Agritourism and Agribusiness Entrepreneur Training, Assistance and Product Marketing in the Eastern Alabama Black Belt

Final Report for CS05-037

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,956.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Barrett Temple-Vaughan
Tuskegee University
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project sought to foster a group of new and current agribusiness/agritourism entrepreneurs to capitalize on the expanding markets in East Central Alabama. It was an innovative, regional coordination of the rural- and urban-based services of three primary entities—Tuskegee University, the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center/Visitors Center, and the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development—to train, assist, and provide a marketing center for the entrepreneurs. The project also involved the cooperation of state and local government, extension, and financial institutions. The training of a select group of community members took place at the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development in their 12-session NX Level Entrepreneurial University. These entrepreneurs were assisted by the Tuskegee University Rural Business and Economic Development Program with individual consulting and referrals and attended workshops given by the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development. A centralized marketplace, real and virtual, was initiated in the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center/Visitors Center for the products of the entrepreneurs, and technology resources were made available there for their use. The potential impact and expected results was to be a strong group of community business leaders who would positively influence agricultural and community sustainability in the Eastern Alabama Black Belt.

In this project, eighteen entrepreneurs with existing and new businesses were sent through entrepreneur training. Among those entrepreneurs and businesses represented were an organic vegetable producer, handmade wooden furniture maker, fruit/tree resort owner, aquaculture producer, value-added peanut product maker, value-added sweetpotato product company, an agricultural product development specialist for a non-profit, and a farmers’ market coordinator. In terms of the demographics of the eighteen entrepreneurs trained: thirteen were female; nine were under 40 years of age; ten were creating new businesses; all attendees were Alabama Black Belt county residents, though eleven lived in particularly rural areas. Of the eighteen sent to the training, fourteen met the minimum attendance criterion for participation, and seven of those completed business plans. In addition the entrepreneurs engaged in additional training and networking activities: two entrepreneurs received additional business training from the Tuskegee-Macon County Community Development Corporation; four entrepreneurs interacted with other business people at the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce sponsored Minority (and Women) Enterprise Development Week Conference; the organic vegetable producer networked with an urban entrepreneur who desired organic fruits for an organic soy-based frozen desert product. By the time of the project’s end, at least one of the new business entrepreneurs had obtained his business license, at least one had applied for a new business loan, and at least two had received technical assistance from the resources that they were exposed to.

Introduction

The purpose of this project was to promote sustainable agriculture and community development by cultivating agribusiness and agritourism entrepreneurs to establish successful small enterprises that take advantage of the growing housing development and expanding tourism market opportunities in the Eastern Alabama Black Belt. In the State of Alabama, the issue of rural development has a number of challenges that other Southern states, even neighboring Mississippi and Georgia, do not face. For one, a well-funded and well-staffed rural development initiative, though planned, has not yet been established within the state government. Another is the situation that many rural communities have economic development plans and programs that do not incorporate their neighboring jurisdictions in a cooperative manner. These and other challenges in Alabama have been documented by the Economic Development Institute, offering a comprehensive view of the crisis in rural Alabama (Lee and Sumner, 2003). In addition, they observed that “the old industrial recruitment model (or “smokestack chasing”) has little to offer much of rural Alabama” (Lee and Sumner, 2003). These issues are particularly critical in the rural regions of the state known as the Black Belt were persistent poverty exists. The Economic Development Institute outlined a number of strategies for both the state government and rural communities (Sumner and Lee, 2004). The strategies for rural communities include (1) developing a strong and diverse cadre of community leaders; (2) creating and carrying out a strategic plan; (3) joining with other jurisdictions to maximize economic resources; (4) embracing innovative economic development strategies; and (5) providing a better quality of life for residents (Sumner and Lee, 2004). Sumner and Lee (2004) state that, “in successful rural communities you inevitably find leadership, planning, partnerships, creativity, and a good quality of life”. This project addressed the first and third strategies forwarded by the Economic Development Institute, particularly in developing strong community business leaders and maximizing resources by joining with other jurisdictions. The focus was the agricultural sector of the economy with an emphasis on promoting sustainable agriculture in as much as community development.

