incubator and provides business assistance including business planning and recipe, product, and process development. In addition, these partners collaborated with other technical assistance providers, financing agencies, business owners, and others to identify technical assistance providers, gaps, and resources.

We held a training and networking event attended by 22 service providers representing a wide range of expertise, including accounting, retail sales and merchandising, business development, workforce development, nutrition analysis and labeling. Presentations from food business owners and time for networking were highlights of the training. We also developed a directory of service providers which is available on CISA’s website and can be accessed by business owners, managers, or service providers.

Project Objectives:

1. Research the agencies providing technical assistance to businesses in our region.

a. Conduct interviews with existing food-based businesses and with farmers and entrepreneurs who have considered starting a new enterprise, asking them about their use of technical service providers.

b. Interview existing agencies, questioning them about the services they provide, their service areas, their referral methods, and other agencies providing services to small businesses. In addition, we will ask what they’d like to know about working with food-based businesses, and what information they have to share with other service providers.

Planned and held a Food Entrepreneur Focus Group. Eight food entrepreneurs discussed technical assistance and financing for food ventures.

Conducted two additional interviews with existing entrepreneurs and four with food business start-ups.

Planned and participated in the Pioneer Valley Grows Fall Forum, which focused on entrepreneurship in the local food system and featured speakers from six enterprises.

Met with eight agencies that provide services to entrepreneurs and businesses in our region. In some cases these were formal interviews and in other cases the meeting was focused on technical assistance for food businesses but did not take the format of an interview.

2. Compile information about the unique challenges of local food-based businesses and best support practices.

a. Reach out to existing local foods entrepreneurs, including farmers, to learn what services and technical assistance could benefit them now, what they could have used when their business was beginning, and what assistance was most valuable.

b. Reach out to existing local-food entrepreneurs and the farmers that supply them to learn about best practices for sourcing local ingredients.

c. Work with the Franklin County CDC to document their approach to supporting food-based businesses.

See above information about focus group and interviews. In addition, we talked to farmers and local-foods businesses about sourcing challenges and solutions. Not surprisingly, real-life stories from business owners proved to be one of the most effective ways of conveying these challenges and the innovative solutions devised by business owners. Three businesses presented at our workshop, but we held conversations and interviews with ten additional businesses in order to gain information.

We worked with the CDC to identify and understand the unique challenges of local-foods-based businesses and the best way to present these challenges to technical services providers, who have significant business expertise but, often, less experience with locally-sourced ingredients.

3. Hold a workshop and networking session at which service providers can learn from the Franklin County CDC, from each other, and from existing local foods-based businesses.

a. Develop training materials in collaboration with the Franklin County CDC.

b. This half-day training session will include three primary components: a roundtable session during which agencies can share their experience and expertise and learn about the programs of others; a training session, during which the Franklin County CDC will present their best practices for work with food-based businesses; and a panel presentation by existing food-based businesses discussing their current or former technical assistance needs.

The training session was held as planned, with 22 participants with business expertise including accounting, workforce training, business development, retail sales and merchandising, and nutrition analysis and labeling. The morning training concluded with a local lunch, which provided an opportunities to hear from another local foods business—the caterer—and for informal networking. Lunch was followed by optional tours of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center and Real Pickles, a local foods business sourcing all of their vegetables and herbs from the Pioneer Valley. The tours were attended by about half of the workshop participants.

We experienced two challenges in planning the training. First, we found that direct personal outreach was necessary to assure attendance. Our cross-disciplinary training did not provide specific professional credentials or required training hours, and required a full half-day commitment.

Second, once registration was complete we found that the attendees did not match our planned target audience of service providers with little knowledge of local foods businesses. Instead, about half of the attendees had considerable experience with local foods businesses. In response, we altered the training to allow participants more time to share their own experience and expertise. In hindsight, we could have expanded this portion of the training even more. We learned that many participants attended the workshop in order to network with other knowledgeable professionals and gain potential referrals, rather than to gain basic knowledge of local foods businesses. Participants were eager for additional networking opportunities in the future. At the same time, our outreach to service providers who do not yet work with local foods businesses was not as successful as we had hoped.

