STRATFORD - It's been said that, to stay in business, businesses - especially small businesses - must continually reinvent themselves. In the 40 years since Keith Carlson first started creating educational materials for his fellow ag teachers, the business now known as Agri-Education has often changed to meet the needs of the changing times.
Carlson, who was just a few years out of Iowa State University with a degree in ag education, dreamed up the idea in order to make his own dreams come true.
"I wanted to buy a farm," Carlson said. But a teacher's salary wasn't likely to generate enough to make a down payment on his piece of the pie. "I taught school for six years and I decided there's no way I'm ever going to get on a farm teaching school."
Agri-Education founder Keith Carlson in his Stratford office.
In search of a second job, Carlson combined his expertise in teaching vocational agriculture with his wife's skills as an art teacher to fill a need he saw with the advent of then-new technology - the overhead projector.
"The overhead projector was brand new. So I'd have her draw things to put on my transparencies for the classroom, and nobody else had anything like that. Some other teachers borrowed my stuff, so I just decided I'll sell this to them, so that's what I did."
And Agri-Education was born. Its first office consisted of a few pieces of plywood set over some file cabinets next to the furnace in the basement of the Carlson home. The year was 1968 and the Carlsons were teaching in Belmond at the time.
While the materials were popular, the business was not necessarily profitable.
"It took two years to get my money back from the first project, so I was able to tell that this was not going to happen," Carlson said.
Still, he did not give up; but instead looked for a way to adapt and grow the business. Instead of selling to fellow teachers, he would market the materials to deeper pockets.
"I then switched the marketing to selling to companies-ag companies-that had materials for the sales force, and I would adapt that sales materials to the classroom. The company would give it to the schools, and they would pay me for doing the lesson plan, the tests, and the assignments. Usually, we put some overhead projector materials with it as well," Carlson recalled.
The business stayed in Belmond until 1973, when the Carlsons moved to Gilbert for three years. Finally, in 1976 they moved to a farm in the Stratford area.
Most of the educational materials created by Agri-Education in those years were geared to production agriculture, hands-ons skills that students could put to work on most any Iowa farm.
As the decade of the 1970s faded away, overhead projectors were no longer the newest thing. Instead, ag teachers who could easily castrate a pig were now wrestling with how to use computer software. This time, Agri-Education changed with the times to help teach the teachers.
"About 1980 we started putting software with the material. We put on a lot of seminars to teach teachers how to use software in the classroom. They were getting computers but they had no software, just like they were getting overhead projects but they didn't have any transparencies," he said.
Land grant universities, and even the FFA itself, soon got into the business of assisting teachers with software, and Carlson again found it necessary to reinvent his business to suit the changing times. Of course, this was also the time when agriculture was changing and the on-farm population was shrinking.
As Americans got farther and farther removed from the farm, Agri-Education poised itself to serve the needs of urban students who had little understanding of where their food came from. Instead of creating materials for ag education teachers, Agri-Education was now marketing itself to teachers in urban and inner city schools. It was even working to help tell agriculture's story to an increasingly skeptical public.
"In 1990 we started doing some things in reaction to the attacks by animal rights groups and foreign markets wanting to know how our food, our meat, is produced, and in particular for the pork producers," Carlson said.
Out of that effort, grew a relationship with dairy producers, who lacked a strong producers association such as the Corn Growers, Soybean Association, Pork Producers or Beef Producers. Again, Agri-Education stepped in to fill a largely unmet need.
Forming the Dairy Quality Assurance Center, Agri-Education reached out to dairy farmers to distribute information and collect data showing the quality of care given.
Agri-Education arranged for veterinarians to visit the dairy farms, evaluate animal care as independent observers, and then forward what they had learned to the Stratford office where it was put into a data base and made available to food companies, suppliers, and so on.
Since the mid 1990s, Agri-Education has worked exclusively with the dairy industry, ending its work with schools.
"In a way, we started a third company, same name,but the market changed and it was important for us to keep changing," Carlson said.
Today, Agri-Education gathers and stores data from some 10,000 dairy farms all across the United States. Many of the farms who use the services are larger dairies, and the information collected helps defend themselves from sometimes hostile attacks by animal rights extremists.
Today, Carlson is very satisfied with the way Agri-Education has evolved and grown over the decades. And those 40 years in business have taught him a few things that can be applied to any business, regardless of whether they sell overhead transparencies to teachers, cotton candy to children, or fertilizer to farmers.
His advice to small business owners is to keep an open mind and be prepared to change rapidly. After all, customers aren't going to change to fit the businesses' needs, so business owners have to be prepared to do the changing to suit the customers.
"You should be mentally willing to change and follow where the income stream can keep you going," Carlson said.
As for the future, the next evolution of Agri-Education will likely be up to the employees, rather than Carlson himself. Does he think about retiring? Not really, he's sort of already there.
"In many respects, I think of retiring as when I left teaching back in the '70s, because as an independent person I've been my own boss ever since.That's probably the driving force for most small businesses, a desire to be their own boss and carry out some idea that they might have. Beyond that, success depends on hiring good people and having a good marketing plan to figure out who would want your service. It's worked well for us. We've had a good time," Carlson said.
And, as for that farm he dreamed of, his sons are carrying on that dream now. Dream fulfilled.
Contact Lori Berglund ag firstname.lastname@example.org