Secrets of food-biz success: University of Md. Extension helps would-be entrepreneurs make a profit from food

February 21, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Jeanne Dietz-Band feeds Oz, a mulefoot hog, at Many Rocks Farm near Keedysville. Dietz-Band has raised goats for meat and milk on her farm for most of the past decade. Recently, she added heritage-breed ducks, chickens and hogs to her food-based business.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

On the eve of Y2K, Jeanne Dietz-Band was a molecular biologist living in Montgomery County and working in the Washington, D.C., area.

Now she lives on Many Rocks Farm, a small farm near Keedysville, and runs a successful food-based business. She raises goats for meat and milk, and, recently, she expanded into raising heritage livestock.

"I was raised in Kansas and wanted to get back to the farm," Dietz-Band said.

The first few years after Dietz-Band and her husband, Allan Band, moved to Keedysville, they built fences, outbuildings and other farm infrastructure. They also got to know other producers in the area.

Perhaps most importantly, Dietz-Band sought local resources to help her operate a successful, food-based business.

This was not as easy as it sounds.

"When I first began, about five years ago, it was extremely difficult to find information," Dietz-Band said. "It wasn't till I talked to food-protection people at the state level that I found out what I needed. Now I feel really good."

Make a profit from food

University of Maryland Extension offices have noticed a surge of interest in starting food-based businesses.

To meet the need, University of Maryland Extension collaborated with Winifred McGee, a Pennsylvania State University Extension educator based in Lebanon County, Pa., to present an all-day class, Food for Profit, in several counties in Maryland.

Dietz-Band will join extension presenters in leading Food for Profit in Washington County on Tuesday, Feb. 28. The class is already filled to capacity, according to McGee.

"There's a lot of excitement for Food for Profit. I have been in extension since 1990 and I have taught versions of the class for 20 years," McGee said. "But it has evolved. I think along with the desire people have to make a business, there's more of a demand for local foods."

To market, to market

Dietz-Band said developing a farm-based business for the local market was always her goal. But she didn't want to undermine her farmer-friends' businesses.

"All my goat-raising friends make cheese, and I didn't want to compete with them. So I learned to do soap and lotion from the milk," she said. "(And) I started selling goat meat — sausages and all kinds of cuts. Now I have diversified into heritage breeds of pork. And this year I've added Cubalaya chickens and heritage ducks."

One aspect of a food-based business new business owners must master is following safety regulations. Dietz-Band said she knew she would need to learn about relevant state and federal laws.

"If I make soap, and I follow (Federal Department of Agriculture) package-labeling standards for soap — include ingredients and weight — that's OK," she said. "But if I say it softens the skin, then it's a cosmetic, and there's a whole other set of regulations. If I say it relieves aches, then it's a drug. So, for me, I just say it's soap."

A business, not a hobby

Dietz-Band said developing a food-based business selling hundreds or thousands of units is different from simply growing tomatoes, canning 30 jars of Uncle Joe's spaghetti sauce and selling them to co-workers.

"One thing, if they're a small producer, there's always issues involved in scaling up," she said. "Look into that very carefully. You have to learn to do things more efficiently. My business consumes all my day, and my days are long."

There are other considerations. Some food-based facilities must be certified by state or federal inspectors. Certain products, such as meat, have regulations for storage and packaging.

After following all the safety regulations, there is the issue of developing a market for your product. Once customers take a liking to a product, they want a steady, consistent supply.

"Once you have a market, they depend on you. You can't not have a product," Dietz-Band said.

Follow the rules

Ginger Myers, director of the Maryland Rural Enterprise Development Center, will also be a presenter at the Food for Profit class.

She thinks attendees might be surprised to learn about food-safety regulations.

"Some people have been hesitant to get started. A lot of times, it's the regs (they're afraid of) — 'Oh, my god, I need a stainless steel whatever for my kitchen,'" Myers said. "Actually, the regulations are a little easier than they think. But you do need to follow the regs and you can't be haphazard."

This month's Food for Profit class is already full, and there is a waiting list. Another class has been proposed for the Eastern Shore, Myers said, but there's plenty of helpful information available online. The Maryland Rural Enterprise Development Center website, , has information on food processing, business planning and financing and much more.

The website has podcasts and webinars featuring extension experts, plus videos from other sources, including Cornell University and Martha Stewart's TV show.

Dietz-Band said people considering starting a food-based business need more than just a good idea.

"My first level of advice is to go through the thought process that would go into a business plan — infrastructure, fencing, vehicle requirements, licensing requirements," Dietz-Band said. "Without careful thought, without planning, you're setting yourself up for failure."

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