Many things in life are easier said than done. Farmers are encouraged to build stability into their business by growing specialty crops and tapping value-added markets. That’s fine if the markets exist, but they often don’t. In a seemingly unrelated issue, colleges are turning out students—sometimes shouldering massive debt—to an ultra-competitive job market where even entry level positions often demand experience. How are they to gain experience without first getting a job?

A unique program at Montana State University helps tackle both issues. Their Farm To Market course pairs real farmers who are interested in developing a value-added product with a team of students who are challenged to take on the task for them.

“These are graphic design students, sustainable food and bioenergy systems students, and marketing students,” says Mary Stein, leader of the MSU sustainable food and bioenergy systems program.

Farm to Market students Karl Berentsen (marketing), Holly Zeller (graphic design) and Clancey Craig (architecture) prepare their Squeezelove hummus.

Each team of 3-4 students works closely with a farm to identify an area of waste or opportunity. They then create a product to capitalize on the identified target. Moving forward, they are tasked with creating packaging, designing a label, and building marketing and business plans for the product. Neither agriculture nor many of the assigned tasks are comfort zones for the students.

“The whole process gets the students out of their silo of content knowledge and pushes them into a more creative problem solving space mimicking a real world team approach to problem solving. There’s this intersection of disciplines that normally wouldn’t work together and the synergy and results are amazing.”

The class is funded by a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture, so students thus far have been focussed on making products from Montana specialty crops such as lentils, chickpeas, mustard, honey, and vegetable crops among others. In the three years the class has been offered, student teams have concocted a vast array of products, including hops-infused sorbet, a vegan lentil pate and fermented vegetable products to name a few. Stein notes that agriculture is an excellent industry for this interdisciplinary learning opportunity.

“There are some very hairy problems around food and agriculture,” she says. “It’s the perfect platform for students to come in and address a problem from different angles. You can’t look at a complex system such as food or ag from one vantage point. You have to look at it as a system.”

Brown mustard from John and Vanessa Bays farm is ground to flavor a squeezable hummus created by their team.

Fertile ground. John and Vanessa Bays fall on the adventurous side of the farming spectrum. On their Wilsall, Montana, farm they grow spring wheat, winter wheat, flax, brown mustard, peas, and chickpeas, produce honey, and have dabbled in growing sunflowers and even quinoa. Soil health and sustainability have driven their move to no-till and a diversified rotation, but they’re ready for more.

The Bays have long entertained the idea of creating a value-added product using one of their crops. Seeing their crops through to an end product was a tantalizing idea for the pair. They’ve produced the base for untold thousands of meals, yet feel woefully disconnected from seeing the product of their toil enjoyed by the consumer.

“You sell a load of wheat to United Grain. It’s dumped on a train, unloaded onto a ship at Vancouver and heads to Taiwan. Is that even food production?” John laments. Creating something they could produce and sell locally was especially appealing.

When the Farm to Market faculty team approached them to participate in the 2017 course they happily agreed. “We’re so busy farming we never had time to pursue anything on our own. Pairing up with the kids seemed like a great idea,” Vanessa says. In addition to time, the Bays realized they lack many of the specialized skills needed to develop and prepare to market a product.

“If we had to come up with everything on our own we would have to lay out some significant money for things we couldn’t do ourselves, like designing a label,” Vanessa says.

Meta Newhouse reviews label prototypes with Zeller.

Graham Austin, co-founder and business faculty member for the Farm To Market class, says recipe creation and testing, consumer panels, brand development and design work similar to what the students produce in the project could run a farmer well upward of $100,000 if hired out.

One student group really nailed the naming process, creating a brand that subtly tied back to their farm’s existing brand. “To me, it’s a 6-figure idea,” Austin says. “How much did Coca Cola spend when naming Dasani? That is hard to put a value on.”

Down to business. Each semester the class spends some time as a group working on practice scenarios and visiting the farms. Farmers show them their crops and try to help the students get an idea of their life, their crops and their goals. For the Bays, that included a strong emphasis on sustainable practices and a focus on their family and community.

“Our granddaughter insisted on taking them out to dig worms in the field,” John recalls. “I think it helped drive home to the students how important taking care of the soil and being sustainable is to us and why.”

Farm visits are among Stein’s favorite part of the class. “You can just see this click of understanding in the students as they ask questions and start to build connections with the farmers,” she says. These connections help guide them when they return to campus and get to work.

The class bases out of the Design Sandbox of Engaged Learning (DSEL)  lab, a space built for collaboration and creation. Meta Newhouse, DSEL lab director and graphic design professor helps them through the process.

They identify the problem, come up with an idea and determine if it’s scalable. “If it can help one farmer, great, if we can help more farmers that’s even better,” Newhouse says. Next they do packaging and label design and prototyping before moving on to testing.

Bays’ team focussed on chickpeas and delivered a squeezable hummus  condiment they coined Spreadlove. Three flavors—spicy mustard, wasabi pea and ginger honey—incorporate the Bays’ other crops as well. “It was such a good and unique idea,” Vanessa says. “I expected to see what the kids produced and say ‘Oh, that was fun,’ but after tasting it and seeing their design, we want to move forward. I really didn’t expect that.”

Past farmer partners felt the same. The student team who produced fermented vegetable products for Strike Farms ended up incorporating and partnering with the farm to produce and sell their products under the brand they created, Farmented Foods.

“Farm to Market was by far the most influential class we (the founders of Farmented Foods) ever took at MSU,” says Vanessa Bakken, former student and founder of Farmented Foods, LLC. “It set us up for success by providing resources and connections to propel our venture forward.”

The Bays hope to move forward in a similar fashion. “The team came up with such a great idea how could we not do it,” John says.

Newhouse looks forward to branching out to animal agriculture and other states when their specialty crop grant expires. For more information, e-mail meta.newhouse@montana.edu. 

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