Institute for Rural Vitality

FuzeHub spoke to Dr. Scott Ferguson, Executive Director at the Institute for Rural Vitality, and Seth Brown, Program Staff Assistant, about how the extensive resources at SUNY Cobleskill, like the Mohawk Valley Farm and Food Business Incubator & Accelerator, leverage access to resources such as commercial kitchens, and dairy and meat processing facilities to ignite growth in rural New York.


Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. My name is Steve Melito and I’ll be your host. And today we are here with Dr. Scott Ferguson. He’s the Executive Director at the Institute for Rural Vitality at SUNY Cobleskill. And also with Seth Brown, who is a Program Staff Assistant at the Institute for Rural Vitality, also at SUNY Cobleskill. Welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Scott Ferguson: Thank you, Steve. It’s great to be with you. We’re sitting here in one of our certified kitchens on campus, our shared use facility, and happy to be with you today.

Steve Melito: Great to have you here with us. So what is the mission of the Institute for Rural Vitality? What are you all about?

Dr. Scott Ferguson: Well, our real focus is taking the resources of SUNY Cobleskill and engaging them in a collaborative way with regional partners to enhance our community and the economic development of the region.

Steve Melito: And so there’s some different components to what you do. And I’d like to talk a little bit about the Mohawk Valley Farm and Food Business Programs, and in particular, what programs you offer and what resources at SUNY Cobleskill can help to meet the needs of your clients.

Dr. Scott Ferguson: Sure. Seth, why don’t you start with that one?

Seth Brown: Sure. So our Mohawk Valley Farm and Food Business Programs encompass in large part a farm and food business incubator and farm and food business accelerator, as well as some workforce development programs. Our clients within those programs have access to resources here at Cobleskill, such as, as we mentioned, we’re sitting here in our certified kitchen, which is one of the shared use spaces. In addition, we also have a dairy processing center, a USDA certified meat and fish processing center. And coming to campus, we have a food packaging and distilling and fermentation centers as well. We also have a Rolling Hills Bistro as we refer to it, which is a kitchen here on campus with a serving area set up just like you would see in any restaurant that a business can use for a variety of purposes, as well as our Carriage House Cafe and General Store, which ties into our Schoharie Fresh online farmers market.

Steve Melito: Sounds pretty good. We had some colleagues from FuzeHub who were out there recently and enjoyed some ice cream that they got to taste out there. So you do some nice stuff. So listen, what kind of companies are you looking for to participate in the incubator and accelerator programs?

Dr. Scott Ferguson: Well, Steve, like you experienced that farm fresh ice cream the day you visited, we’re looking for ag businesses and farm producers that are interested in creating value- added products. Our incubator is basically farm and food related, so most of the businesses that we work with are connected in some way to farm and agribusiness enterprises. That’s the first differentiator, I think, about us. From an incubator program perspective, they’re really targeted at new businesses from startups forward, and services that can be available are very wide variety in terms of business plans, concepts, conceptualization of how it might operate, distribution approaches, marketing research, consumer research. There’s all different types of things that can go into place for startup and then the accelerator programs really focus on established businesses that are really selecting very focused ways to expand their business. And most of the time that involves some sort of value- added product or an expansion of their distribution or market approach and basically, we’re looking for businesses that are interested in using our shared service facilities that Seth mentioned in new product development or potentially utilizing Carriage House, Schoharie Fresh in test marketing, conceptualizing their products, things like that to help grow their businesses.

Steve Melito: Very good. So at FuzeHub, we’ve really enjoyed getting to learn more about all that you offer, and I’d like to learn more about the Schoharie Fresh online farmers market and the Carriage House Cafe and General Store. In particular, how do these assets help companies?

Seth Brown: Sure. So the Carriage House and Schoharie Fresh, which are really two stores, one being a brick and mortar, the other online, allows our clients and producers or vendors to really do some in- depth market research for products that they might be launching. Both of the stores are a showcase of local and regional foods and farm products. So not only is it a hub to showcase those products, we can collect a lot of value with data metrics and sales metrics for those vendors that they can use and determine, well, this product went really well and this one didn’t. We also have a lot of student involvement in those processes. So there’s a lot of learning outcomes for vendors and students alike as we run products through and collect that data.

Dr. Scott Ferguson: It’s also an opportunity for vendors to kind of ease into offering their products. We have some consignment methods that we use. So the up- and- coming entrepreneurs that really don’t have infrastructure yet, this is a way that they can kind of get their products into the marketplace as a starting point.

Steve Melito: Very good. Now, Seth, I want to touch on something that you mentioned, which was the word students. And I’d like to know more, I think we’d all like to know more about how the faculty and student engagement works with the farm and food business programs.

Seth Brown: Great question. So as a recent graduate of SUNY Cobleskill, I can attest that the involvement with student faculty and local, regional businesses is at the forefront of what we do here at Cobleskill. As an applied learning institution, it’s tied into everything we do. So for example, we have a retail practicum in class that actually staffs the Carriage House and Schoharie Fresh throughout the semester. So in large part, it’s the students conducting that market research as they interact with their peers and community members that come in on campus. And then they can take that research they’ve collected and actually break it down in their classes, whether that be on a quantitative economics level or a food preference level.