The East Central region of Alabama is a growing area with the housing, commercial, and industrial development from the Auburn-Opelika to the Eastern Montgomery areas. This growth has prompted the establishment of new farmers’ markets in Auburn, Tuskegee, and Eastern Montgomery within the last few years. The appeal of direct to customer marketing of produce and other agricultural products has been shown through the continued success of these venues for agribusiness. In addition, tourism has grown in the East Central Alabama region because of new and renewed points of interest in Auburn, Tuskegee, and Montgomery. An indicator of the increased growth of tourism is the significant number of new hotels and surrounding restaurants that have been built within the last few years along Interstate 85 from Montgomery to the Alabama-Georgia State Line. In the geographical center of this growth is Macon County, where there are four major points of interest—the Tuskegee National Forest, the U.S. Park Service Dr. George Washington Carver Museum and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Site, which have been recently renovated and rededicated, and the new Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which has been designated by the County as the Visitor Center.

This growth in population, marketing venues, and tourism interests represents an extraordinary opportunity for new enterprises to capitalize on the interest in the region. However, in many cases, it has not been the persons currently in the rural communities who have been able to take advantage of these opportunities, particularly from a regional perspective. This project identified members of the rural community in East Central Alabama who had an interest, as well as a potential for success, in agribusiness/agritourism, supported their entrepreneurial training, assisted them in developing their new enterprises, and initiated a plan to provide a marketing outlet for them in the new Visitor Center. Through these actions, this project hoped to develop a community-based group of agribusiness/agritourism entrepreneurs who can take advantage of the new market opportunities.

The impact of this project will be seen as these businesses grow and employ persons in the community, because they are community-based. These businesses will also attract more tourism to the area as new points of interest. These new and the existing businesses can then be publicized as a “package” of interests in the Tuskegee/Macon County area. Another impact of the project was the conceptualization of rural economic development within the target area as a regional issue and responsibility. The coordination of services from both the rural and urban areas emphasized the connectedness of the counties in the region. As Sumner and Lee (2004) asserted, “A regional approach does not mean focusing on rural needs at the expense of their metropolitan neighbors. Strong cities need strong towns and vice versa. When rural Alabama prospers, so will urban Alabama”. The participants in the program gained a larger sense of the available markets and opportunities. They also were able to network with other business that they can serve and be served by.

As to this project’s relevance to sustainable development, the training, assisting, and product marketing effort for agribusiness/agritourism local entrepreneurs contributed jointly to agricultural and rural community sustainability. In terms of sustainable agriculture, this project developed new agricultural-related enterprises. In addition, it improved the sustainability of current agricultural producers by helping them to access new markets and develop plans for new value added products to increase sales and profits. Of particular interest was new enterprises that market the agricultural products of small farmers, where the farmers would receive a fair price for their goods. As the products of the agribusiness/agritourism entrepreneurs are marketed at the Visitor Center, they will serve as a demonstration of the success of agricultural-related business. When viewed by youth, this will potentially encourage them to consider agriculture as a career thereby sustaining the workforce in this vital national sector. This project simultaneously supported community sustainability by potentially creating jobs in the area. This may be potentially significant with the development and processing of value added products and regional marketing efforts. An increased marketing and processing will necessitate more production from the area’s farmers. With increased tourism, the staffing needs at the agritourism enterprises will have to be met to accommodate the visitors. The service industry sector—gas stations, restaurants, hotels, retail, etc.—in the area will also profit from the increased traffic to the area.

Project Objectives:

1. Identify potential agribusiness/agritourism entrepreneurs from the community, provide for their entrepreneur training, and support the completion of their business plans.

2. Assist the entrepreneurs to further develop and implement their business plans through connecting them with Tuskegee University outreach and extension, state and local government assistance, and the commerce and financial institutions in the region.

