West Virginia University sophomore Mary-Kate Barker recently got her first taste of success at the West Virginia Small Farm Conference in Charleston, West Virginia.
Barker, a WVU Davis College Young Innovator Fellow majoring in human nutrition and foods in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, premiered her homemade granola during the 12th Annual West Virginia Small Farm Conference on Feb. 25-26.
At the conference, Barker was given the opportunity to market and sell Mary-Kate’s GranDelite granola, a product she came up with based on her own custom recipes and branding strategy. She partnered with The Wild Ramp, a non-profit in Huntington, West Virginia, that provides a space for local food producers and artisans to sell their products.
Barker sold GranDelite from The Wild Ramp’s table during the Winter Blues Farmers Market, a staple event held during the first night of the conference. The following day she worked from her own booth, talking with conference attendees and handing out samples. She experienced growing sales and received helpful customer feedback throughout the conference.
“The Small Farm Conference experience was great,” Barker said. “It was the first time I actually got to show off what I’ve been working on – this product that I can call my own.”
As a Davis College Young Innovator, Barker was provided the resources – funding, mentoring and networking opportunities – to carry out her idea from concept to reality. Funded by a $157,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and $100,000 from Farm Credit, the Davis College Young Innovators Fellowship Program provides 10 students each year with the resources to enhance and sustain the rural economy of West Virginia, while building the entrepreneurial career of their dreams.
“This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the Young Innovator Fellowship,” Barker said. “First of all, I wouldn’t have had the funding, which was obviously a big help. Secondly, the people involved were important because they really helped push me in the right direction, connecting me with others who could help.”
The first person to give Barker a small push in the right direction was her adviser, Megan Govindan, director of the didactic program in dietetics and teaching associate professor in human nutrition and foods. It was Govindan who encouraged Barker to apply for a Young Innovators Fellowship last semester. She continued to encourage Barker as she brainstormed a variety of project ideas.
Barker also benefited from the guidance of her two Young Innovators Resource Team mentors, Fonda Holehouse, director of the WVU LaunchLab and associate professor in the Davis College, and Ralph Currey, special adviser and board director for Iberdrola Renewables, LLC.
The mentorship aspect of the Young Innovators program is a crucial component that connects students with industry experts and university resources.
Among the resources that contributed to Barker’s product launch are the WVU LaunchLab and the WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center. Barker also collaborated with students from the College of Creative Arts and College of Business and Economics on her label design and initial consumer survey.
“It takes so many people,” said Barker. “You really need a lot of advice and help. If it weren’t for the resources and help I received, I never would have been able to do this.”
This spirit of collaboration within the university and state – combined with a strong academic foundation – were two key ingredients to Barker’s success.
“It is wonderful to see our students impact the local food economy by combining concepts from their human nutrition and foods coursework with resources available in the Davis College and beyond,” said Govindan. “We are fortunate to have such a supportive ‘village’ contributing to the success of our students and to the state of West Virginia.”
The Wild Ramp will continue to sell Mary-Kate’s GranDelite from its store in Huntington, and Barker is exploring a potential partnership with a co-packaging company that would help with production and distribution. Shelly Keeney, market manager for The Wild Ramp, is pleased the store now has this healthy snack food option on its shelf.
“The Wild Ramp is committed to promoting local food entrepreneurs – especially those foods that advocate healthy eating habits,” said Keeney. “Mary-Kate’s GranDelite granola is a great product. It makes a great breakfast treat and pairs well with our grass-grazed yogurt products.”
Ultimately, Barker has her sights set on owning her own nutritional business or pursuing her passion for clinical dietetics. Regardless of the path she chooses, Barker’s future is looking bright.
“The Young Innovator’s program has allowed Mary-Kate to transform tremendously in the past year,” Govindan said. “She has a bright future, with her diligence and desire to develop strategies supporting healthy living.”