Sustainable production and marketing using the cooperative model for a student-managed school farm cooperative

Progress report for LNC19-428

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $161,632.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2023
Grant Recipient: The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Center for Cooperatives
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Hannah Scott
The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Center for Cooperatives
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Project Information

Summary:

The OSU CFAES Center for Cooperatives will collaborate with the Agriculture Business Management program at Ohio Valley Career and Technical Center (OVCTC) on the project, “Sustainable production and marketing using the cooperative model for a student-managed school farm cooperative,” to enhance and examine the impacts of a student cooperative learning program.

Rural communities need innovative young entrepreneurs and effective models to develop them. In rural, Appalachian communities, economic opportunities are limited. For example, Adams County, Ohio ranks in the worst 10% of U.S. counties on an index combining unemployment, per capita market income, and poverty rates. Adams County has approximately 1,350 farms with average cash receipts of $28,798 per farm. As of 2016, there were only 502 private sector employment opportunities and the county’s median household income was $34,709.

 

Project Objectives:

The goals of this hands-on cooperative approach are to:

  • enhance students’ knowledge of
    1. business management, particularly co-op management;
    2. agricultural marketing and related concepts like regulatory compliance;
    3. sustainable farm production practices; and
    4. agricultural enterprises in their region.
  • develop students’ skills in strategic planning, project management, and communication;
  • improve the school farm’s financial health; and
  • develop tools to implement similar training programs for young agricultural entrepreneurs.

Approximately 25-35 students will receive training annually.

Outreach activities will raise awareness of the model among educators and the agricultural community in Adams and surrounding counties.

Introduction:

The Center for Cooperatives will educate OVCTC students on the cooperative business model and best practices in co-op management, collaborating with a retired cooperative executive to provide real-world perspectives. Agricultural marketing experts will teach students about marketing concepts like pricing, packaging, and customer demographics. The Center will collaborate with local farmers and agricultural leaders to share their experiences using innovative marketing and environmentally sustainable production practices, exposing students to innovative approaches and developing their agricultural knowledge. Center staff will assist students in developing marketing and environmental plans for their enterprise, developing their planning and business management skills. Students will then implement these plans on their cooperatively managed school farm using seed funding from this project. Center staff will collaborate with students to monitor project activities and outcomes to determine successful strategies for teaching young people about the cooperative model and fostering entrepreneurship in rural communities. Team members will assess the success of these strategies on the school farm by tracking activities and examining the farm cooperative’s financial health. Team members will examine changes in students’ knowledge and attitudes and gather feedback on education techniques. Using this information, the team will develop a digital toolkit for cooperative developers, educators, and Extension professionals to create similar cooperative learning programs for youth farms, greenhouses, and gardens.

Cooperators

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  • Dennis Bolling (Educator)
  • Christie Welch (Educator)
  • Bill Wickerham (Educator)

Research

Hypothesis:

Generally, this project will begin with an intensive training and planning process that will be followed by an implementation effort to enhance existing and utilize new approaches in marketing and management on the school farm. The project team members hypothesize that student training and development of a marketing and environmental plan for their school farm cooperative will enhance the farm's financial health and environmental sustainability. The culmination of this project will also result in resources for other agricultural educators interested in hands-on youth entrepreneurship training. 

Materials and methods:

The proposed project is a collaboration between the CFAES Center for Cooperatives and the OVCTC’s Agribusiness Management program to enhance, examine, and develop tools and best practices around a hands-on cooperative learning program. The nature of this project will be highly collaborative with Center staff working directly with Mr. Rhonemus, the instructor at OVCTC, and students at OVCTC. Two members of the Center staff will dedicate their time and expertise to the project; one of those staff members, Joy Bauman, will serve as the ‘cooperative coach’ for the students and Mr. Rhonemus. Joy will interface with the students and Mr. Rhonemus on a regular basis, facilitating trainings, providing technical assistance with plan development and implementation, and helping carry out outreach activities. The Center will also engage a network of cooperative leaders, Extension educators, and experts to provide valuable training and learning opportunities. Mr. Rhonemus and Center staff, in partnership with a farmer-leader in the community will engage networks of local farmers and agricultural leaders to provide learning opportunities for students.

