Q&A with Agricultural Center of Excellence Coordinator Martin Brill

Martin Brill is the coordinator of the Penn State Small Business Development Center (SBDC)’s Agricultural Center of Excellence. He took some time to chat with us about his background, services provided by the Agricultural Center of Excellence, some business advice for farmers and agricultural business owners, and what small business owners can gain from attending Global Entrepreneurship Week Penn State.


Q:Can you describe your professional background and how you came into consulting?

A: I’ve been working with the Small Business Development Centers of Pennsylvania for 27 years. I retired from the Kutztown Small Business Center two years ago and joined the Penn State Small Business Center, working in agriculture and also general business consulting and international trade. I have a background in exporting food products. I worked in a supermarket as a child, and I enjoyed working in the produce department.  

I’ve been on a lot of farms. I’m not a farmer by trade, but I do have raspberries and mint, and sunflowers in the yard. And it’s just a constituency I really enjoy working with because of the work ethic of farmers. You’ve got to be very straight with them. You can’t just blow smoke or give them an answer that’s not clear. They’ll call you out on it right away. 

You have to build that trust as a farmer. I really enjoy the work with my colleagues at the Small Business Center across the state, and I love working with clients. They’re great people, they’re engaging, they’re challenging. And that’s why I get up every day. 


Q: What is the Ag Center of Excellence, and who is it for?

A: The Agricultural Center of Excellence was started about four years ago with funding from the U.S. government. It was one of these areas to try to help farmers and also small businesses engaged in food processing to survive and hopefully thrive during a very difficult time. So, in our region in central Pennsylvania, we have all different kinds of farms and farmers, which reflects the whole state. 

Some are very small, some are very entrepreneurial with specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with hot houses, with all kinds of plants. And so honestly, I don’t have the answers a lot of times, but I work with other folks that do. I put together a team of folks, work with the ag community to try to help them. That may include someone who’s a banker, may include a specialist in agriculture from Penn State Ag Extension. 

So we don’t pretend to have all the answers, and we tell our clients early on we will not have all the answers, but we can try to help you find the answers and at least ask the right question.  


Q: What types of businesses does the Ag Center of Excellence support?

A: We define agriculture broadly. It can be food processing, it can be even a restaurant which is a little outside the scope of our work, but we still work with restaurants of course. It can be livestock. I’m working right now with a Turkish meat processing company that produces halal products.  


Q: What is unique about assisting agricultural businesses compared to other industries?

A: They’re more risky in some cases. They have weather to deal with, which we just take for granted. So weather is a huge challenge. They’re price takers if they’re producing some kind of commodity, they’re dependent on fuel and outside suppliers for seeds, for equipment, for inputs. 

They may be depending on customers to pick up their product or customers set the price. So they’re dealing with a different set of variables and risks than other companies typically do and other entities in different segments.


Q: What’s one key piece of advice you would give to someone starting an agricultural business?

A: One of the ways I try to challenge the new entity or existing entity, I ask them, What’s different about you? Where do you add value? What’s distinctive about you? And I have an LLC on the side, and I have to really answer that question myself. So I think it’s a fair question to ask of other entities. For strictly commodity producers, that’s pretty tough – Are you going to meet other prices? Can you still make money on the farm? Everybody has competition, so nothing’s really unique. 

So I would say take a look around with the Internet today, with networking and even talking to other farms and farmers. You can easily find out who’s your competition. It may be friendly competition, a friendly competitor, and you may share some resources or equipment or even workers. It may be further afield, but at least get a sense of what’s out there.   

What do you do differently, as I mentioned to you. What are some best practices out there? Who can you benchmark against?


Q: Why should someone with an agricultural business attend Global Entrepreneurship Week?

I think there’s several reasons for attending. So, one is to gain information from the presenters. There, we try to have quality presentations that are very practical and very focused to really help our attendees. What that means for me when I’m presenting, is I want to know who’s in the audience, and how many, so I can try to make my message resonate with the folks attending. 

So I’m not talking at them, I’m working with them. Secondly, I think you meet other officials and other partners in the meeting. I think that can be really helpful because it’s a very personal business. So if you meet somebody, it’s a little different.

And I happened to meet with a company at Penn State some months ago, we were at our 25th anniversary for the Penn State Small Business Development Center. And I was ready to get up afterwards. But he said, no, sit down. I want to talk to you. I have a business right in Penn State who’s actually a professor at Penn State. We’ve been working with them ever since. That was very rewarding to me to see other people and kind of network like that.

I also think it’s great to see other entrepreneurs in a session because sometimes they have the same issues and questions. How do I incorporate? Why should I incorporate? I’m a sole proprietor, so someone else asks that question and, Oh, I have that question also. So it’s an opportunity to learn from others, I think. I think those are kind of good reasons to attend: for the networking, for the professional exposure you may have, and hopefully for the content that we and others are offering at the event. 

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