Business Feasibility, Marketing, and On-line Direct Marketing; In-depth Training to Better Serve Sustainable Agriculture Business

Final Report for ENC09-109

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $73,984.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Project Information

Abstract:

The goal of this project proposal was to increase the small business knowledge, skills and confidence of recognized public sector agricultural experts in Nebraska and neighboring states so that they can better consult with sustainable agricultural producers as they formulate and develop business enterprises. Specifically, it was designed to increase the: 1) number of agricultural clientele assisted; 2) diversity of sustainable agricultural ideas that move to the marketplace; and 3) quality of the feasibility, marketing and online direct marketing web site plans of agricultural producers contemplating the development of sustainable agricultural business enterprises.

Project Objectives:

The project had both process and impact performance targets. Process target indicators were: • the number of participants actively involved (includes counts on the number of participants attending trainings and webinars) • the level of consistency of participant expectations with program delivery and of the project resource dispersal as per a telephone survey with participant’s mid-way through the project. Impact targets are divided into both short-term and intermediate-term. A pre and post survey was the cornerstone of the impact assessment. Indicators closely follow the proposed logic model and they included: 1) Short-Term • the level of awareness of the importance, functions, and interaction between the components of a feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing web site plans; • the level of knowledge on the resources available to help participants collaborate with producers as they develop a feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing web site plans; • the level of motivation in working with producers as participants take sustainable agricultural ideas into the marketplace; • the level of confidence in working with producers as participants take sustainable agricultural ideas into the marketplace; • the level of skill in working with producers as participants develop feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing web site plans. 2) Intermediate-Term • the number of sustainable clientele assisted (in the development of feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing web site plans); • changes in educational programming to integrate knowledge of feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing web site plans; • confidence in discussing a wide range of sustainable business ideas with producers as they develop feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing web site plans; • confidence in discussing in-depth sustainable business concepts as it relates to the development of feasibility, marketing or on-line direct marketing web site plans • quality of the business advice or suggestion as it relates to the development of feasibility, marketing or on-line direct marketing web site plans; • the number of peers that are consulted on issues relating to sustainable agriculture feasibility, marketing and on-line direct marketing plans. 3) End of program case study, “Guidelines for Improved Practice ” In addition to the quantitative data, qualitative data in the form of on-line focus groups interviews/comments were initially planned at the end of the grant period during the late fall of 2011. This process was modified and the use of a website discussion board/blog was substituted as a form of communication for the group. The blog was established in the winter 2010 and spring of 2011 and several times questions and comments were posted but the group never fully used the technology as a tool. It was hoped that the blog, housed on the Nebraska SARE website, would spark comments in areas such as self-reflection (e.g. “What helped me improve my ability to work with sustainable new businesses?”) and actual actions with potential new entrepreneurs (e.g. “What resources or techniques worked best with this clientele group?”) would emerge. To compensate for the low participation on the blog, a select group of participants were asked for their input on “lessons learned” so that a list of initial “promising practices” for the target audience and for the participating institutions could be composed as they work to build human capacity in this area.

Introduction:
Background

In rural areas there are often traditional agricultural professionals nearby to help producers with the latest production issue or challenge but there are seldom experts who can help these same producers see a new untraditional market or develop a successful niche marketing plan. The goal of this project proposal was to increase the small business knowledge, skills and confidence of recognized public sector agricultural experts in Nebraska and neighboring states so that they can better consult with sustainable agricultural producers as they formulate and develop business enterprises. Specifically, it was designed to increase the: 1) number of agricultural clientele assisted; 2) diversity of sustainable agricultural ideas that move to the marketplace; and 3) quality of the feasibility, marketing and online direct marketing web site plans of agricultural producers contemplating the development of sustainable agricultural business enterprises. The goals of the program were accomplished in 2010 and 2011 through: 1) three face-to-face trainings and a series of follow-up Internet webinars; 2) the development of a web-based “tool box” of resources, which will include regionally relevant agri-entrepreneur examples; 3) new/strengthened educational individual and institutional networks, and 4) and an evaluative case study. Outside Changes Affecting the Plan – During 2011 several unplanned organizational events with our public partners did impact the project. The USDA Resource and Conservation and Development programs nationwide were disbanded, and Iowa State University and South Dakota State University had substantial reorganizations within their Extension Service. Participants that had originally been enrolled in the program were no longer a part of it so changes were made to adapt to this new situation. One of the major changes included creating a new method to evaluate the project because the follow-up evaluative case study was no longer realistic. These changes also seemed to have other effects on the impact targets that were identified. The reprioritization of Extension affected the commitment of some of the current participants to this particular project, especially when it came to the on-going effort to work with an entrepreneur during the project. Initially each participant had identified an entrepreneur to work with during the project. During 2010, early in the project, several of the participants noted that their entrepreneur was no longer wanting to work on this project due to a variety of reasons (health, market change, family change, etc) so it became a challenge to find another person mid-stream for several of the participants, especially after the reorganization. Other participants found that the information was not timed quite right for immediate application to their entrepreneur so application was hindered. Other roadblocks seemed to come up for participants including the general need to reprioritize their workload due to the Extension reorganization. Realizing this fact, project impacts were still documented as part of the process, however the impacts that had been initially planned for the project have now been modified to fit the new reality.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jim Crandall
  • Connie Hancock
  • Charlotte Narjes