Generally, this project will begin with an intensive training and planning process that will be followed by an implementation effort to enhance existing and utilize new approaches in marketing and management on the school farm. In the final phase of the project, the team will assess the success of implementation activities and build tools and resources that others can use to create hands-on cooperative learning programs based on the outcomes of this project. The following detailed approach will guide the project. Figure 1 provides a visual timeline of the approach.

Year 1

In Year 1, the project team, including Hannah Scott, Joy Bauman, and Luke Rhonemus will coordinate trainings and learning sessions for students centered on agricultural marketing, environmentally sustainable farm production practices, and cooperative business management. Specifically, students will complete Market Ready training with Christie Welch, the Direct Agricultural Marketing Specialist with Ohio State University Extension. Market Ready is a curriculum developed by Dr. Tim Woods at the University of Kentucky to help agricultural producers plan for direct marketing their farm products; the training examines concepts like pricing, understanding customer demographics, and thinking critically about product placement.

Financially healthy agricultural enterprises require informed management and management skills can be valuable assets to young entrepreneurs. Because their student cooperative is in its infancy and almost half of the students in the program are new to the vocational school each year, students will receive cooperative management training throughout the entire project. The Center for Cooperatives staff will educate students on the basics of the cooperative business structure, including governance and finance, and introduce students to a variety of cooperative enterprises. The Center will use its online curriculum, Co-op Mastery: Beyond Cooperatives 101, and associated workbooks for these sessions. Dennis Bolling, former CEO of United Producers, Inc., will train students in cooperative management best practices based on his real world experiences. Mr. Bolling will provide training on co-op management topics four times in the first year of the project. Two sessions will be trainings for all student members of the co-op while two sessions will take the form of counseling sessions with the student board of directors.

Additionally, the project team will coordinate one learning session each year with a cooperative leader from the region who will share information about their cooperative, discuss cooperative model concepts, and provide insight into cooperative management issues. Although, the first year of the project did not include a cooperative leader learning session due to changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, future years will include such sessions. Co-op leaders will also provide insights into the role that agricultural cooperatives play in agribusiness and opportunities for future careers. The project team will engage their networks of cooperative professionals for these learning sessions. Learning sessions with Mr. Bolling and cooperative leaders will be valuable opportunities for students to develop rich understandings of cooperative management, to spark ideas for improving their cooperative farm’s operation, and to expand students’ professional networks.

Throughout the life of the project, the project team will coordinate twelve learning sessions with farmers in Adams County and the surrounding region to discuss their own enterprises with students. These sessions will give students the opportunity to learn about real-world applications of the concepts they learn in trainings, to develop their awareness of agriculture in the region, and to expand their professional networks. The project team will engage farmers utilizing innovative approaches to marketing and environmentally sustainable production practices and farmers will be encourage to talk about both marketing and production practices. For example, the project team will engage farmers using direct marketing of niche products, cooperative marketing, or entering new markets with new products. The team will work with Bill Wickerham, a farmer in Adams County marketing grass-fed beef and Wildlife Specialist with the Adams Soil and Water Conservation District.

Transfer of knowledge will be accomplished with classroom lessons, online lessons utilizing the Center for Cooperatives’ curriculum, Co-op Mastery: Beyond Cooperatives 101, and on-farm activities.

At the outset of the project, students will complete a survey assessing their understanding of and attitudes about agricultural marketing concepts, cooperative business concepts, environmentally sustainable production concepts, and other topics as appropriate. At the close of each project year, students will retake this assessment and the project team will track changes in students’ knowledge and attitudes. Additionally, in Year 1, the project team will measure the following items to assess outcomes and gather information for the toolkit they will develop based on the project.