Presentations from business owners were a highlight of the training; the 18 participants who completed evaluations ranked these 3.75 on a scale of 1 to 4. In comments, participants indicated that networking among service providers was also very important.

4. Compile a directory of service providers and make it available to agencies so that they can provide appropriate referrals to clients.

a. Information gathered from interviews and from the training session will be compiled in a directory of service providers which details their services and areas of expertise and their geographic service areas.

The directory of service providers has been created and is available on CISA’s website at this link: http://www.buylocalfood.org/page.php?id=767. We are pleased with the design of the directory, which is easily self-populated, allowing us to ensure that it is maintained and updated in the future. The directory currently includes 38 Massachusetts-based service providers. Several technical service providers have told us that they are already using the directory to make referrals.

5. Complete and disseminate a short summary of lessons learned from our research and training activities.

a. CISA will work closely with our advisory committee and the Franklin County CDC to compile this summary of lessons learned. We will also use the evaluations completed by participants in the training session.

CISA, the Franklin County CDC, and several other organizations serving farm and food businesses in Massachusetts and adjoining states are working actively together to identify ways to improve and continue the networking and training opportunities begun in this project.

In the research phase of this project, perhaps the most important lesson we learned was the value of a formal carefully planned and facilitated focus group. If the topic of the focus group conversation is of value to participants, they too can benefit enormously from this structured exchange of information and experience. This is a tool we hope to use again in the future.

We have some clear ideas about how to improve future trainings, including the following:

  • Increase the opportunities for structured networking within the workshop session, while maintaining opportunities for informal networking; Offer co-learning opportunities, in which business owners and service providers learn together; Recognize that co-learning opportunities are likely to attract a subset of service providers—for example, a workshop on food safety might attract both businesses and consultants who focus on food safety and process development, but would not attract accountants or business planners. Thus, continue to offer opportunities for cross-disciplinary training and networking to bring different service providers together; Create detailed case studies as a method of exploring challenges and solutions for sourcing local ingredients and the role of the service provider; Explore opportunities to provide training on the needs of local foods businesses at existing meetings of service providers, in order to reach more service providers who do not yet work with local foods businesses.

Through this project, we’ve learned a number of valuable lessons about how to develop a network of service providers attuned to the needs of local foods businesses, but we feel that we are still at the beginning of this process, and that a “lessons learned” document prepared for wide dissemination would be premature.

Introduction:

Rising interest in locally-grown food has led to growth in the number of businesses interested in providing processing and distribution services or using locally-grown ingredients to make value-added products. These food-based enterprises may be operated by farmers, or may preferentially source locally-grown food from local farms. They provide additional income and market opportunities for farmers, while making locally-grown food available in new ways and in new markets. Buyers, too, are interested in products made with locally-grown ingredients. Schools and institutions, restaurants, large and small retailers, and individual consumers regularly call CISA to inquire about locally grown processed products.

Current gaps in the infrastructure that brings food from the farm fields to the table must be addressed to ensure long-term viability of local farms and community access to local food. Community food entrepreneurs can provide valuable solutions, and excellent and appropriate technical assistance could help more of these businesses start and succeed. Their success will provide valuable new markets and income for farmers, while also creating a more complex, robust, and flexible web of local services and market outlets for agricultural producers.

Despite interest from buyers, the owners and managers of these food-based businesses face substantial challenges, many of them unique to businesses sourcing locally-grown ingredients. Like any new or expanding business, food-based entrepreneurs need to understand business planning, financing options, and management strategies. Businesses using locally-grown ingredients face additional challenges. The seasonality of many locally-grown ingredients presents challenges related to product sourcing, seasonal labor requirements, storage needs, financing, forecasting, and sales. Businesses must navigate a confusing and overlapping arena of local, state and federal regulations related to food processing and public health. Farm-based, family businesses must consider the challenges inherent in adding a new enterprise that will compete for the already limited time and attention of family members. All of these businesses must work to achieve price points that work for farmers and buyers as well as for the new business.

