What I Learned at…Cornell, Part 3

In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business schools provided as they launched their careers.

Sandra Persing is the founder and farmer of Persing Woods LLC, a holistic wellness company that includes a working goat farm and apiary and that provides business development support for local farmers and other wellness professionals. Sandra believes that wellness is fundamental in living a good life. In this four-part series, Sandra reflects on how her business acumen and MBA education from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University helped her turn this belief into a solution that future MBAs can embrace as part of their own life journey.

Along with the highly qualified tenured faculty members at Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell, some of the visiting professors provided the out-of-the-box sounding board I needed. When I looked at my abilities and passion to do something real and meaningful with my life, I realized that the opportunity was right in my backyard! I owned about 200 acres of private forest land at my home in Elmira, New York, but had been ignoring its rich resources. I didn’t need to make a sojourn to India or Nepal or Patagonia to find my bliss. I had a ready-made opportunity in a small town in Upstate New York. Most people wouldn’t think twice about this place, but I saw great potential there. I wanted to try something that I had heard was happening in other parts of the country: small, private sustainable farming.

Like all successful businesses, a farm needs great products plus an amazing marketing plan to make it profitable, which ultimately allows it to be sustainable. The growing trend of consumers wanting real food from local resources matched my desire to produce a real product for a better world. The countless hours reading case studies and running Excel spreadsheets at Johnson taught me to evaluate everything with an analytical eye. And that’s exactly what I did when I finally decided to focus my gaze on the land. Instead of growing something, which was nearly impossible in a dense forest, I wanted to raise animals. But exactly what I wanted to raise wasn’t clear until I reached out to more professors at Cornell.

Expressing my intentions out loud was the first step I needed to take. Thankfully, I wasn’t shy, and having a few years of sales experience under my belt helped me get others excited about my venture. Through word of mouth, I soon found the department I needed to kick-start my plan at the Agriculture School at Cornell, which initiated the first Goats in the Woods Program. Getting involved in this school opened up a whole new world for me. I began to work with the New York Organic Farmers Association, the Cornell Cooperative Extensions and fellow goat farmers around the United States. I shared my knowledge on creating business plans and establishing a structure for business development with these fellow farmers, and through the Cooperative Extension, I conducted a Business 101 Workshop for them. I explained what a P&L sheet looks like, the importance of meticulously tracking expenses and revenue, how to look at equipment as assets and to depreciate them over a period of time, to look at sales projections. It was a great learning experience for me to “teach” this group, and in exchange, I learned the animal husbandry skills of running a farm and raising animals. A very fair exchange!

It was important for me to build this initiative as a business, and I looked into the steps of approaching this hybrid entrepreneurship and agriculture venture—called agripreneurship—with a business mind-set. It was certainly a customized practicum that most MBA candidates do not experience.

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