Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

What's it like to put your money on the line to run a business? Finding out in Horticulture Management

Tim Martella
Curtin University of Technology

After 19 years working as a Rural Finance Consultant with the R & I Bank of Western Australia (now BankWest), Tim Martella accepted a secondment to Muresk in 1984. He was involved in teaching in the farm management area. In 1987, Ian Fairnie, the Director at Muresk at the time, was the driving force in setting up part of the Muresk farm as a commercial unit to be managed by the students. Tim continued with this project from 1988 to 1990, exposing students to the financial planning, control and decision making involved in managing the farm.

In 1991, Tim transferred to the Horticulture degree on the Bentley campus where he teaches financial management. In most university courses horticulture is taught mainly as a science and technology degree. At Curtin however, the degree is a mixture of technical, managerial factors and agribusiness. Not only do students learn how to grow a crop, but also they learn about managing their business and marketing the product.

Mini-enterprise development in Horticultural Management

Tim's program in horticulture management always involved interfacing with producers on their properties. This meant that students could see how the farmer made decisions and what the financial implications of these decisions were. Students could see how the farmer planned, organised and operated his business. This was all very instructive but still something seemed missing.

About the same time, 1995, a student, Keith Smith, approached Tim with a request "to grow some crops in the Field Trial Area" to test out their economic worth. The student also felt he needed to gain some 'hands on' experience.

This request for 'hands on' experience combined well with Tim's recognition of the need for students to be involved in their own planning, implementation and control of a business. Tim felt that students needed to have the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship, that is, investing in an enterprise and risking success or failure. And so was born the idea of using the plots in the Field Trial Area where students could run their own mini-enterprise in which they would grow a crop for market by risking their own finances on a small scale.

The mini-enterprise project would involve students in planning, self-financing, implementation and harvest. Tim decided to introduce the mini-enterprise program into Horticultural Management.

What was the mini-enterprise like?

The mini-enterprise comprised 50% of the work for Horticultural Management 201 in semester 1 and Horticultural Management 202 in semester 2.

Semester 1 is devoted to planning. Students rent a 21 sq. m. plot (1.5 x 14.5 m) from Muresk. They draw up and sign a rental agreement and are charged rent. Water is supplied to the head of each plot and students need to design their own reticulation system.

In the planning phase, students need to first research and then select a suitable crop. They then draw up a plan for 'The Board'. This strategic plan covers the selection of the proposed crop; all technical aspects associated with growing the crop, a marketing plan; production plan; detailed financial projections including gross margin analysis, profit, cash and net worth effects; as well as projected profit per hour of labour; and finally, a risk assessment.

The final part of the planning is a presentation to the class for peer assessment. The students may decide work in teams for specific aspects of the mini-enterprise and, following successful planning, implementation commences by seeding or planting at the end of the semester.

Semester One - Planning

Planning phase

In semester 2, progress of the crop is regularly monitored and two progress reports are made to 'The Board'. The first one is the Post-Seeding Report. This contrasts the planned seeding program with what actually happened. A seasonal report indicates how climatic factors affected seeding and initial growth. Sometimes, plants do not arrive on time from the East Coast so planting is delayed. The financial control mechanisms are set up and the first of the budget versus actuals comparisons are made.

The second progress report occurs prior to the harvest and is called the Pre-Harvest Report. This is similar to the Post-Seeding Report but all sections are updated and budgets modified if necessary.

Finally after harvest, the final report, the Post-Harvest Report is completed and delivered to 'The Board'. It details the final results and the comparisons of actual results with initial plans.

A Field Day is held and each student makes a short presentation of the results of their mini-enterprise.

Any loss or profit remains with the students, so the students have the opportunity to model the highs and lows of growing a crop for market. Over the two semesters the mini-enterprise program is organised something like the structure below.

Mini-enterprise program organisation

What do the students think?

Students soon learn of the effort required, and the climatic and marketing vagaries involved in growing a crop for market.

They have grown crops such as everlastings, Euphorbia, Iceland poppies, sunflowers, Erygium, petunias, potted colour, celery, corn, silver beet, snow peas, broccoli and cereals. The crops have been sold as foliage, fillers, dried flowers, fresh flowers, seed and fresh vegetables.

One foliage crop was sent to Japan on a trial basis. Crops have been sold to a variety of markets, including the regular Bentley campus markets and Canning Vale, and crops have been sold privately.

The students have certainly been able to "grow something" and experience the pangs of entrepreneurship.

A number of students have commented on the benefits of doing the financial analysis on a small scale because this has helped them to understand, more readily, the principles involved. Students describe the task as "very valuable" and have consistently supported its continued inclusion in the course.

One of the students who recounts his experiences of growing Ammi magus, a European flower variety imported as seed from Holland, is Keith Smith. He utilised his contacts with Westralian Flower Exports and they asked him, and his group, to grow the crop from seed to see how it would cope with the soils and climate of Western Australia. He doesn't remember that he was one of the initiators of this program but he does remember that the experience was "invaluable". As he said, "It joined the four of us [the members of the group] together." "It was a good chance to grow crops and get your hands dirty. It was a lot of work but you learnt a lot as well."

Keith also noted that the mini-enterprise led you to realise how much organisation was involved in growing crops for market. "You really know what's involved when you have to get up at 5.00 am to cut flowers for market". The structure of the mini-enterprise program is dynamic and it continues to be modified as a result of student evaluation.

Future directions

Based on student evaluations, Tim continually reassesses the demands of the project and makes decisions about the structure of the project. The mini-enterprise project encourages students to develop many skills in strategic planning, budgeting, managing and marketing a crop and working productively with other people so its future, at present, is assured.

However, Tim would like to see an improvement in the facilities available for students to use on their mini-enterprises. This includes hydroponics, a potting shed, shade houses, harvesting benches, a propagation house and misting facility, and improved ventilation in the greenhouse, as well as paths, storage sheds, and tools. These facilities would allow students the opportunity to increase the diversity of crops that they could work with in their mini-enterprise.

Tim is always searching for ways to improve the mini-enterprise experience and welcomes any input from interested commentators.

Based on an interview article for Curtin Quality project "Good Practice in Teaching and Learning". One of 50 contributions collated by Project officer, Catherine Milne, in December 1997.
Please cite as: Martella, T. (1998). What's it like to put your money on the line to run a business? Finding out in Horticulture Management. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cea.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/martella.html

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