Summer 2012 promised to be a busy one for UK agricultural economics major Troy Hillerich. To start with, the senior from Louisville married his high school sweetheart, Jeanette Olson, in June. As if that weren’t enough, he launched headlong into the entrepreneurial world by growing fresh vegetables for local restaurants. Harvest, voted one of the best restaurants in Louisville, and Saffron Persian Restaurant were two of his first customers.
Hillerich’s plans were to grow San Marzano heirloom tomatoes, a plum tomato considered by many chefs to be the best sauce tomato in the world, along with squash, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and tarragon. He hoped to supply 16 cantaloupes and four watermelons a week and a thousand pounds of tomatoes a month—no small undertaking. The only thing was, Hillerich had never before grown vegetables for commercial purposes.
He was nervous about the labor and management involved while also working a full-time summer job in downtown Louisville. He hoped to draw upon the expertise of his grandfather whose land in the southeastern corner of Jefferson County he was using at no cost. Prior to this year, Hillerich and his grandfather had done a little “backyard gardening,” selling a few vegetables at a neighborhood roadside stand.
What was his approach to the project from the beginning?
“I will see how it goes. If it goes well, maybe I will make a future of it. If it doesn’t, I will get an office job or something here,” he said. “But I don’t like office jobs, I don’t like being inside, I don’t want a boss, and I want to be able to give people something that they like.”
He did all of his planting after the close of spring semester, before he started his summer job. From his parents’ home adjacent to his grandfather’s farm, he could easily keep an eye on his crops. But after getting married, moving out of his parents’ house, and working a summer job, he wasn’t able to be as watchful. That’s when Hillerich turned to his mom, Teresa, who was willing to lend a hand knowing what her son had at stake.
“Troy’s life-long dream is to do something like this as a business. He loves to work in the ground with his hands,” Teresa Hillerich said.
Troy’s initial cost to get his project started was about $600, which included the seeds to start the plants in a portable greenhouse he bought at Sam’s Club for $74. He used his grandfather’s tractor, free of charge, to clear the land where he planted the vegetables. Raising everything organically, his inputs were minimal, which he hoped would maximize his profits, plus he was getting three hours college credit for the project.
Maybe more important to Hillerich—he was living out a dream.
“From a junior in high school I knew I wanted to be a farmer. I set my goal, and I am going to reach it.”
Growth has to start somewhere
Sometimes the owner of a small business can be overlooked when considering a community’s wellbeing.
“Even in our schools the focus is on getting a job, not creating your own job,” said Ronald Hustedde, professor in Community and Leadership Development and director of the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute. “I think that’s where a lot of work needs to be done to build that entrepreneurial-friendly culture.”
Since 2004, Hustedde and KECI have been training volunteer coaches who, in turn, train entrepreneurs in areas of the state that were once tobacco-dependent. In 2011 alone, KECI coaches helped create 65 new jobs and 32 part-time jobs.
“Entrepreneurs will typically start out small and don’t make a big splash in their community, whereas opening a plant with 50 employees or 100 employees, is splashier, bigger,” he said.
But the results of those small businesses might surprise people. Entrepreneurs working with KECI coaches in northeastern Kentucky have contributed more than $9 million to the state’s economy since the program began.
Cooking up her own energy
“I have always known exactly what I wanted to do; it is just a matter of how I am going to get there,” said Cleveland, Ohio native Kate Horning. A 2012 graduate from the School of Human Environmental Sciences with a degree in dietetics, Kate started a business two years ago by making and selling nutrition/energy bars.
“I never wanted to work for anyone, because I like doing things my way. I am definitely very stubborn,” she said.
Under the name “Simply Nutritious by Kate,” she concocted her “nourish” bars, as she calls them, in a local restaurant’s kitchen and sold them in local chiropractor offices and at a fitness club in Lexington.
Eventually, though, she had to give up making them because they were time-consuming and taking her away from her studies.
Larry Grabau, College of Agriculture associate dean for academics, warns students about becoming consumed with their businesses and neglecting their schoolwork.
“We don’t want someone to let their studies go as a result of their business. We want students to strike a balance between their business and school,” said Grabau. “In balance, entrepreneurial activity is really a big plus. Especially if students can find ways to do it. Even if it is a seasonal thing or a part-time thing, it is really good for student learning.”
Horning says at some point she would like to move farther south, perhaps to Charleston, S.C., and start another business.
“I want to have a small specialty food store with a little restaurant where people can get breakfast and lunch and have cooking classes in the back,” she said. “That is my long-term goal.”
Horning credits her UK education in helping her realize where her passion really is. Besides being an entrepreneur and starting her own business, she also teaches cooking classes at the Wholesome Chef in Lexington, writes her own food blog, ahealthypassion.com, and has done cooking videos for a website. Horning’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious.
“I love being out and helping people; meeting people, sharing food with people probably makes me most happy,” she said. “The gratification comes from working with clients who are getting healthy and getting better and getting confident. It is really rewarding.”
Collaring an education
It’s been hard for 28-year-old UK graduate student Steffanie Burk to continue the business she started as a sophomore at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, but she might not be where she is today if it weren’t for her business, CreateaPetCollar.com.
“It has definitely been helpful as far as the money being an extra source of income,” Burk said.
Burk personalizes collars for people’s pets by embroidering the pet’s name and owner’s phone number, or anything else the owner may want. She has even filled special requests on collars such as, “Will you marry me?” (She doesn’t know what the answer was.)
The Harmony, Pennsylvania native has completed her coursework for a doctorate in animal science and is now focusing on her research in equine parasitology. She is also a research assistant in animal science in Professor Mary Rossano’s lab.
Burk got into the pet collar business by going to craft shows with her mom back in Pennsylvania. She bought an embroidery machine to personalize the collars and put her business on the Internet, which generated a lot of traffic.
She doesn’t have much time to do craft shows anymore, but in the spring she had a booth at the High Hopes Steeple Chase at the Kentucky Horse Park. She says she still gets two or three orders a week for collars and even more around Christmas.
Starting a business also taught Burk how to do Web design, as she created her own website. That led to other jobs designing websites while at Slippery Rock.
Small Business: Large Importance
Small business creates 50 percent of the jobs in Kentucky and in the U.S., and 75 percent of new wealth creation comes from entrepreneurs and innovators. For that reason, they have considerable impact on the economy.
“I think we can’t ignore that, and we need to provide people with the skills they need,” Hustedde said. “Entrepreneurs tend to stay in their communities, where they employ local people. And in terms of philanthropy, they tend to give more to the local community.”
Grabau agrees. “It would be great if our students, after they graduate, became entrepreneurs. Some are going to need to create businesses, companies, become small and large business owners.”
Those entrepreneurs who change their communities just might include Hillerich, Horning, and Burk.