3. Establish a centralized agribusiness/agritourism product marketing and service referral function within the County-designated Visitors Center at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center for the entrepreneurs.

Research

Materials and methods:

1. Identify potential agribusiness/agritourism entrepreneurs from the community, provide for their entrepreneur training, and support the completion of their business plans.

The project was advertised through the Tuskegee University Rural Business and Economic Development program and Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center to small farmers and other community members. An effort was made to select qualified participants with a consideration for obtaining a diverse mixture of gender, age, ethnicity, background, experience, and business interest.

Program participants were trained in the NX Level Entrepreneurial University, which is offered twice annually by the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development. The NX Level Entrepreneurial University uses a curriculum designed by the University of Colorado called NX Level for Entrepreneurs. NX Level for Entrepreneurs is a 12-session course designed for would-be entrepreneurs who want to expand their knowledge on how to develop a small business and the skills necessary to make it grow. Participants develop a comprehensive business plan during the course to act as the road map for future growth. NX Level is designed to help potential and existing entrepreneurs learn the skills needed to create and strengthen successful business ventures. The Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development courses include experienced business educators with prominent business leaders as guest speakers at each class session, networking opportunities with local business leaders and other participants, and one-on-one business counseling and support. The class sessions include: an introduction and overview to entrepreneurship; planning and research; management and legal structure; marketing analysis; marketing implementation; financial overview; managing your money; cash flow projections; understanding your financials; alternative sources of money; the deal making process, and; your business future. The class sessions are held twice yearly beginning in February and August and held in Montgomery, Alabama. The cost of the course is $150, which includes a textbook, workbook and a resource guide.

A similar entrepreneur education course is occasionally offered by the Macon County Community Development Corporation; however, it was the intent of this project to develop within the participants a more regional perspective on the business and market opportunities by diversifying the location of their experiences. This approach also maximized the resources available in the region for this type of training and allowed the Rural Business and Economic Development program staff to focus on assistance efforts with these entrepreneurs. The program participants were reimbursed for weekly travel expenses to and from Montgomery.

The entrepreneur training was be supported by access to electronic resources Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center. Two desktop computer systems were installed at the Center for the use of the program participants during and after the training.

2. Assist the entrepreneurs to further develop and implement their business plans through connecting them with Tuskegee University outreach and extension, state and local government assistance, and the commerce and financial institutions in the region.

Technical assistance was offered to the entrepreneurs through the Tuskegee University Rural Business and Economic Development program, Small Farms Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Project, and the College of Agricultural, Environmental, and Natural Sciences as well as the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

The project also afforded the trainees the opportunity to attend business training programs offered by the Tuskegee-Macon County Community Development Corporation and other programs sponsored by the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development such as the Minority (and Women) Enterprise Development Week. Additional library resource were also identified for distribution to the entrepreneurs as supplements to the NX Level training.

3. Establish a centralized agribusiness/agritourism product marketing and service referral function within the County-designated Visitors Center at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center for the entrepreneurs.

The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center currently has a marketing function for historical literature and related products. This project initiated the adding of an agribusiness/agritourism product sales and service referral aspect. The marketing of the entrepreneurs’ products will be on-site and a component of the Center’s website, with the potential of electronic commerce. Staff persons from the Center have been working with personnel from Tuskegee University and the entrepreneurs to develop the products to be marketed, particularly those products that will be sold directly at the Center. This assistance included packaging selection, labeling, preservation, advertising, and other assistance which needed to be rendered by the expertise at Tuskegee University or and other appropriate sources. The Center will also refer potential buyers to the entrepreneurs and other vendors who will be selling agricultural products at other locations such as the new Macon County Farmers Market and on their farms.

Research results and discussion:

1. Potential agribusiness/agritourism entrepreneurs from the community were identified, their entrepreneur training was provided, and the completion of their business plans was supported.