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

The methods used to accomplish program goals included: 1) three face-to-face trainings and a series of follow-up Internet webinars; 2) the development of a web-based “tool box” of resources, which will include regionally relevant agri-entrepreneur examples; 3) new/strengthened educational individual and institutional networks, and 4) and an evaluative case study.

Outreach and Publications

Several publication efforts were developed as a result of the program. 1) Agri-Marketing Toolbox – After exploring several options it was decided to attach the agri-marketing site to the current Nebraska SARE website to enhance future use and to help make the site a “one-stop” shop for sustainable entrepreneurs and service providers (http://nesare.unl.edu/agrimarketing). Key areas of the site include: • Discussion Board - available to participants • Media Resources – 21 resources listed • Professional Resources - 39 links listed • Agri Marketing Resources - 33 links listed • Programs/Organizations – 44 links listed 2)“Direct Marketing of Speciality Food Products” was developed with University of Nebraska and North Dakota State University expertise. Rather than use a traditional presentation, the material was developed using a web-based interactive magazine-like format for increased user interaction and broader audience exposure in the future. Go to: http://go.unl.edu/directmarketingfood. 3) Key video interviews with entrepreneurs were added to the website toolbox so participants can access them as they work with ag-entrepreneurs. Go to http://nesare.unl.edu/agrimarketing for details.

Crandall presented at the 2012 NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, Missouri. A video of this presentation can be viewed online through NCR-SARE's YouTube channel. Copy the following URL and paste it into your browser to view the presentation:
https://youtu.be/z6m630Dyb28?list=PLQLK9r1ZBhhEGdL7uvTM8P0AzdBnksONr

Outcomes and impacts:

During 2010, the project completed: • One of the three planned trainings, “Building Feasibility” ; • The development of the website toolbox and started populating the toolbox with marketing and partner resources. Go to http://nesare.unl.edu/agrimarketing for details. • A telephone interview with approximately two-thirds of the participants to look at process performance targets in an effort to get their feedback on the program format, content and delivery. Building Feasibility – Fifty-three participants registered for the entire three training Agri-Marketing series. Approximately 45 attended the first session on “Building Feasibility”. Of the 53 registered, 23 had connections with the University of Nebraska (via Extension or the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture), 9 were from other states with affiliations with Cooperative Extension (Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota), 7 were from USDA Resource Conservation and Development Councils in Nebraska, 2 were from USDA Rural Development offices within the state, and 12 were from various state and non-profits providers including the Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska Public Power, Nebraska Food Cooperative, Antelope County Resource Center, Nebraska Enterprise Fund, and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development - Division of Tourism. The diversity of public providers is seen as a real asset to the program and is a significant recruiting accomplishment. Agri-Marketing Toolbox – After exploring several options it was decided to attach the agri-marketing site to the current Nebraska SARE website to enhance future use and to help make the site a “one-stop” shop for sustainable entrepreneurs and service providers. During 2011, the project completed: • Four webinars following the “Building Feasibility” session were held to reinforce the initial session - average attendance was approximately 18 participants • Two of the three planned trainings, “AgriMarketing Concepts” with approximately 40 participants in attendance and “Direct Marketing of Speciality Food Products” with approximately 28 participants • “Direct Marketing of Speciality Food Products” was developed with University of Nebraska and North Dakota State University expertise. Rather than use a traditional presentation, the material was developed using a web-based interactive magazine-like format for increased user interaction and broader audience exposure in the future. Go to: http://go.unl.edu/directmarketingfood. • Key video interviews with entrepreneurs were added to the website toolbox so participants can access them as they work with ag-entrepreneurs. Go to http://nesare.unl.edu/agrimarketing for details. • A summary of selected participants “lessons learned” to build upon for future trainings • An annual and final project report Webinars following the “Building Feasibility” session – University of Wisconsin faculty presented additional information that was customized to the needs of the audience. Topics highlighted several hands-on ways to access meaningful Census data for specific feasibility studies and interviews/discussions with entrepreneurs about their trials and tribulations with local and national market development. AgriMarketing Concepts – was presented by Jane Eckert, with Eckert AgriMarketing, focused on several key learning objectives: 1) understanding the key components in assessing a farm’s current business in terms of its future potential for agritourism; 2) recognizing the difference in pricing the ag-experience versus a farm commodity; 3) recognizing the ability to adequately assess the key components of an effective website; 4) increasing confidence in recommending low cost marketing promotion solutions for the ag entrepreneur; and 5) increasing the participants ability to assist the farm in making overall marketing recommendations for their new or existing venture. Direct Marketing of Speciality Food Products – was presented by Glenn Muskie, North Dakota State University Extension Specialist, and University of Nebraska Extension Educators Connie Hancock, Jenny Nixon and Jay Jenkins. Learning objectives included: 1) developing greater awareness of the role information technology plays in developing a online business marketing strategy and/or sales; 2) encouraging the development of comprehensive proactive marketing planning; 3) sharing examples of how online tools can be used and adopted (Interviews with business owners using the tools will provide exposure to options for using Internet technology in the food retailing business including the positives and the negative as well as implementation ideas); and 4) awareness of existing resources so that the one’s on-line presence can be managed easier.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Telephone Interviews with Participants

