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The "Farm to Market" course runs as part of Montana State University's DSEL initiative (the Design Sandbox for Engaged Learning). DSEL courses focus on applying design thinking to solve human-centered problems using cross-disciplinary teams of students. The "Farm to Market" course, taught by three professors, Meta Newhouse (Graphic Design), Graham Austin (Marketing) and Mary Stein (Sustainable Foods/Bioenergy Systems or SFBS) pairs students from each of those same disciplines to help Montana farmers be more profitable and sustainable in their business practices.
This course asks students to meet with different local farm partners and use the Design Thinking process to define specific problems worth solving. As professors, we encouraged our students to specifically look at food waste but also the farmers' unique situations and develop value-added consumer products that could help each farm boost profitability. In teams of three (one representative from each discipline), students worked to develop empathy for both their chosen farm/farmer, and for their potential customers; defined a problem to solve; ideated around that problem; prototyped both recipe and packaging ideas; tested those ideas with focus groups and iterated upon their ideas based on that feedback. At the end of the course students presented their ideas using both an oral presentation and curated videos and had to defend their decisions in a Q+A format.
Montana farmers face a variety of issues—e.g., competition, food trends, short growing season, and economic uncertainties—which impact their profit margins. Currently, many Montana specialty crop producers sell their products as low-priced commodities, with the associated low profits.
[ What is a value-added product? A change in the physical state or form of the product (such as making strawberries into jam). The production of a product in a manner that enhances its value, as demonstrated through a business plan. ]
The course ran during the Fall of 2016, supported by funds from a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. The grant will fund two more years (Fall 2017 and 2018).
Just a few of the notable ideas generated in this course include:
"Forbidden Fruit" bars which are targeted to hikers and long-distance athletes but are made from used apple cider mash (and leavings) as their primary ingredient.
"Nyo-Kee" ready-to-roll dough, presented in a handy squeeze tube. (For anyone who has ever made gnocchi from scratch, it is a very time-consuming endeavor). This product used potatoes that were left behind in the french-fry/hash brown prep process at one farm. What was once waste became a premium product for the home cook.
"Hopcycle Sorbet" which uses hop-brewed tea paired with citrus fruit to make a delicious bittersweet sorbet targeted to IPA-lovers.
"Markabees" clay pigeons made from "slum-gum" a material that honeybees create at the bottom of their hives. This product is particularly novel because it is biodegradable and it will not harm the environment (after it scatters around shooting ranges). The slumgum actually attracts honeybees to any area it rests, so this product could increase pollination in areas where it is used.
"Farm-to-Market" is a one-semester long course, taught in the fall of 2016. Faculty members from graphic design, marketing, and sustainable food/bioenergy systems (SFBS) applied for a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant in the spring of 2016. In the fall of 2016, the course planners received funds from the USDA to support covering course buyout costs for all three faculty, materials for student prototyping as well as costs for sensory testing and focus groups.
Montana farmers face a variety of issues in the marketing environment --e.g., competition, food trends, short growing season, economic uncertainties, legal certifications, etc. -- which impact their profit margins. Currently, many Montana specialty crop producers sell their products as low-priced commodities, with associated low profits.
Our goal was to use faculty and student expertise, creativity, and energy to convert these raw materials into value-added products, resulting in higher profits for the growers, and economic growth for the state of Montana.
What is a value-added product? A change in the physical state or form of the product (such as making strawberries into jam). The production of a product in a manner that enhances its value, as demonstrated through a business plan.
For the farmer/food producer:
Provide farmers with startup ideas for scalable, innovative, value added product prototypes which will enable them to differentiate themselves and compete more effectively in a crowded marketplace
Illustrate how a value-added product can improve a farm's profitability.
Illustrate how a value-added product can improve a farm's ability to combat unexpected challenges (pests, weather-related problems).
3) Reduce Food Waste
Illustrate how produce that cannot typically "go to market" as a raw product can make viable value-added products. (Think bruised, grade-B, "ugly"products OR high-yield products that cannot be sold within a short sales window)
At the end of the semester, the farmer partners will walk away with a user-tested recipe for a market-viable value added product, as well as a naming, branding and packaging strategy for that product.
For the student:
Broadly, to repeatedly investigate, practice, and review concepts using the Design Thinking Process.
• To effectively understand and empathize with the user (farmer/food producer) whose problem you are trying to solve, in a context that most are largely unfamiliar with (regional-scale agriculture).
• To learn the benefits of working in an interdisciplinary team — necessitating collaboration, critique, and compromise.