Conventional business development assistance and financing agencies are often unfamiliar with these challenges and with the innovative solutions food-based entrepreneurs devise. In this project, we identified, convened, networked, and trained existing small business development and support organizations to increase their capacity for meeting the needs of food-based entrepreneurs in western Massachusetts. We worked closely with the Franklin County CDC and their Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, a business incubator and shared commercial kitchen, to do outreach to service providers, design a directory of providers, and plan and provide training and networking. We are also active participants in both local and regional discussions of how to improve technical assistance for local foods-based businesses.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Amy Shapiro
  • Sam Stegeman
  • John Waite

Research

Materials and methods:

The overall design of this project is reflected in the objectives/performance targets section, above. The success of the project was based on two key strategies for learning and teaching: 1) Learning from the doers, the businesses themselves; and 2) Learning from each other, or networking and collaboration among service providers. Each strategy was employed during both the research and training stages of the project.

One key step was to design specific opportunities for learning from producers and food business owners, rather than relying on our existing, regular interaction with these businesses. We held a formal focus group, asking eight farmers and food business owners to comment on their technical assistance and financing experience and needs. The focus group was extremely valuable, both to us and to the participants. The questions we asked in the focus group are attached to this report (note that the focus group was supported in part with other funding). We also asked for specific input from food business owners when designing the training for service providers.

The business presenters at our training—a restaurant owner and buyer, a salsa producer, and a frozen yogurt producer—provided compelling examples of the challenges of using local ingredients and the solutions they have found. The business owners represented a variety of types of businesses and products, which allowed for a variety of different perspectives. The frozen yogurt maker, for example, explained why using local milk and yogurt is worthwhile to her business despite higher prices. The salsa maker, on the other hand, noted that sourcing local tomatoes allowed him to make a product that meets his quality standards at a lower cost than sourcing tomatoes through global markets.

Research results and discussion:

Many of the service providers who attended the training serve a wide variety of businesses, including food businesses. While some of these businesses source local ingredients, others do not. For example, an accountant provides bookkeeping services to many local restaurants. Gaining a better understanding of the ways that sourcing local ingredients benefits businesses, and how they balance increased costs if those exist, will allow her to support other restaurant businesses in making the switch to sourcing more local ingredients. Building greater understanding among the many kinds of service providers that food businesses use supports our long-term goals of building a local food entrepreneur-friendly climate and expanding markets for local farmers.

While outreach to the public was not a primary goal of this project, we did use examples from the training to illustrate to the public the benefits of building local business relationships through local food sales. This article from CISA’s monthly newsletter, which reaches 4800 people (open rate 30%), is attached to this report.

Workshop evaluations particularly noted the value of networking among service providers and suggested that more frequent opportunities for exchange of this kind would be valuable.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We compiled a list of business service providers through research and referrals, and used that list and existing networks to publicize the training and the service provider directory. As noted above, we found that personal outreach helped to ensure attendance at our training.

Project Outcomes

Success stories:

Service providers often have very specific expertise and do not routinely attend training sessions that cross professional boundaries. Those with expertise in, for example, nutrition analysis, food safety, and accounting do not commonly have opportunities to learn and network together. We found that direct and personal outreach to these service providers was necessary in order to explain our training session and encourage attendance. Once in the room, however, participants were eager for additional networking opportunities, and noted that they benefitted from the mix of people in attendance. Continued training and networking opportunities, coupled with the service provider directory, will build a network of service providers who understand local foods businesses and can refer clients to other providers with this understanding.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

In this project, we took two important steps towards building a network of trainers and service providers who understand local foods businesses. Our directory of service providers allows both farm and food business owners and other service providers to find consultants and trainers interested in serving local foods businesses. Through the training, we learned more about what information service providers need and how best to provide it.

As noted above, we feel that further training and networking opportunities are needed in order to build the skills of service providers and to create a robust network of service providers attuned to the needs of local foods businesses. We are working actively with partners to further these goals. We have outlined some more detailed lessons learned in the objectives/performance targets section, above.

Based on feedback from partners and evaluations from participants, our recommendations for future activities intended to strengthen technical assistance for local foods businesses include:

  1. Additional training and networking opportunities for service providers, including coordination with existing training and professional development activities in order to reach service providers who have little or no experience with local foods businesses. A case study approach may help to illuminate the specific challenges these businesses face. Co-learning opportunities, in which service providers and business owners learn together. Creative approaches to funding technical assistance for food businesses; one option, for example, is pre-development financing to support business planning.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.