Interviews were conducted with participant in December of 2010 and in January 2011 to get some feedback on the program and to see where the program may need to be fine-tuned to meet participant expectations. A series of seven questions were asked of approximately 30 participants. General themes included: • Participants were using the information in a variety of ways (examples: in high tunnel workshops, in conjunction with a local foods/food safety workshop, as presentations at two statewide conferences – Nebraska Women in Ag and Nebraska Agri-Tourism Conference, incorporating the information into publications, and with local entrepreneurs one-on-one) • Key learnings included ways to data mine for market information/trends and basic questions to use in the self-assessment process. • They appreciated knowing that other providers were out there like they were… somewhat hesitant in giving feasibility suggestions. They also were excited about the upcoming topics and the ability to interact with others during the sessions. • Challenges included a couple of program implementation details (they needed a reminder about where the toolbox was located and the November training date). One issue that did surface was the challenge in identifying an entrepreneur early to work with during this training process. Approximately half of those interviewed had to make other plans because the entrepreneur changed their plans… some decided not to pursue the idea further, there were health and employment issues stopping the process, financing changed, partnerships dissolved, etc. Participants were working to find other entrepreneurs to work with as well as being creative in other ways to use the information in the short-term (many of them were developing programs or materials to reach groups of people contemplating the start of a business). • There was wide variation in the intensity of participant use of the information. One person interviewed was still searching for an initial entrepreneur to work with during the training program to one participant who was working with up to 35 entrepreneurs in various stages of business development.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

In 2010 and 2011, both before and after each training session, the participants indicated their awareness, knowledge, motivation, confidence and potential skills that were targeted for each learning objective using Turning Point, a computer software survey system. In each area increases were noted following the session. Listed below are the pre and post results for the overall questions that were asked before the initial session in 2010 and at the end of the final third session in 2011. Two noteworthy revelations appear: both the participants level of confidence and their skills (from their personal assessments) approximately doubled (combining agree and strongly agree for their level of confidence: before = 32.5%; after = 57.6%; combining agree and strongly agree for their level of skill: before = 27.3% and after 57.7%)

Future Recommendations

"Lessons Learned"

Selected participants were sent an electronic survey asking for insights about their experience with this project. They were encouraged to offer “lessons learned” from a project process, personal and organizational perspective. Themes included: • The expectation to work with an agri-entrepreneur all through the training was admirable but not practical. Things happen and priorities change for both the entrepreneur and the service provider. Many remarked that a very good relationship needed to exist between the entrepreneurs and the educator prior to the event for that to have been successful. The training did provide many participants with a lot more confidence to answer entrepreneurial questions and address topics in educational programming which participants appreciated. Information was put to use in many unique ways. Several programs evolved and incorporated this training information within Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa Extension as a result of this opportunity. • You can’t force people to blog or comment no matter how “interesting” you make it. It made sense to include a self-reflection aspect to the experience but it cannot be dictated by program planners. • The combination of training topics was good and the pace, over a year and a half, worked out well (except for the fact that so many institutions were changing). The time factor allowed the group to start implementing the information and informally share what was happening. It also provided an opportunity to present both breadth and depth to topics. While some felt the time frame was a little long, having some spacing between workshops was beneficial to many in both the absorption of materials and scheduling. • The project offered a nice mix of service providers that do not often get together to network. This group is so busy helping entrepreneurs that they seldom have time to really think about collaborating in new ways. • The group probably knew more than they thought they did but lacked confidence and a few tips on getting key information and resources (esp. the Census information for building a feasibility study).

Information Products

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.