NCGT/MBA student team (back row) with Yancey County Commissioners (front row).

May 2017 — MBA student teams from NC State University’s Poole College of Management Supply Chain Resource Cooperative have worked with NCGT staff and partner entities since summer 2013 to investigate and address food business processes and supply chain issues across the local-to-mainstream food supply chain.  Read about their research projects on the NCGT website, here.

This past spring, one student team worked with NCGT partner TRACTOR Food and Farms to increase profitability by more strategically planning delivery schedules, routes, and minimum orders.  As team member Stephanie White describes, “the key question TRACTOR wanted [us] to answer was ‘how much do our customers need to buy to justify a delivery?’  In order to determine this, we needed to know the cost of transportation for each leg of TRACTOR’s delivery route.  While logistics providers like UPS have very sophisticated software to answer this question, we needed a ‘free’, small-scale solution to fit TRACTOR’s needs.”

The end result of the team’s project was an Excel-based tool with multiple components to manage TRACTOR’s business at each stage of the sales cycle: recording inventory, allocating inventory to customers, transportation route planning, and cost control.   “We operate on such a thin margin,” said TRACTOR’s director Robin Smith.  “The spreadsheet tool allows us to look at the logistics of a delivery and decide if it is feasible and what the best route and minimum order need to be.”   (Download Excel-based tool and User Guide.)

The student team traveled to Burnsville in May to train the TRACTOR staff on the tool and present their research to the Yancey County Commissioners.   “We really wanted the County Commissioners to see how TRACTOR partners with local farmers and students to grow local food systems, and we wanted to make them aware of issues that a non-profit food hub deals with,” said Smith. According to Smith, the County Commissioners have been very supportive of TRACTOR; in fact, she says that the food hub “wouldn’t even be in existence without Yancey county government.”

This is the second time that an NCGT MBA student team based their work at TRACTOR.  Last fall, an undergraduate team of three business students analyzed the business case for a new local food box program for TRACTOR, which had previously only offered wholesale accounts.  “People had been asking us how to buy our local produce, and we didn’t really have a mechanism for that,” explains Smith.  “The direct-to-workplace local food box was a new idea for us.”  The team proposed working with a local hospital since a local produce program fit in well with the hospital’s wellness mission.

The team analyzed competing box programs, conducted an employee survey at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine to assess interest, and created a product and pricing program.  Response to the survey was overwhelmingly positive and, with the hospital’s support, the CSA program was adopted and the first delivery will be June 15th.  “We’re incredibly grateful to Blue Ridge Regional Hospital for being early adopters,” says Smith.  “It has been amazing to work with them to get local healthy produce to their employees.”

For NCGT partner organizations interested in working with an MBA team in the fall, please contact NCGT Project Manager Rebecca Dunning.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 NC Growing Together Newsletter.