Dr. Scott Ferguson: I think there’s some additional things that we also have the ability from a student engagement and faculty engagement perspective. Sometimes our academic personnel can be experts or advisors for some of the entrepreneurs. We have a lot of, because we’re an applied learning institution, we have a lot of academic personnel that have firsthand experience in these marketplaces and business ventures. So that’s a great resource for some of our entrepreneurs and our faculty and students work in these shared use facility spaces, so they know how the equipment operates and there’s an opportunity for them to be jointly involved in projects in those spaces potentially as well.

Steve Melito: So you talked about this a little bit already, class projects and research. Anything else you’d like to mention along those lines? And then also, are there opportunities for businesses to leverage interns from SUNY Cobleskill?

Dr. Scott Ferguson: That’s a great question. Our students are engaged in a number of different ways, and the local community here has a lot of interactions with our students from an academic perspective, from a social perspective. Our students go and eat in town. We’re not a big town, so there’s a lot of involvement of our students in the local area here. So that’s kind of the first and foremost. But then I think it’s important for us to talk about research that’s done here. We’re an applied learning institution and we do a lot of applied research. Our students, whether they’re in a two- year program or a four- year program here, they’re doing research as a part of their coursework. And that really is a differentiator for us and a way that students get involved with entrepreneurs in a firsthand manner. Seth, why don’t you share a couple of our recent projects that students have been participating in?

Seth Brown: Absolutely. So as Scott mentioned, our faculty and staff are part of the community here locally and as a broader community in the food and beverage space in the state. So one of our recent projects that have been done is one of our faculty fellows and a number of ag business students, they wrapped up a study that evaluated the demand for a Spanish- taught certificate in farm management. As we know, many production operations rely on Hispanic or other non- English speaking laborers. So that need was evaluated there we’ve also had faculty fellows working on a growing concern for many rural communities, especially here in Schoharie County, that looks at the digital divide and really the digital technology needs that need to be addressed here in our county, which I’m sure we can all imagine is not just unique to our county here in Upstate New York and we’ve also, since 2018, a very popular project that a number of faculty and students work on every year through our applied psychology program is effective strategies to address substance abuse in our county. So while a lot of the work we do is done around farm and food businesses, we understand that our scope is much larger as a community advancement arm of the college to bring together all areas of the community in developing those programs.

Dr. Scott Ferguson: And these fellowships that Seth mentioned are directly connected to the institute. So that takes you back to your first question, Steve and then I think the last thing that we wanted to answer on this one was the internship question that you asked, which is really another differentiator for us as an educational institution. Virtually every graduate from our four- year programs here at SUNY Cobleskill are required to complete an internship, and that is a full- time experience of them working in a professional job environment, performing what they’ve gone to school for. So it’s really the last step, if you will, of this applied learning concept. And it’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect with our students and really utilize some of these students in their entrepreneurial endeavors and expansions of their businesses. And it’s a great opportunity for both.

Steve Melito: So one last question, if I may. Could you tell us about the less traditional approaches that SUNY Cobleskill is taking with education today?

Dr. Scott Ferguson: Absolutely. Thank you for asking, Steve. As you’ve heard, the basis of applied learning is kind of the foundation of our educational institution, and the institute projects that we covered are an example of that. The next thing that I would mention is the integration of these shared use facilities that we’ve mentioned, like the kitchen that we’re located in, the dairy processing center, et cetera that we’ve already mentioned. Those are integrated into the academic components that a student experiences. So they take classes and perform labs in those spaces and become very familiar in operation of those facilities and knowing what to do inside of those facilities and how to actually operate and maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of those facilities and then lastly, from a strictly educational perspective, we have stackable educational credentials basically. And they start with badges and badges become stackable into microcredentials. And those are stackable to certificates and certificates can be stackable to degrees, et cetera and the real point of this, how this connects back to the entrepreneur as well, is if an entrepreneur gets to a certain growth stage of their business that they really need to know more, for example, about human resources and recruiting and the legality of staffing, they can take a human resource microcredential and just focus on those components that they need to be a better business leader in the operation of their enterprise. And students can also take those same kinds of credentials to fine tune their expertise and focus for their career.

Steve Melito: Very important stuff. Very good stuff. So thank you. We are here with Dr. Scott Ferguson and Seth Brown. They are both from the Institute for Rural Vitality at SUNY Cobleskill. And you’ve been listening to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub and no matter where you’re listening in New York state, if you have a business or technical challenge, we invite you to reach out to FuzeHub. Easiest way to do it is to go to, look for the solutions program menu, and then ask to speak to a manufacturing expert. And then a member of our Manufacturer Solutions Program will be in touch with you to talk about what you need. And depending on what you need, we might make a connection to the Institute for Rural Vitality at SUNY Cobleskill. That’s one of the many connections we can make to help you out as you grow. So behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now and FuzeHub, I’m your host, Steve Melito, signing off.

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