  • The number of trainings completed, the concepts explored in those trainings, and the number of students completing each training
  • The effectiveness of training techniques and topics using short feedback forms collected after each learning session
  • Whether the students utilize any new production or marketing practices on the school farm as a result of learning opportunities

Year 2

In Year 2 of the project, while students are completing learning sessions and trainings, the project team will work with students to research and write their own marketing and environmental management plans for their cooperative farm enterprise. This exercise will teach students skills in critical thinking, business planning, and communication. These plans will become the scope of work for the implementation activities of the project.

In addition to the trainings discussed in Year 1 that will be repeated in Year 2, students will also complete in-depth trainings on other topics closely associated with direct agricultural marketing as determined by the project team and the market planning process. These trainings may include such topics as sales best practices or regulatory compliance. The project team will use their extensive networks to identify appropriate trainers for these topics.

Building on the foundation of knowledge and skills they have established through the project, students will use the marketing and environmental plans developed for the co-op as a scope of work to implement new or enhance existing marketing practices for their farm enterprise in Year 2 and Year 3.

The student co-op, along with Mr. Rhonemus, and with the assistance of Center staff and appropriate experts, will implement these plans. The intentional exploration and planning process will determine the activities, ensuring that they are based on a solid foundation of information. Using their plans, students will create an implementation budget and scope of work using seed funding from this project. Seed funding will be used to purchase supplies and services for plan implementation. Because the detailed plans will be developed as a part of the project, specific supplies and services cannot be identified at this time, but may include such items as specialized packaging for meat products or greenhouse products, brand development services, or hosting fees for online management and markets. Students, with the help of project team members, will track these activities and associated financial information.

Students will complement their hands-on implementation activities with additional learning sessions with farmer and cooperative leaders and additional trainings in cooperative business management, as outlined previously. Additionally, students will complete an additional training in agricultural marketing concepts with the OSU Extension Direct Agricultural Marketing program, which will act as an introduction to new students entering the program and a refresher for students entering their second year with the cooperative.

Prior to the implementation phase of the project, the project team will gather baseline financial data from the school farm cooperative, including member investment, income statements, and balance sheets from the prior year. Throughout the project implementation, students and Mr. Rhonemus will collect information on costs and income for all implementation activities. At the close of the second and third years of the project, the project team will assess the economic viability of the farm and various marketing activities using indicators such as equity invested, profit generated, patronage refunds returned,

As with Year 1, at the close of Year 2, students will retake an assessment to track changes in their knowledge and attitudes. During Year 2, the project team will also measure the following items in order to assess outcomes and gather information for the toolkit that will be developed based on the project.

  • The number of trainings completed, the concepts explored in those trainings, and the number of students completing each training
  • The effectiveness of training techniques and topics using short feedback forms collected after each learning session

Year 3

In Year 3, students’ training in cooperative business management will continue, addressing new topics as students assess their implementation activities and make financial decisions for the farm business based on the impacts of those activities. For example, it is expected that students will begin seeing revenue changes for the farm in Year 3 based on implementation activities started in Year 2. These revenue changes will necessitate decision making about surplus allocation and distribution, which are important aspects of cooperative management and areas that will be addressed in training sessions. 

In the first half of Year 3, the project team, in conjunction with student cooperative leaders, will develop a toolkit that can be used to develop similar hands-on cooperative learning opportunities. The project team will gather tools and resources used throughout the project and will draft descriptions of activities completed as a part of the project. Team members will analyze changes in student knowledge and attitudes from pre and post surveys and will aggregate and analyze feedback from learning sessions. These results will be incorporated into the toolkit as appropriate. Team members will analyze financial outcomes of marketing activities implemented during this project, including revenue generated and costs incurred, and any changes in the enterprise’s overall financial health. Results of these analyses will be included in the toolkit as appropriate. The project team will engage a graphic design service to format and package the toolkit in a visually appealing and accessible manner that will be available in a digital format. The digital toolkit will be made available through the OSU CFAES Center for Cooperatives webpage as well as to NCR-SARE for inclusion with resources on that webpage.  The digital toolkit will be released at the close of the school year in Year 3 of the project – May 2022.

