The Business, Agriculture, and Rural Development technical assistance training program in the Maine Business School at the University of Maine has received a $292,000 award from the Small Business Administration.
The BARD program was founded by Maine Business School’s Stephanie Welcomer, professor of management, and Erin Percival Carter, assistant professor of marketing, to fill a gap between contemporary business education and agriculture in the region.
The program begins by recruiting students interested in business and sustainable agriculture through a competitive application process, and provides them with training to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to begin careers working with agricultural producers and processors. Students complete a semester-long training and research program centered on working directly with small-scale, sustainable, agricultural businesses to provide business consulting services tailored to the sector, including data-management, price-setting, financial and strategic forecasting, market segmentation, product development, market intelligence and consumer research.
The first round of the BARD program, completed in 2020, worked directly with Maine’s artisan cheese industry in partnership with the Maine Cheese Guild and the Maine Farmland Trust.
“Despite the fact that COVID hit in the middle of the semester, the results were really incredible,” Percival Carter says. “Those students worked closely with their farmer clients and with the incredible assistance of our industry advisors developed and presented full analyses and proposals at the end of the semester that were pretty exceptional. The need for that kind of advising exists across a number of agricultural industries in Maine and students are hungry for opportunities to work on something tangible and meaningful.”
This year, the program will focus on the fiber industry — including wool, alpaca, linen, hemp, and other plant and animal derived fibers — and the producers and value-added processors of fiber in the state and region. Fiber producers and processors in Maine recognize the general market and interest for their products, but struggle with a lack of information and guidance about how to manage production, price products to ensure profitability and position products to differentiate offerings in the minds of consumers effectively.
The BARD program will bring eager students together with fiber farmers, mills, dyehouses, retailers, designers and artists — along with experts in climate sustainability, business and sustainable agriculture — to ensure that Maine’s fiber industry is optimally situated to take advantage of market trends towards more sustainable textile production.
The SBA funding will help the BARD program extend and scale processes for developing a sustainable pipeline of agricultural service providers in the state with the education and experience necessary to effectively support the agricultural sector and foster rural development with quality business advising services, particularly for agricultural producers operating at a smaller scale or focused on producing more niche products.
“There’s a romance to farming that I know draws students in but over the course of the semester, they begin to appreciate not only the less-romantic side but the critical need for help managing the complexities of a business in an incredibly challenging industry,” says Percival Carter.
“At the end of the experience, we certainly hope that we have more students who consider future career opportunities in agriculture, and specifically agriculture in Maine. But even if they decide to work on something else, we know they’ll have had this experience where they used what they’ve learned to help reinforce something that really matters,” she said.