• For projects to undergo multiple iterations during the product development process, as one works up recipes and package designs. Test prototypes along the way using taste testing, focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Refine business plans as prototypes evolve.
• To research and identify market opportunities by designing with end users' needs in mind, while exploring viability for possible entrepreneurship endeavors
• To gain a more holistic understanding of food systems and how they impact human health as well as local and regional economies
Participants included three professors – from graphic design, marketing, and SFBS – and the enthusiasm and talents of 18 undergraduate and graduate students (6 from each subject area). Each team worked with a different local food provider (farmer).
What we used to teach: Classroom lectures, assigned readings, in-class design sprints, solo field work (supermarket sweep, farmer's market studies, etc.), class field trips to farms, guest lectures from food entrepreneurs, multi-week interdisciplinary group design exercises, and a final long-term interdisciplinary group project. With the exception of a few early exercises, all in-class and out-of-class tasks were completed using interdisciplinary teams.
The icebreaker exercise: A week prior to the start of the term, we sent an email to all participants instructing them to bring a food item to the first class that represented something about themselves, and told them that they would have to introduce themselves, and their food, to the rest of us. We did not tell them anything further about this "icebreaker"-style exercise. During the class, after everyone had made introductions, the instructors put students into interdisciplinary groups of three and gave them an hour to come up with a concept for a food product that used all three of their special ingredients. To increase the challenge, they also had to come up with a name for this product, package & distribution ideas, a target user, and a basic selling proposition. When the time was up, each team presented its results to the rest of the class and received feedback from their peers and instructors.
This design sprint served several purposes:
It was so complex, and so fast, that freeriding by individuals simply was not possible. The multifaceted deliverables required all team members to be fully engaged and gave each discipline natural areas of strength and weakness. This also limited imbalanced power dynamics between dominant and shy personalities. Even when teams divided up the basic tasks (e.g., the design student worked on the package while the marketing student worked on strategy), all team members had to work together to ensure coherence among the various elements. The bizarre combination of ingredients that each group had to work with immediately forced collaborative "out-of-the-box" thinking. An example of one of these forced collaborations was…. Wild Elk + Cheetos + cupcakes. The result was a food truck which sold pasties (think meat pie) named "Tatas". These pasties looked a bit like a part of the female anatomy. They were sold in A,B and DD sizes.
Mini sprints: Examples of Design Thinking mini sprints included looking at how to repurpose "spent" coffee grounds and well as innovative ways to use carrot peels. The coffee grounds assignment yielded innovative ideas such as "odor-killer" shoe inserts (tagline: "stand your ground"), a tobacco chew substitute called "Brew Chew" and a hipster coffee-infused cologne. The carrot peel assignment yielded solutions such as a "healthy" cocktail mixer, and an all-natural food coloring set for bakers. These sprints were treated as warm-ups to the large Final Project. The mini-sprints took approximately three weeks while the Final Project took six weeks.
The class's use of the Design Thinking model meant that we taught the importance of cultivating empathy early in the term. While we emphasized developing empathy for farmers and potential food customers, the collaborative nature of almost all the assignments for the term resulted in students' developing empathy for students from other disciplines. They realized that they could not produce the required deliverables without working together and relying on each other's knowledge and skills.
The Final Project: 'We asked students to meet with different local farm partners and use the Design Thinking process to define specific problems worth solving. As professors, we encouraged our students to specifically look at food waste but also the farmers' unique situations and develop value-added consumer products that could help each farm boost profitability. In teams of three (one representative from each discipline), students worked to develop empathy for both their chosen farm/farmer, and for their potential customers; defined a problem to solve; ideated around that problem; prototyped both recipe and packaging ideas; tested those ideas with focus groups and sensory panels and iterated upon their ideas based on that feedback. At the end of the course students presented their ideas using both an oral presentation and curated videos and had to defend their decisions in a Q+A format. (Examples of some of the Final Project results were detailed in the Project Overview and/or in the photos section.)
Evaluation and critique methods:
Course grading was determined based upon the following criteria:
• 10% Peer Evaluation (on team based projects – done blindly using Google forms)
• 20% Participation (attendance, discussion of course readings, active participation in critique, and process journal)
• 30% Design Thinking Sprints (in-class activities & homework)
• 40% Final Project Presentation
All projects were collaboratively graded by faculty members.Critique methods varied throughout the course but included peer-to-peer interdisciplinary critiques, faculty critiques and guest critiques from valued members in the university, civic, and the local food entrepreneur community.
Students are currently putting some of their ideas into start-up competitions (state-wide and national).