As the toolkit is developed and project outcomes assessed, the project team will work with students to propose, develop, and present outreach presentations as discussed in the Outreach section of this proposal. Finally, at the suggestion of Mr. Rhonemus, students will plan and execute a field night to share the practices they have implemented on the farm, including sustainable marketing and production techniques, with community members.

In Year 3, the project team will track the number of individuals reached by in-person outreach activities and the number of times the digital toolkit is accessed online. Team members will also gather evaluations at in-person presentations based on the NCR-SARE Research and Education Program Outreach Survey.

View Workplan Timeline

 

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Student education is a major component of this project. Project partners are focused on developing learning opportunities that allow students to gain knowledge based on the real-world expertise of industry experts. Learning opportunities, which include sessions led by university experts and industry stakeholders, are focused on topics that are relevant and directly applicable to the students’ farm enterprise. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has had to alter training plans to convert many activities to virtual formats in compliance with state, local, University, and school district requirements. Project team members are focused on making educational sessions as engaging as possible, regardless of their format.

Project Activities

Team Planning Meeting
Cooperative Education Session
MarketReady™ Training
MarketReady™ Training
Marketing Plan Workshop
Cooperative Education
Cooperative Management Training
Cooperative Board Management Training
Cooperative Management Training
Cooperative Board/Management Training
Farm Management Training Session
Cooperative Business Education Session
MarketReady™ Training

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Outreach promoting the project activities and outcomes have not been planned as the main project is still ongoing. Outreach activities are planned for the latter half of the project.

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Sustainable livestock production
  • Environmental management practices
  • Soil erosion reduction
  • Cooperative finance
  • Cooperative governance
  • Cooperative management roles and responsibilities
  • Cooperative business model
  • Agribusiness marketing (product pricing, understanding target consumers, etc.)
  • Agribusiness marketing planning
  • Agribusiness marketing costs

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:
    Recommendations:

    2020 Progress

    During the first year of the project, team members hosted various educational sessions with students training them on the following topics, among others:

    • Cooperative business model and management
      • Cooperative roles and responsibilities
      • Cooperative finance
      • Cooperative governance
    • Agribusiness marketing
      • Agribusiness marketing planning
      • Agribusiness marketing costs
      • General agribusiness marketing concepts
    • Sustainable farm management
      • Rotational grazing and forage management
      • Soil erosion reduction

    In total, students engaged in 12 learning sessions from the beginning of the project through December 2020.

    Students also completed a general pre-project survey and pre-tests to assess their knowledge of the topics listed above. Students completed a post-test for the cooperative business model and marketing topics following the end of the 2019-2020 school year in the summer of 2020. Project team members will assess this data to understand changes in student’s knowledge.  

    Project team members gathered baseline financial data from the Ohio Valley Career & Technical Center school farm. Project team members reviewed and categorized the farm’s income and expenses for 2019. Prior to the implementation of the marketing and environmental plans, team members will develop a baseline balance sheet for the school farm. Financial information will then be tracked throughout the implementation phase of this project to measure changes in the financial situation of the farm.

    Some of the activities planned for Year 1 have been delayed to Year 2 due to delays caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency. Specifically, the development of the marketing and environmental plans will take place in Year 2 and early in Year 3 with implementation occurring in Year 3. Additionally, the ability to engage outside speakers was limited, so the cooperative leader training for Year 1 was postponed along with farmer training sessions. Finally, the specialized consultation in marketing was delayed and will now take place in Year 2 and 3 as students develop and implement their marketing and environmental plans.

    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.