By Ken Bustin
The Pendleton County Economic Development Authority holds periodic Business Roundtable events, designed to showcase local businesses or report on developing industries or trends in the area.
Their first roundtable of 2022, held on March 2nd, provided a look at agritourism in Pendleton County, as well as showcasing the resources and help available from the Small Business Development Center, a service of the West Virginia Department of Economic Development.
Meeting at the South Fork Ruritan building in Oak Flat, the session featured two speakers. The first, Robert “Buc” Hammer, of the SBDC, outlined the services and resources that organization provides to owners and prospective owners of small businesses.
There are 14 small business coaches in the SBDC system, and they frequently collaborate on clients’ projects when one or another of them has a stronger background in the skills needed. Between them, their experience and skill set covers a wide spectrum. And, in the rare cases when that isn’t enough, they can call upon the resources of the entire West Virginia Department of Commerce, Hammer was quick to point out.
Their services and expertise are available to entrepreneurs who are considering starting a new business, those looking to become the new owner of an existing business, and to owners of existing businesses which want to expand or add new product lines or fields of endeavor.
Although they will assist in a myriad of ways, Hammer is quick to point out that they do not ever make the decision to undertake a project for themselves or for their clients. They will help to find and analyze information of all kinds, assist in market research and business projections, review needs for capital and financing and assist in finding it, and help to find other human resources when needed. But, the decision of whether or not to implement any idea is always left to the client.
Typically, when a client comes to them for help, they begin by giving them help and advice on a business plan – though they do not ever write it for them.
Once there is a solid business plan in place, they will assist in finding financing. Hammer said that he believes that having SBDC assisting in the background does help to make banks look more favorably on an application, since they know that the client has benefitted from good advice and is more likely to have done thorough research before proceeding.
After financing has been secured, they will help with such things as finding a location, lining up vendors and suppliers, getting permits and licenses, identifying and filling staff positions, setting up bookkeeping, creating an employee handbook, and finding other resources like accountants and attorneys.
Their assistance can continue well after a business has opened its doors and is operating. Hammer said he has had clients whom he has helped for several years. He said his case load currently includes 43 active clients, including start-ups, expansions of existing businesses, and transitions in ownership. He added that the SBDC’s clients are divided among, roughly, 25% pre-venture, 30% start-ups, and 45% existing businesses.
Though he said stronger clients are often able to obtain financing without the backing of the Small Business Administration (SBA), most of the financing they find for clients is through SBA.
Even with their help, Hammer emphasized that starting a new business can be daunting task, and one which should never be undertaken lightly, adding that the three largest causes of failure of a new business are the following:
- Lack of knowledge
- Lack of experience
- Lack of capital
He encouraged anyone exploring the idea of a new business, or an existing business wanting to expand or branch into a new line of business, to contact SBDC, emphasizing that all of their help is both confidential and free.
Readers who want more information can visit their website at www.WVSBDC.com or contact Hammer by phone at (304) 546-4593.
The second presenter of the evening was Luke Taylor-Ide, director of the Appalachian Program at Future Generations University (FGU), who began with a quick overview of the university. “We are the smallest and most applied university in the country,” he said, inviting anyone who was unfamiliar with the institution to come learn more about it.
“If you want to know what we do up there,” he said, referring to the university’s headquarters atop North Mountain, “come on up.”
“I’ll be up,” said Hammer, as he packed his presentation materials nearby. “I’ve always wanted to know.”
FGU’s Appalachian Program started in 2016, and was born of a desire to help local farmers to make better, more productive, more sustainable use of their land. In the 1800s, Taylor-Ide said, farming in West Virginia was very different than much of it is today. Farmers in those times would have “farmed the forests,” doing some selective timber cutting, allowing animal grazing and with some row farming. But gradually, as time went by, they tried more and more to copy the farming practices of the Midwest.
Trouble is, he said, this land and terrain was very different, and that type of farming was not well-suited to West Virginia. The Appalachian Program, therefore, was designed to explore and promote farming and agricultural endeavors which were more suited.
As the program progressed, the university became more and more interested in helping to promote a resurgence in maple products. That was helped along, he said, by two technology advancements. The first one was very simple: 3/16” plastic tubing, which required no vacuum to deliver sap from taps in trees to central collection vessels. As long as there was slope, the sap would run by gravity.
“And we have lots of slope here in West Virginia,” he grinned.
The second technological advancement was the development of reverse osmosis gear, which could remove much of the excess water content in sap, raising its sugar level to 10% sugar, thus requiring far less boiling to produce syrup.
Together, those two advancements have made the production of maple syrup easier and more economically viable.
“West Virginia has more tappable maple trees than Vermont,” he explained, and current maple production left most of those still untapped. The potential for expansion is still quite vast. He added, in addition to maples, much of the local forest lands also have many walnut and sycamore trees, both of which also produce usable sap.
The best part of maple sugaring, observed Taylor-Ide, is that it doesn’t require a lot of investment to get started. “The materials cost very little,” he said, making it easy for anyone with land with tappable maples to get started without major investment. And someone could start small, expanding as they learn more about the process and gain more confidence. That is the best way to approach it, he believes. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he advised.
FGU offered a maple syrup production course, and several of the producers in the area had gotten started as a result of taking that course, he explained.
To help prospective maple producers, Taylor-Ide said that the university will do free assessments of forests and woodlots. “We can take a look at your property and tell you what you can do with it,” he said, observing that, “… an untouched woodlot is not a healthy woodlot,” and that there are often options, in addition to maple sugaring, that go unnoticed. For instance, he said, one could allow pigs to forage in a woodlot, then finish up their feeding on acorns, and in so doing increase the value of the bacon by five times. While some selective cutting is often indicated to maintain good health in a woodlot, focus was on finding ways to make money from property without cutting all the timber, and leave the property in better condition as a result.
Product diversification on a property is a good goal, he said, and many of the endeavors are very low investment and low risk.
He cited an example of one landowner who had developed a number of different revenue streams from his property: a lodge and restaurant which served local produce; cross-country trails; leasing of grazing rights; maple tapping rights; some selective wood cutting; and selling carbon credits. While not every piece of property would have that number of options, many would allow multiple endeavors which would produce revenue for the owner.
Agri-tourism is on the rise in the area, Taylor-Ide said, and the university is doing its best to encourage it. They have played an integral part in the organizing of Mountain State Maple Days, and are exploring other possible events. He hoped when people heard the term agri-tourism, they will associate that with good food, and we’re working with area restaurants to diversify their menus to use more locally-produced goods.
FGU will be set up on main street in Franklin this coming Saturday, during Mountain State Maple Day, providing information about maple sugaring. Readers are encouraged to stop by and ask questions.