Field Notes Blog

< View All Blog Posts

SBDCs Help Businesses Get started

We recently interviewed Winifred McGee. Winifred is a previous Penn State extension educator who now works for the University of Scranton's Small Business Development Center, or SBDC. Winifred will teach us about SBDCs and their role in helping entrepreneurs and small business owners get started and establish successful businesses. Listen to the full episode with Winifred here:


For our listeners who might be unaware of SBDCs, could you explain them and what services they provide?
The SBDCs are a network of consultants, each center affiliated with their host college or university, that provide free confidential one-on-one consulting to current or potential business owners and free low-cost educational programs. There are 16 centers across Pennsylvania covering all 67 counties that are part of more than 900 centers nationwide. No matter where you live, there's an SBDC ready to welcome and support you.

We can provide our services free of charge because of funding from the Small Business Administration, state dollars through the Pennsylvania Department of Community, and Economic Development support from our host educational institutions. Along with providing individualized consulting and group training sessions, our business consultants provide clients with information tailored to support their own business startup and growth, research data that expands their industry knowledge, tools to expand their business management ability, and quality referrals to other agencies and individuals to enhance each person's path to business ownership. In short, we help all types of small businesses to start, grow, and prosper.

Where do you see the greatest opportunity for SBDCs to help the agricultural industry?
In Pennsylvania, some of the centers have historically worked with agricultural businesses, most notably the University of Scranton's Small Business Development Center, for whom I am a part time consultant. I was hired specifically to support farm and food businesses. However, our focus across the state was broadened by funding that came from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act or CARES Act for short. This allows Pennsylvania Small Business Development Centers to create an Agricultural Center of Excellence that is focused on assisting farmers who need to reinvent or pivot what they're doing during COVID 19. The center helps them to select and use effective business-focused strategies and tools to augment or replace what they've been doing as we move toward what's been repeatedly called the new normal.

Teaching farmers how to use a business model canvas, a one-page mini business plan, to scope out what they used to do and then redesign their future seasons is an important aspect of what we do. We have worked with farmers whose product demand grew as customers turned to local producers for fruit and vegetables, meat, and other necessities, when they were quarantined or when the store shelves were bare. We helped those producers determine the right investments in the short run and helped them to build strategies to hold onto those customers when the shelves began to fill again. We have had a lot of different things we've been able to offer established farms as well as startup farms here in Pennsylvania.

What are some common themes you've found with successful startup businesses?
I will have to give my extension cohort, Lynn Kime, credit for this statement: you really need to start small. You don't need to put together a large business all at one time, and sometimes you have to keep your day job for a while before a full launch. What's really scary is when I hear someone say that every adult on the new farm has quit their off-farm employment to devote all their time to an untried business. The bulk of Pennsylvania farmers usually have some type of off-farm job that is helping to bring in the family living resources, if not part of the resources that shore up their farm business.

For startup businesses, it's the same type of idea. I encourage people to do the research, don't get ahead of the game, don't put the cart before the horse, talk to other farmers. Also, be ready to admit that sometimes you need to try out your business ideas before getting started yourself by going to work for someone else who has a farm like the one that you want to start.

When I co-taught the Exploring the Small Farm Dream class, startup farmers were encouraged to interview established producers to get a sense of the market, the demands of the job, and the risks and rewards. I think that's an important part in relation to sustainability for any new business venture. You really need to get a good idea of what you're getting into before you get into it so it's not just the small farm dream.

Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share with our listeners?
Earlier I mentioned our Ag Center of Excellence. As we head through the fall and winter meeting season, we have several events coming up. One of those programs is co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and it's going to talk to farmers about seeking grant funding. Everybody's gotten really excited about grants, but we're going to provide a level-headed idea of exactly what grants can do for you and what they can't do for you in that session. That'll be on December 8th in the evening.

Some of the other workshops in January and February will be about how you can make your business plan work for you. It's especially geared toward farmers who want to take the next step beyond writing a business plan to making sure it's a daily management tool that they use and not just a loan proposal. We are also going to put together a series and offer it under the Annie's Project Banner, Know Your Numbers, which is specifically directed to female farmers who want to get a better grasp of how to put together and use their financials to make their business work smoother.

Even if you're not in our eight county area that the University of Scranton covers, I suggest that you go to our website, which is www.ScrantonSBDC.com, and hit the dropdown for “About Us” and check out our “Ag Center of Excellence” page. Not only will the workshops that I mentioned be listed there soon, but there are a number of on-demand recordings that we did through last spring and early summer that you may have missed in relation to ag marketing and direct marketing of agricultural products.


< View All Blog Posts