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Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

NC State University

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"Premium Partnership"-- Students gain real-world perspective on marketing through their work with independent farmers and environmental groups--- by Dee Shore.
Bob Usry (right) and Greene County farmer John Adams help Usry's students apply agribusiness marketing plans and principles. Photo by Sheri D. Thomas.

Ornate letter "G"
reene County hog farmer John Adams recognizes the important role that marketing plays in agricultural profitability.

“Our farmers are the best in the world when it comes to production,” he told a group of College of Agriculture and Life Science students who visited his farm in November. “But we don’t know what in the world to do with a crop after we raise it. We are realizing that we have a lot to learn when it comes to marketing.”

In a bid to help Adams and other members of an independent hog producers cooperative, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students are trying to figure out the best ways to sell locally produced pork free of antibiotics.

In their Marketing Analysis and Marketing Plans for Agribusiness and Life Sciences class, they are applying the principles they learn from instructor Bob Usry to a real-world marketing dilemma.

During the fall semester, the students developed a preliminary marketing plan. And those who enrolled for a companion course this spring will fine-tune that plan and prepare to present it to Adams and at a national competition in Kansas City.

“ I’m planning a career in agricultural marketing and sales, but I never had a class that was a real and hands-on as this one,” said student Christie Hendricks, a senior who grew up on a farm near Rocky Mount.

“ This gives us a chance to know how what we read in our textbooks applies in the real world — everything from production considerations to packaging, labeling, advertising and where to sell a product.”

Their marketing efforts build on a grant-funded project led by Dr. Nancy Creamer, Department of Horticultural Science faculty member who heads the Center for Environmental Farming Systems near Goldsboro. Creamer and others at N.C. State University designed the project to help small- and mid-sized family farmers compete with industrial-scale hog operations, protect the environment and support rural communities.

Their goal: to develop and promote an alternative production system that will allow independent hog producers to find economic success. In North Carolina, most hogs are raised by farmers under contract with large, vertically integrated corporate producers. Independent growers can have trouble accessing markets and being successful in a changing environment, Creamer said.

She believes that independent producers could tap new markets by raising pork with the environment, animal welfare and local communities in mind. Three production systems and product lines are proposed for investigation: antibiotic free, sustainable and organic.

With the grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Creamer’s team has brought together university faculty and students, members of nonprofit organizations and private producers together to explore alternative production and marketing systems.

Usry, in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, said his class’s “job is not to prove the environmental pluses or minuses of this alternative way of producing pork.”

Rather, he said, his class “is in some ways an experiment to see if consumers will vote with their dollars for food with less impact on the environment.”

“ The students are trying to figure out whether a segment of the market might be willing to pay a premium for a product they believe is environmentally friendly,” he explained. “This gives them a taste of marketing research that will contribute to their careers.”

Working with N.C. State, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and others, the farmers have chosen the brand name “Red Gate Farms” for their alternative pork product.

During their trip to Greene County, the students learned about Adams’ work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Consumer Protection Office in Washington, D.C., to ensure that the Red Gate Farms label meets their guidelines.

Visiting Adams at his Greene County farm, students hear about his marketing efforts. Photo by Sheri D. Thomas.

Through the label and other marketing efforts, Adams wants to convey four attributes of Red Gate Farms’ products: The meat is produced by local, independent family farmers. The farmers follow production standards to ensure quality and uniformity. The meat contains no added hormones, antibiotics or other chemical additives. And it offers the superior taste, marbling and color characteristic of the Duroc breed.

Usry hopes the students get a taste of what it is like for a marketing professional to interact with a client.

As he has done with past classes, Usry has taken a learn-by-doing approach in this upper-level undergraduate course. But this year, he added a service-learning dimension. Through N.C. State’s service-learning courses, students render public service in settings that allow them to think about academic material in new ways. Dr. Sarah Ash, an assistant professor of animal science, is leading the service-learning component of the Kellogg grant project and encouraged Usry to get involved.

Rather than taking tests, Usry’s students participate in “reflections” sessions guided by Lauren Welch, an N.C. State student who is a trained service-learning facilitator. They also write essays examining what they’ve learned from three perspectives: academic, civic and personal.

As to whether the service-learning students are learning as much or more about marketing principles as students in his previous classes, he said, “The jury’s still out.” But when it comes to thinking about the relevance and ethical dimensions of marketing, the current students are well ahead of past ones.

“ I’m seeing the students write at a greater depth about why this matters than I’ve seen in previous classes,” he said.

On the ride between N.C. State’s campus in Raleigh and Adams’ farm in Snow Hill, some of the students said the class gives them a better understanding of marketing while also broadening their views on agricultural profitability and environmental sustainability.

That profitability is part of long-term agricultural sustainability is something that student Anthony Lee learned during an Center for Environmental Farming Systems internship last summer. Taking Usry’s course and meeting Adams gave him a chance to think even more about the topic.

“ During my internship, I learned a lot about sustainable agricultural production and the environment,” he said. “But we had no limits on pricing and budgeting, and we didn’t have to worry about marketing except for selling vegetables on the brickyard. We could have a whole field of corn to die, and we wouldn’t have to care except to try to understand why.

“ This class has helped me to get more of the reality,” he said. “I’m trying to keep a broad view.

“ The more you learn,” Lee added, “the more you learn what you don't know."

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