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Start an Ag Business

Turn your green thumb into a different kind of green.

(YoungBiz.com) - So you've got this amazing green thumb. Every plant you touch turns to gold (well, green anyway), while your friends could kill a cactus. Your family's lawn, which you cut and manicure religiously, looks better than anyone else's in the neighborhood. Care to turn your talents into a different kind of green? Then take a hint from these savvy agpreneurs.

A Little Help From Your Friends
Many agpreneurs, like sisters Deanna and Jana Thies of Glasgow, Missouri, are getting help from organizations like FFA. Formerly called Future Farmers of America, the FFA has, since 1988, added science and technology to its curriculum and has really begun to focus on entrepreneurship training through local projects and national contests.

The FFA, along with the U.S. Department of Education and the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, offers the annual Agri-Entrepreneurship Awards, which award prizes on a local, state and national level to students who have planned and/or started their own businesses. Ten national winners are chosen each year at the FFA's national convention and receive $1,000 for themselves and $500 for their chapter.

Deanna, a former national winner, started The Veggie Patch in 1996 as part of an FFA business project. "I was trying to think of an idea for my Supervised Agriculture Experience Program," explains Deanna, 20. "I knew I didn't want to work for someone else--I wanted to be my own boss. That's how I came up with gardening."

A little ingenuity and a lot of research helped Deanna further her business idea. She convinced relatives and neighbors to let her grow fruits and veggies on their unused land for a portion of the crops. She also talked to local farmers. "I already knew a lot of things I wanted to grow--tomatoes and watermelons--but I talked to farmers in the area about where I should sell my produce and what sells well."

Deanna, later joined in the business by her younger sister Jana, 17, decided on 30 to 40 varieties of fruits and veggies that she began selling at two local farmers' markets. During a good summer week, they can rake in as much as $1,000.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
Like Deanna, ingenuity and research are two things Jared Milarch of Copemish, Michigan, knows a lot about. Milarch, a Northwestern Michigan College student who wants to eventually get an MBA, began growing sugar maple trees at age 13. His plan was to sell them when they got big enough to raise money for his college tuition.

At 16, however, he decided that the trees weren't growing fast enough, so he did another kind of digging at his local library. He discovered Azomite, a "magical" clay that some farmers used to make plants grow faster, and ordered some. Conducting his own experiment, he discovered that the trees treated with Azomite grew much faster than those untreated.

Still not satisfied, Milarch enrolled in a program that allowed him to take college-level science courses at Northwestern. After many hours in the lab and greenhouse, he developed his own soil conditioner by adding different substances to Azomite. He calls it AdzsumPlus.

When people in his hometown heard about the amazing growth of his trees and vegetables, they wanted in and asked Milarch to package his magic formula. "I wanted people to be able to afford to try it and see how great it works," he says, "so I priced it at under $20 a bag."

Publicity Hound
Soon the local grocery store was selling thousands of bags of AdzsumPlus, and Milarch incorporated his company, Earth Plus Products LLC, with his brother and dad. He also got a lot of free advertising through his customers, who were so excited about their huge plants that they called the local newspapers.

Larger papers like The Washington Post soon picked up the story. "The media will give you plenty of publicity if you go after it," Milarch advises young business owners. "Don't ignore your local newspapers either. The national media looks to them for stories."

Find Your Niche
Deanna received a lot of publicity for her business as well, most of it through the FFA. But what really helped her business, she says, was discovering a niche market right under her nose. "My mom bought these mixed gourd seeds, and the only ones that grew were these long, green ones," she recalls.

When she displayed the gourds at the farmers' markets, she was flooded with requests for similar gourds that were soft and edible. She noticed that most of the requests came from her area's large Asian and Indian communities. After more research, Deanna discovered that her customers were looking for the cucuzzi squash and began growing them. The cucuzzi, as well as eggplant, okra and other squashes popular with the area's ethnic communities, have earned Deanna a loyal following.

Don't Get Discouraged
For Katie Beeman of Duluth, Minnesota, who mows lawns in the summer and sells Christmas trees in the winter, perseverance is the key to any ag business. Beeman, 20, started mowing her neighbors' yards and ended up with so much work that she had to hire several employees to help. But it didn't happen overnight. "I didn't get 70 lawns the first year of business. It took five years, but it paid off," she says.

How did she grow her business? By keeping her eyes open. Beeman says she noticed that houses for sale were often vacant and had no one to maintain the lawns. "I printed a flier and faxed it to every [real estate] agent in town. Soon several major firms hired me to mow their lawns."

Perseverance, assistance, niche markets, ingenuity and research--almost as important as good soil, irrigation and top-notch plants are when it comes to growing your ag business. So whether you want to get started on a future career or just want to put that green thumb to work now, start an ag business, and you, too, could be rolling in a different kind of green.

Next Step

The FFA is open to students ages 12 to 21 enrolled in agricultural education classes, whether they be in rural, urban or suburban areas. Go to www.ffa.org for information on joining this organization.

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