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Time to Think Outside the Box

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"We don't have any financial restrictions…but we want to make money," Bryan Nichols, a livestock consultant and one of our acting "cooperators," instructed us a week ago as our team met to begin our rural life plan project, which will be the focus of our presentation at the end of the summer. Our team of "consultants," including Helen Holstein, Conner Carroll, Courtney Hemphill and myself, looked at each other with mild apprehension as our open-ended project with "few constraints" began to take on more and more restrictions.

For this project, some of the rural life consultants will sit on the other side of the desk and take on the role of cooperators during the next several weeks of the summer. As they presented us with the property and type of operation we would be working with, we were challenged to solve the equation of cooperators' needs and desires, plus restrictions of the property, multiplied by a vast array of possibilities. It was our job to figure out the best recommendations to help the cooperators reach their goals. I readily admit that the more we discussed the project, the more unsure I was becoming about which direction we should take and how we would answer all of the questions being thrown our way.

After our initial meeting, we visited the property that we would be using as the basis for our project. We couldn't have been presented with a blanker slate if we had asked for one. With little pasture improvement, many acres of woods, no substantial water sources, no rural water or electric, and the most basic perimeter fencing, we began the long and seemingly endless brainstorming process. Our cooperators continued to pepper us with questions, making sure we didn't forget to think about any dimension of our operation. Returning to our offices, I had a clearer idea of what was expected, but I was not certain how we were going to get there.

By now, we have spent several hours hashing out ideas, discussing possibilities and researching different options to come up with a small-scale operation that will fulfill all of the various needs of our cooperators. From the moment we began mapping out different options, we knew we wouldn't find the answer to our project without throwing in some creativity. While some options (i.e., grass-fed teacup pigs) weren't ever serious considerations, coming up with our best recommendations has pushed us outside of our comfort zones. We still have about a week to finalize our recommendations and plenty of brainstorming left to do. This project has been providing us with great experience in how to navigate a consultation visit. It has taught me a wealth of information and, perhaps most importantly, how much I have to learn. I am excited to continue working to make our plan take shape and share our results as we think outside the box.

Alyssa Sheppard is a 2014 Lloyd Noble Scholar in Agriculture from New Derry, Pennsylvania.