Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources
Extension focus on small businesses could pay big dividends
No worries, though. The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service can help.
Extension business development coordinators, Lisa Bryant and James Arati, exist to provide assistance to small businesses, typically 500 employees or less, throughout Oklahoma.
“The thing James and I want to do is help people be more successful. It’s really enjoyable to help someone achieve their dream,” Bryant said. “It brings you a lot of satisfaction and we just want to do whatever we can to help people in Oklahoma.”
The two newly created positions are the products of a partnership between Extension and the Oklahoma Small Business Development Center.
The steadily growing client base for Arati, who began in August, and Bryant, who started in December, currently includes mostly startup businesses from a variety of industries.
However, the duo expects to eventually focus primarily on supporting and assisting small farmers and ranchers, food processors and distributors, farmers markets and others within the local foods market across the state.
Specifically, their objectives are two-fold. On the Extension side, they are charged with developing educational workshops, curriculums and Fact Sheets to help small businesses in the local foods markets. As business advisors, they provide confidential, one-on-one business advising in a range of areas such as business conceptualization, marketing, operations and financials, defining organizational structure and more.
All services are provided free of charge to clients.
“Our research shows people who seek the counsel of the Oklahoma Small Business Development Center are three times more likely to be successful,” Bryant said. “We are contracted by the Small Business Administration to provide free counseling to Oklahoma’s small business entities. Whether it’s market or geographical research, help with a business plan or any other business need, we can help or put you in contact with a partner who can.”
Between the two of them, Arati and Bryant have quickly established a client roster of about 40 clients. The goal by the end of the year is to build up to working with an average of two to three clients daily.
Interestingly, local foods, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as the direct or intermediated marketing of food to consumers that is produced and distributed in a limited geographic area, is in high demand these days.
As a result of this popularity, the partnership with the SBDC and the newly established roles could help Extension potentially reach new audiences.
“The Extension business development coordinators are playing in a very popular space right for an audience Extension typically hasn’t reached before,” said Dave Shideler, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension community development specialist.
The local foods movement is populated by a mix of growers who may or may not have prior agriculture experience or be familiar with Extension – some are multi-generational farmers who may know of Extension, some may be raising gardens and selling the resulting crops as a second career and some are simply passionate about potential environmental, local economic and social impacts of local foods.
Bryant also sees two distinct generations prominently involved in local foods – retirees looking for something to do and interested in growing their own food. Some of these may have heard of Extension but many have not been exposed to its programs and services.
There also is a younger generation, which is keenly interested in living off the land and bringing their children closer to nature. While they are far removed from past generations who lived off the land and worked closely with Extension agents and educators, they are receptive to the wealth of information available through the organization.
“Our partnership with the Oklahoma Small Business Development Center is building the name recognition of the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service,” Bryant said. “Many of those small businesses have not had exposure to Extension in the past.”
Arati said that while these types of clients haven’t been flowing through Extension, now that they have been exposed to the organization, it’s helping to draw more people.
“What I think it has mostly turned out to be, in my view, is we have started bringing the economic sense into activities people are doing, especially those small businesses that didn’t think they could make a living off it,” he said. “That’s where I think we are creating that opportunity for people to see, ‘Oh, I can build my business out of this small operation I have.’”
Meanwhile, Shideler said the urban agriculture components that go along with small-scale farming and ranching, which is how most local foods are being produced, could point to expanded programming opportunities for Extension.
“There are the practices people are using to produce local foods. It’s not something Extension has pursued programmatically. There is some horticulture, aquaponics and vertical agriculture, but for the most part, Extension is a very commodity-oriented organization,” he said. “My hope with local foods is to really bring some capacity to the specialty crops and small farmer and rancher sides of the business, which again spills over into urban agriculture, which is a potentially new program area for us.”
The partnership is not one-sided. It is beneficial to the SBDC as well. In fact, the hope is, going forward, Extension and the SBDC can more effectively leverage each other’s strengths.
“We have the opportunity to use the tools within the SBDC and also the SBDC depends on tools that are available through Extension. We do share across the board,” Arati said. “I think it’s a relationship that’s beneficial.”
Ultimately, the goal is to help small business owners succeed and Bryant sees plenty of opportunity for them to do just that.
“Opportunities abound whether you are already farming or have an interest in producing your own food,” she said. “Existing farmers probably already have land and many of the resources to add another crop to diversify their farm. Urban farmers have a great location and access to marketing opportunities. By working together, we can build our network throughout the state so we can reach more consumers with healthy foods.”
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