Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Impact of Federal Reserve Interest Hikes on Your Farm

By Miguel Saviroff, Penn State Extension Educator, Somerset County
The Federal Reserve’s decision to increase interest rates in December has raised questions in the farming sector. The feds have announced at least two new hikes in interest rates in 2017. Although farm level interest rates have been too low for a long time, low agricultural prices can’t cover for any operational expense increases. The clear majority of non-real estate loans made to farmers carry floating interest rates which means the cost of credit adjusts upward if rates increase.
 A pie chart used to compare interest expense versus gross profit
The FRB increases the interest rate when there are signs of a strengthening economy but often agriculture is countercyclical to the national economy. One thing for sure is that farmers need to observe certain signals to maintain financial efficiency.

Farmers need to monitor their interest expense ratio, the relation between interest expense and gross farm income, which may indicate too much dependence in borrowed capital or high interest rate on existing debt. The Penn State “Farm$en$e” program recommends to maintain this ratio below 5%. An Interest-Expense ratio higher than 10% indicates that the farm is spending too much of its gross income paying interest on borrowed money. In this case a business or farm may want to look at ways to lower this expense, this can be accomplished in a number of ways including: selling of assets to pay down overall debt (negative ramification for this may include tax issues), refinancing some loans, and restructuring of debt.

Higher interest rates in a country increase the value of that country’s currency relative to nations offering lower interest rates. These higher interest rates attract foreign investment and the value of the dollar increases. A strong dollar makes our agricultural products less attractive to foreign buyers. One example is the reduction of cheese shipments to Europe due to the decline of the euro versus the dollar.

If there was one piece of advice to the agriculture industry, it would be to settle in. While you may want to secure a long-term loan or purchase more equipment, you will want to limit your borrowing; only do so when necessary.

Likewise, be sure to have a cash reserve on hand.

With interest rates expected to further increase, you will want to ensure you’re properly prepared for the effects no matter how many hikes and in what magnitude.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Shared Kitchen Incubators - A Great Place to Start Your Business

By Winifred McGee, Penn State Extension Educator, Dauphin County
A new year signals the time to think about new enterprises – exploring how, and where, to begin profiting from a “family favorite” recipe. The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, and subsequent FDA rules, have made it a bit more challenging (but not impossible) to start a food business, in that even if state regulations allow a food product to be made in an inspected home kitchen (in Pennsylvania, referred to as a “limited food establishment”), when the food goes regional or national, FDA requires that all products be made in a commercial kitchen.

For the start-up food venture, a shared kitchen offers an affordable, safe, legal place to launch. Instead of investing a large amount of money in designing and equipping your kitchen, a modest fee allows access an established commercial kitchen on a timeslot basis.
Loading the food dehydrator at Field to Fork Ag Incubator
Photo by Katie Kinka, Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission
As you begin to search, you will learn that not all shared kitchens are created equally – and knowing the type of assistance you need makes a world of difference when searching for the “right place.” For instance, you may just need a shared use kitchen – that is, a place that provides space and equipment to multiple food business owners for the commercial preparation and handling of food that will be sold. This type of kitchen will likely be accessed very affordably, because no other services beside kitchen access will be offered. In a fast-changing environment like food business, you will have to keep up on food code and the current acceptable methods of production, as well as making, marketing and selling your product if you select a shared use kitchen – but many food businesses have gotten their start in just such a place.

The next step up is a shared kitchen incubator – at which you will not only access commercial equipment and facilities, but also benefit from “supportive services,” that apply to food production and business management. There will be an on-site manager who can help you navigate the complex network of regulation, packaging and distribution to have the best opportunity for a profitable enterprise. Because of the increased level of service, the per-hour rate will probably be higher than that of a shared use kitchen – but depending on the complexity of product and marketplace, this can be money well-spent.

You may also determine the need for small-scale co-packing – allowing trained workers who are already familiar with commercial equipment and recipe conversions to make valuable contributions to your venture. One such facility here in Pennsylvania is the “Field to Fork Agricultural Incubator,” which opened its doors at the Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center in Johnstown Pennsylvania in September 2016. Joining “Field to Fork” not only means accessing the CTC’s commercial kitchen, but allows you to enlist the knowledge and skills of culinary arts students who are working towards their ProStart Certification, and are available to work side by side with kitchen tenants. As with all shared kitchens, “Field to Fork” is focused on specific targeted groups – local value-added producers with smaller crop yields and food entrepreneurs who need a place to start. Products that can be most easily created in this kitchen are non-organic, jarred fruits and vegetables, dried foods, and baked goods. During its pilot phase, use of the kitchen will be available on a first come, first serve basis. Dry storage and cold storage are also available for a monthly fee. 

In short, shared kitchen incubators do provide the environment necessary for food businesses to start, grow and succeed – by offering not only the right equipment and environment but many services that simplify and economically provide just what is needed in today’s food industry.