Strengthening rural America through entrepreneurship

When asked if I see myself as an entrepreneur, I could tell that my answer (well, I farm, so I guess so) wasn't what the interviewer was looking for when he videotaped me at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 95th Annual Convention in January. In truth I am an entrepreneur, all farmers and ranchers are. My wife and I started a direct-to-consumer beef and lamb business several years ago. We looked at it as a way of adding value to our livestock and developing a new income source for our farm. Along the way we started to talk to friends and neighbors about the lack of processing facilities near our community.

That's why it's so exciting that AFBF and the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business Global Social Enterprise Initiative have announced a partnership to help strengthen rural America. This is the first offering in a multi-level plan to promote rural entrepreneurship. To kick this effort off, a series of interviews were conducted during the convention and I was lucky enough to be one of those interviewed.

Rural entrepreneurship is something I have spent most of my professional career working on. I started as an Extension agent in Western Kansas and part of my duties included community development. Currently I am the executive director of the Kansas Rural Communities Foundation and part of our focus is helping small, rural communities in Kansas find opportunities for growth. That opportunity many times goes back to developing entrepreneurs. Attracting businesses to our rural communities is a nice thought, but developing those businesses from within is a better long-term solution.

In my own situation, our farm is faced with increasing competition for land and that means the odds of expansion in the traditional sense of adding to our acreage is not a reality. We need to increase our income and that means jumping full-bore into the deep end of entrepreneurship. My interview made me realize that I had an idea but not a solid plan. I, like many entrepreneurs, need the help Farm Bureau and Georgetown University will be providing.

As farmers and ranchers, we are used to filling out net worth statements and developing budgets for our farms but translating and bundling that information into a winning package to secure funding for a start-up business is a whole new ballgame. I know many agriculture producers who have great ideas but need that extra help to bring them to fruition. Many of us have a ways to go, but in the end our success will mean the ultimate success of our rural communities.

This column is "to-be-continued," much like the last program of the season for your favorite TV show. The information about rural entrepreneurship gleaned from the interviews at convention will be used to help develop the components of the new program over the next few years. There will be much, much more available from this incredible partnership between the American Farm Bureau Federation and Georgetown University down the road. In other words, stay tuned.

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