Eighteen entrepreneurs were identified over the one year project for the two sessions of business training. Of the eighteen, five were men and thirteen were women. Nine entrepreneurs, half of the group, were under forty years of age. All of the attendees were residents of the Alabama Black Belt counties of Macon, Montgomery, and Lowndes, however eleven of them lived in particularly rural areas. All eighteen were members of an ethnic minority group (African-American) underrepresented nationally in business ownership. Ten entrepreneurs were developing a new business enterprise, whereas eight were planning for the improvement for existing ventures. The business enterprises included: an organic vegetable producer, a handmade wooden furniture maker, a fruit/tree resort owner, an aquaculture producer, a value-added peanut product maker, a value-added sweetpotato product company, an agricultural product development specialist for a non-profit, and a farmers’ market coordinator. The enterprises also included: a family entertainment center, a decorative arts/interior design business, a bookstore/tea shop, a day care, a visitors center in a rural community, an adult day care center, a lawn care business, a proposal writing business, another day care, and a youth workforce/professional development seminars company.

Certificates of participation in the business training were awarded for 10 or more sessions attended; seven entrepreneurs received this certificate. Certificates of completion of the business training were awarded to those who submitted a completed business plan; seven entrepreneurs submitted business plans and received this certificate. One of the entrepreneurs who completed a business plan was awarded reimbursement for the course as an award; these funds were returned and used to send another student to the course.

The two desktop computer systems installed at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center were used by the program participants to refine the completed business plans.

2. The entrepreneurs were assisted to further develop and implement their business plans through connecting them with a variety of resources and offering them additional training and networking experiences.

Following the NXLevel training session, two of the entrepreneurs were encouraged and did attend additional Macon County specific business training at the Tuskegee-Macon County Community Development Corporation. A relationship was developed between those entrepreneurs and the Community Development Corporation for continued individual technical assistance. At the time of the second NXLevel training session, four of the entrepreneurs attended the Minority (and Women) Enterprise Development Week Conference which was sponsored by the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce. The conference included motivational speakers, a minority business exposition, and several business workshops and networking opportunities. As a result of their attendance, the entrepreneurs were able to network with others for future business-to-business opportunities (i.e. banking, magazine advertising, and promotional product sales). This project also had the goal of encouraging rural-urban business networking opportunities for the rural entrepreneurs in the training. An example of this occurring was when the rural organic vegetable producer had a discussion with an urban entrepreneur who was looking for a source of organic fruits for an organic soy-based frozen desert product.

By the time of the project’s end, at least one of the new business entrepreneurs had obtained his business license, at least one had applied for a new business loan, and at least two had received technical assistance from the Tuskegee University Rural Business and Economic Development program and the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

3. A plan was initiated for the establishment of centralized agribusiness/agritourism product marketing and service referral function within the County-designated Visitors Center at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center for the entrepreneurs.

The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center was at the time of the project’s end under partial construction and renovation. However, plans were initiated for real and virtual selling of the entrepreneurs’ products. The staff from the Center were in discussions with the value-added peanut product maker, the value-added sweetpotato product company, and the decorative arts/interior design business—specifically for decorated/painted dried gourd squashes—to sell their products in the center store.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

A journal article submission is planned with feedback on the program from the program participants. The results of this project will be reported through research and extension channels.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Of the eighteen entrepreneurs sent to the training, fourteen, about three out of four attended the majority of the training, and seven, about three out of eight, completed the business training. This level of participation/completion is equal to or better than that of the particular sessions that they were in and that of national trends. This is a particular accomplishment because most of the attendees were rural residents and all were part of an ethnic minority group that is underrepresented nationally in business ownership.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

The businesses that were started or enhanced will potentially contribute rural economic development in the forms of job creation and additional agricultural production/raw product marketing.

Future Recommendations

There were a multitude of requests for additional training and technical assistance, particularly on electronic commerce—website development, e-mail marketing, and online selling of products. This would represent an area for future work.

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.