PA Food for Profit On-Line Project
Encouraged by increasing interest in local foods, farmers on small, traditional farms frequently consider selling their farm-fresh and value added products directly to the consumer. By selling their products through farmers markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture, local food producers aspire to minimize the number of hands (and cost levels) that products go through between farm and table, and thereby retain a greater percentage of the food dollar on the farm.
To begin selling food to the public, farmers (who may have previously focused primarily on production and harvesting) must develop a new skill set — preparing foods safely and legally, identifying and studying the facets of a niche market, setting a price that covers costs (while responding to what the market will bear) and creating a finished product that responds to legal and market expectations. Since these are not necessarily intuitive activities, education and research is often needed for a successful venture to be launched.
Since 1992, Penn State Extension has offered a one-day workshop, “Food for Profit” at which farmers wishing to add value and/or direct market are taught basic food business strategy. By addressing legal issues, food safety considerations, marketability, and profitability, would-be food entrepreneurs are empowered to decide if the notion of a food business is right for them. During the course of the day, participants are introduced to a network of sanitarians, Extension Educators, Small Business Development Center Consultants, and other professionals who can work with them individually so that the business gets off to a good start. While demand for this workshop has increased greatly in the past two years, resulting in more than 500 Pennsylvania and Maryland residents attending a session since fall 2010, post-workshop surveys indicate that the majority of students are 30 to 60 years of age. Since entrepreneurship is not exclusive to the middle-aged person, the participant profile suggests that other methods of imparting this information (especially formats appealing to younger students) are needed.
Younger farmers cite busy schedules (balancing the demands of off-farm employment, the farm itself and personal life) as a reason for not attending workshops. In addition, this group of learners stereotypically has greater comfort with information “coming to them” through the Internet rather than driving to a traditional workshop setting. To meet the needs of this group of learners (as well as their more senior counterparts), this project seeks to create a distance education version of the workshop — “Food for Profit On-line” making valuable food business information available 24/7, in a format compatible with production schedules, personal life and off-farm employment.
The second year of this project sought to build on the foundation that the team established with the College of Agricultural Sciences IT and eLearning personnel — conducting final editing of the distance education class, launching the course site, marketing it to aspiring food entrepreneurs, and evaluating the impact 3 months after class participation.
To this end, the Team assumed the completion of the course in January 2012, and planned to pursue the following activities throughout the second year of the grant:
Facilitation of pilot course registrants’ entrance into the on-line class and conducting a review of their post-module quizzes to assess the level of learning that took place. Evaluation of the materials’ usability and relevance through a standard pre-test/post-test on-line survey that was incorporated in the on-line course.
Following up with participants, three months after course completion, to gauge the adoption of concepts/skills learned and how these impacted on enterprise start-up, management and sustainability. For individuals making the decision to start a food business, impact would be measured by reports of the following actions:
1) creation of a business plan
2) contact with government entities for registration, permits and zoning issues
3) target market identification and steps to promote products to this group
4) completion of food safety certification training
5) initiation of the food enterprise in a home kitchen, community kitchen or stand-alone business location
6) development of appropriate, effective packaging and labeling for value-added items
7) assignment of a pricing structure that covers all costs, accounts for the distribution method, and allows for a profit
Work with eLearning personnel to film and upload a set of video interviews of successful farmers who add value and direct market, integrating these videos in the Food for Profit on-line class, to enhance the learning experience for participants once the class would move from pilot phase to a full launch in July 2012.
The project team experienced some major challenges in the final months of 2011, beyond their control, causing an unexpected slow-down in development of “Food for Profit On-line.” Most significant were eLearning personnel changes which resulted in new technicians being introduced to the project, and a virtual re-start of on-line classroom development at the beginning of 2012.
This necessitated additional oversight of the project, prior to launch. By building and maintaining contact with new eLearning and the course registration technicians, the project leader took the following actions to ensure development of the on-line course:
• Review of all previously-uploaded course chapters to ensure that the information was current and complete (accounting for the delay in course development).
• Creation of post-chapter quizzes as gate-keeping mechanisms (to keep students from moving too quickly through or completely skipping chapters that they felt not applicable).
• Creation of pre-course and post-course evaluations to gauge course knowledge and skill gains related to participation in the class.
• Review of each completed module to ensure that the flow was smooth, visuals were applicable, and audio segments were audible.
• Coordination with the College of Agricultural Sciences on-line registration administrators to create a registration web page for “Food for Profit On-Line” using the cvent application.
In July 2012, the site was ready to launch for preview and evaluation by internal reviewers. Accordingly, the project leader enlisted team members and Extension faculty and county staff to ‘take the class’ to troubleshoot and suggest updates.
At the end of September 2012, the course was opened as a pilot to the public; electronic publicity was sent to over 300 potential students, using a mailing list compiled by the project leader. As a result, 27 students signed up for this class by the end of the year.
This project will now extend it’s duration through October 2013 to allow the team to promote the course, gain more participation in the pilot phase of the course, and complete the Performance Targets listed above and will result in the development of an effective, on-line educational tool.
Arrangements were also made to begin filming interview segments in 2013 to upload for the post-pilot version of Food for Profit On-line, and contacts with successful farmers and food entrepreneurs were made to begin this process.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The significant outcome in the second year of the project was the development and launch of the pilot version of this on-line course.
This on-line pilot course has been accessed not only by food entrepreneurs in the North East Region, but also by those in other parts of the country who do not have “Food for Profit” programming available from their land grants and/or Extension systems.
In addition to educating farmers and food entrepreneurs, this course will be used as one of the components for the NE SARE Professional Development project to train Extension personnel and agricultural professionals to assist farmers in direct marketing and adding value. By having trainees access this on-line class, the project team have the assurance that all participants have a basic level of knowledge upon which they can build through a series of webinars and field trips so that they can lead future “Food for Profit” workshops with confidence.
Tait Farm Foods
179 Tait Road
Centre Hall, PA 16828
Office Phone: 8144662386
Apple Tree Vineyard and Farm
311 Cherry Hill Lane
Fairfield, PA 17320
Office Phone: 7176428166
Table Rock Farm
PO Box 256
2100 Table Rock Rd.
Biglerville, PA 17307
Office Phone: 7176774628
Jefferson Co Extension Director
Penn State Extension
Parker P Blood Block
180 Main Street
Brookville, PA 1582-1234
Office Phone: 8148497361