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Adding value: UVa-Wise students, extension agent, local businesses look at agricultural entrepreneurship

Mike Still • May 6, 2019 at 11:30 AM

WISE — Roy and Diana Mullins have been in the apple business for several decades. Virginia Tech Extension Agent Phil Meeks was looking to help them find ways to expand their business. UVa-Wise professor Shankar Naskar was looking for ways his entrepreneurship students could gain practical experience.

The Mullinses run the last commercial apple orchard in Wise County, and it helps supply their store, Apple House, on U.S. Route 23 just north of Wise. Meeks, who was helping the couple look at new ways to attract the public to their store, met Naskar, the director of the college’s fledgling Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

That meeting led to pairing the Mullinses with Casey Taylor and Savannah Cochran, students in Naskar’s entrepreneurship seminar class.

“Meeks played a catalytic role in this,” Naskar said of getting his students involved with Apple House and the couple’s vision for their business.

Taylor and Cochran, who started the semester learning about modeling business startups and expansions, found themselves learning the basics of growing apples.

Taylor, from Staunton, Va., is planning to start his own business, and Cochran, from Stickleyville, had some experience growing up in a farming environment. The two soon found themselves walking with Roy Mullins through the family orchard and getting an education about everything from picking the crop to selling fresh apples and making apple butter, juice and fresh cider.

“It was good to see what the Mullinses were doing and what they wanted to do with the business,” Cochran said.

Taylor said he and Cochran found themselves doing public surveys of customers’ produce-buying habits and preferences for apples and apple products. Those results helped the students research specific grant programs that fit the Mullinses’ goals.

Diana Mullins said she handles a lot of the business and planning side while her husband focuses on the orchard. She said Taylor and Cochran gave her a lot to consider in planning what direction Apple House should take.

“They did cost projections, they came up at the orchard and listened to Roy,” Diana said. “They got me more on track for grants and in touch with Mountain Empire Community College. We knew the grants were out there, and (Taylor and Cochran) got more details for us.”

Meeks also had been talking with Michael and Lisa Martucci, who moved to Wise County from Alaska and were looking at developing maple syrup production from trees on their property, Dog House Farm.

Two more of Naskar’s students, Sabrina Stanley and Joshua Bouton, found themselves getting a practical lesson in tapping maple trees and in looking at some farm tourism and education ideas that the Martuccis were considering.

“They are preparing to be able to start selling to the public,” said Clintwood resident Stanley.

Bouton, from Appalachia, said the Martuccis also wanted to find ways to attract the public by demonstrating the craft aspect of maple syrup making, from tapping trees to cooking down the syrup and showing how different it is from popular store-bought pancake and waffle syrups.

Bouton said he and Stanley applied the skills and concepts they learned in Shankar’s class: developing a business plan, looking at location and access, examining tourism potential and determining objectives and equipment requirements.

After the two class teams worked out snapshots of the challenges and opportunities the Mullinses and Martuccis face, the clients visited the class to see what work had been done and to talk more with the students about how those plans can develop.

“We don’t sit around listening to lectures,” Cochran said of the practical aspects of Naskar’s course.

“It’s one thing to let yourself down,” Bouton said. “It’s another thing to let down your clients.”

Meeks, who spends much of his time as an extension agent helping farmers deal with technical and business issues, said the students learned a lot about his profession too.

“The two producers we have are hardworking,” Meeks said. “I’ll commend the students for being able to communicate with their clients.”

Meeks said the students in many ways helped their clients learn about funding and programs in the same way he works with agricultural and livestock operators in Wise County.

“It’s been a revelation for me,” Naskar said of how his students have been able to apply entrepreneurial techniques to working with farm businesses and the area’s business community. “They’ve been incredibly mature in their approach and work.”

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