Organic goat cheese is a hard sell.
Barbara Jenness, owner of a small herb and goat farm in Byron Center, learned this lesson the hard way.
"I'll ask people at the Farmer's Market if they want to try some goat cheese, and I feel like I'm asking them if they want a case of leprosy," Jenness says.
Jenness's Dogwood Farm uses its milk to make cheese and soap under the labels of The Dancing Goat Creamery and Udderly Wonderful Soaps. Attracting customers was one of many obstacles that Jenness conquered to earn the Michigan State University Product Center "best barrier buster" award.
The MSU Product Center was established in 2003 to generate research and provide services in support of a profitable future for businesses and industries engaged in Michigan's agricultural, food and natural resource systems. With a focus on product, market and business innovation, the MSU Product Center connects entrepreneurs with the MSU network of technical expertise, research, outreach, and educational services.
In addition to marketing a product unfamiliar to many consumers in her area, Jenness needed USDA approval, a task she said is difficult for a small business like hers to acquire.
"There were lots of hurdles to navigate, such as finding a pasteurizer that was geared toward the small-end operation," Jenness says. "Everything is geared toward handling thousands of gallons of milk, not 15."
The staff of the MSU Product Center, a major resource for Jenness as she developed her business, believes it is important to recognize its inventive clients.
"It is exciting to recognize innovative and interesting clients," said Chris Peterson, director of the MSU Product Center and Nowlin chair for consumer-responsive agriculture. "There have been some studies conducted, particularly in rural communities, that indicate that we (in Michigan) tend not to celebrate entrepreneurial success and lean toward being fairly critical of entrepreneurial failures. So, when several of our clients had reached a point where they really deserved recognition, it seemed appropriate to present these awards."
Jenness said her "barrier buster" award is a hopeful indication for the future of small businesses.
"I'm a firm believer in our agricultural community looking away from large-scale farms and looking more toward the small family farm where someone produces a small product and sells it locally," Jenness says. "I feel like receiving this award showed people that, yes, it can be done. You can be a small producer and you can be recognized."
Jenness and three other winners received the first batch of Product Center awards, which were also presented for "most successful business transition" and "best innovative business idea."
A group not affiliated with the MSU Product Center selected the award winners. Tom Kalchik, associate director of the MSU Product Center, said the uniqueness of the products was a key deciding factor. Special consideration was extended to value-added products, those that growers altered from their original form into unique products.
"For us, the key to value-added is differentiation," Kalchik said. "How do you differentiate your product from everything else that's available?"
Jenness said she highly recommends the Product Center.
"The Product Center has been wonderful," she said. "We don't realize that there's so much help out there unless we choose to look for it."
The MSU Product Center is a major recipient of funding from Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs). The center receives $250,000 in annual operating funds from the state's plant agriculture initiative, along with additional value-added project monies that support a variety of projects, ranging from labeling and taste testing to Web site design.
Founded in 1997, Project GREEEN is a cooperative effort between plant-based commodities and businesses together with the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, MSU Extension and the Michigan Department of Agriculture to advance Michigan's economy through its plant-based agriculture.
To learn more about Michigan's plant agriculture initiative at MSU, visit www.greeen.msu.edu.