January Web Exclusive

MBAs and Agriculture

MBAs and Agriculture

by J.F. Pirro
        At an annual conference like the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) Farming for the Future, Becca Zinn often gets a quizzical look or two at her vendor table promoting the Enterprise Management Consulting (EMC) program that's part of the Temple University Fox School of Business.

        They all wonder what a business school, especially an inner-city business school, is doing at a farming convention. "I tell them that I can't tell them how to grow anything, but I can tell them how to sell it," she says.

        While there seems to be a natural connection between farming and producing for profit, the required capstone course for Temple MBA candidates, who work in teams, is a bit unique. The program pairs students with real-world, fee-paying clients with the goal of delivering research, a strategic plan and corresponding financial models.

        Teams of four or five students are assigned a project manager to study various business models, problems or issues that require consultation, recommendations and solutions in various industries. The typical 15-week engagement is a chance to apply book knowledge to practical problems.

        Since the program's inception in 1999, Temple MBAs have completed roughly 200 projects (about 30 each year)--10 of which have been related to farming and food systems--particularly in the last five to eight years under the leadership of Temple associate professors James W. Hutchin, EMC's director of sustainable strategies, and TL Hill, EMC's managing director.

        "We're helping mostly small-scale farmers overcome hurdles, especially barriers associated with farming close to urban centers (like Philadelphia), where land is so expensive," says Zinn, a graduate of the program and now an EMC associate director.

        Other than EMC's two projects with PASA as a client, and two others with PASA serving as a technical adviser, agricultural clients have included Weavers Way, a natural food grocery and co-op in Philadelphia. Teams have also tackled such dilemmas as expanding Fair Food Philadelphia's operation outside of Reading Terminal Market and extending farming acreage at Pennypack Farm in Horsham, Pa.

        These opportunities help the students gain diversified experience in preparation for the future. Many plunge into new directions, like farming.

        Take Vivek Kodati. He had always lived in cities in his native India, before arriving in Philadelphia. For him, farming was an absolutely new experience. His previous life experience and education focused almost exclusively on engineering and computer science.

        "It's one reason I chose farming," he says now. "I did not have much of a sense about where our food comes from. All I knew is that it came from the supermarket to me."

        One of two EMC-PASA engagements, the team Kodati worked on before graduating in 2011 followed up on an initial team's study that focused on the feasibility of connecting new, often organic, farmers to landowners to lessen the burden of a major initial capital expense--land--to make it possible to start farming even in closed-in, expensive urban areas. That's territory essential to newer-age farmers' markets that can feed large populations and generate large revenue sources for good local growers.

        Kodati's team helped PASA tap into one of its major functions: connecting nontraditional farming parties, those new farmers, with longtime independent or association-based landowners. The project examined whether it's better for a new farmer to own or lease land. The team's conclusion: Lease it.

        "What has been especially valuable to us might sound funny, but the graduate students generally know nothing about farming," says Marilyn Anthony, PASA eastern regional director. "That's actually an asset. They bring no assumptions about the way a farming business should be run, or a farm's financial performance, margins, etc. As a result, they come with an open mind and a lot of penetrating questions. The Temple folks we've worked with have no sacred cows when it comes to evaluating what makes a farm a successful business."

        As a follow-up, even after graduating, Anthony asked Kodati to use his computer science skills to design a website that would help unite new farmers and landowners. The result is farmleaseconnection.org.

        "Anyone who works with PASA gets so close to the source of our food system," Kodati says. "We had the opportunity to meet farmers. We spent a day on the farm, and for me that was the first time since my childhood. It's a whole different world when you get that close to nature."

        What his team learned is that the traditional farming model, one in which the farmer owns or inherits his land, does not have to be the only model. A farmer does not have to buy land to farm, but rather can lease it. "If a farmer can find a landowner, it can be a business model that works and he can have a sustainable farming business," Kodati says.

        Once that model was established, Anthony and Kodati helped re-examine the next model: Word-of-mouth isn't the most efficient way to unite these shareholders. Using the eHarmony online dating model, Kodati's site seeks to introduce farmers to landowners, getting them on the same page.

        "Most [EMC] projects just offer consulting for the client, but we implemented something with ours and that was exciting," he says. "We had an end product. I don't see myself going into farming, but if I can help expand the business aspects of farming, I'm interested."

        The program's connection to agriculture has been a win-win for everyone. "We believe beginning farmers especially benefit from this level of business scrutiny and insights as they begin to define their aspirations not just to grow food, but to grow a business," Anthony says. "It's also gratifying to see these future business leaders gain respect for farming as a profession as a result of working with sustainable farmers."

        A current EMC project focuses on lending capital in the agricultural sector. "The agricultural world offers our graduate students a great experience, especially if it's something they haven't been exposed to," Zinn says. "It's a deep, rich industry, and our work in it has been received quite positively."

        Often students and administrators from the Fox School follow up with clients, and that feedback is used to help advise future clients and projects. Many past clients are also willing to work with new students and share advice.

        "The agricultural world and the business world should work together," Zinn concludes. "When we all collaborate effectively, we're able to pull it all together based on unique, credible ideas that are better for both sides. Each side, and each group, can learn from the other, and only then do we see what we didn't see before."
        The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.

        Photos courtesty of Marilyn Anthony, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.