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Where do agri-food entrepreneurs

learn their job and are there skills


they wished they had learned?
Florence Becot, David Conner and Jane Kolodinsky

Abstract: The agri-food system plays a vital role in the socioeconomic


well-being of the USA. In rural Vermont, the setting for this study, the
contributions are even larger. Agri-food businesses contribute an estimated 12% of the states gross domestic product and comprise 13% of
private sector establishments. The community economic development
potential of fostering successful food entrepreneurs suggests a role for
higher education in educating the next generation of entrepreneurs. This
study explores gaps in entrepreneurial knowledge and skills. Using a
survey of agri-food entrepreneurs designed to obtain an understanding of
the tools needed for success, the authors found that entrepreneurs valued
a wide range of skills, making it difficult to tailor training. The importance
of informal learning was also confirmed. The authors conclude that the
role of higher education in entrepreneurial education is to educate students to think critically, recognize opportunities, develop networks and
identify resources. In addition, it is critical to provide students with exposure to entrepreneurs in the field.
Keywords: agri-food entrepreneurs; skills and knowledge; education and
training; learning
Florence Becot (corresponding author) is a Research Specialist in the Center for Rural Studies,
University of Vermont, 206 Morrill Hall, Burlington VT 05405, USA. E-mail: fbecot@uvm.edu.
David Conner is Associate Professor in the Department of Community Development and Applied
Economics, University of Vermont; and Jane Kolodinsky is Professor and Chair of the Department
of Community Development and Applied Economics and Director of the Center for Rural Studies,
University of Vermont.

The agri-food system plays a vital role in the socioeconomic well-being of the USA. For example, it comprises
4.8% of US gross domestic product (GDP) and nearly
10% of all jobs, while 15% of all household expenditures are on food (USDA Economic Research Service,
2014). In rural Vermont, the setting for this study, the
contributions are even larger. The total contribution of
agri-food to the states economy is estimated at US$2.7
billion (Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, 2011), about
12% of state GDP (US Department of Commerce,
2012), and the agri-food system provides 57,089 jobs

(16% of all private sector jobs), including 6,984 farms


and 4,104 other food-related businesses (13% of all
private sector establishments) (Vermont Sustainable
Jobs Fund, 2012).
The Vermont Farm to Plate state-wide strategic plan
is a broad, multi-institutional initiative with the mission
of strengthening Vermonts food system and increasing
its ability to serve as an engine of sustainable economic development. One of its goals is to increase the
number of food entrepreneurs so as to strengthen the
food system and provide job opportunities in the state

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3, 2015, pp 207215 doi: 10.5367/ijei.2015.0192

207

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?

(Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, 2011). The importance of fostering entrepreneurs is reinforced by the
role of small businesses in the US economy. Small
businesses make up more than 99% of all private US
firms, provide almost half of all employment and
almost two-thirds of new employment (Small Business
Administration, 2012). Numerous studies over the
years have also confirmed the importance of small and
medium-scale entrepreneurial businesses to community
social and economic well-being (Goldschmidt, 1947;
Lyson, 2004).
Despite the agri-food systems potential contributions to social-economic well-being and provision of
ecosystem services, it is important to note many
scholars concerns about grave damage to ecosystems,
communities and public health through a broad array
of means, including (but not limited to) pollution,
biodiversity loss, unfair labour practices, antibiotic
resistance and illegal activities (Lymbery, 2014; Smith
and McElwee, 2013; Tegtmeier and Duffy, 2004;
Zhang et al, 2007). The sustainable or alternative
agriculture and sustainable community-based food
system paradigms are widely seen as mitigating the
damage and accentuating positive contributions (Beus
and Dunlap, 1990; Conner and Levine, 2007; Feenstra,
2002). The University of Vermont, like many higher
education institutions, actively promulgates sustainable
agriculture and food systems through its education,
research and outreach efforts, including its sustainable
farming training programme, its food systems, minor
and graduate programmes and transdisciplinary research initiative. Commitment to sustainable
community development is also embedded in Vermonts Farm to Plate food systems strategic plan. A
firm must be profitable for it to continue to contribute
to sustainability outcomes: hence the focus of this
paper on entrepreneurial skills needed for business
success. Agri-food firms specific contributions to
community development and sustainability are the
subject of another paper (Conner et al, under review)
within this project and beyond the scope of this paper.
The community economic development potential of
fostering successful food entrepreneurs suggests a role
for higher education to educate the next generation of
entrepreneurs. This study explores gaps in entrepreneurial knowledge and skills, along with strategies for
effectively delivering them to prospective entrepreneurs.
Building on previous studies (Conner et al, under
review, and 2014), it uses a survey of agri-food entrepreneurs in Vermont to understand what knowledge and
skills they need most in their businesses, and how and
where they learned these skills. Implications will focus
on strategies to improve entrepreneurship education in
agricultural colleges and universities.

Literature review

208

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

While some believe that entrepreneurs are born (Fisher


and Koch, 2008), others believe they can be made
(Gibb, 2008) and, with the proper tools and skill sets,
can be successful (Kilpatrick, 1997; Knudson et al,
2004; Martin et al, 2013). Although it is difficult to
draw correlations between education, skill sets and
entrepreneurial outcomes (Kilpatrick, 1997), the literature has established some evidence that education and
skills positively affect profitability (Kallio and Kola,
1999; Phelan and Sharpley, 2012; McElwee, 2006).
Education and the development of entrepreneurial skill
sets allow for an improved quality of labour (Welch,
1970), improved critical thinking skills, increased
innovative skills and the ability to process available
information to respond to changing environments
(Kilpatrick, 1997; Kilpatrick and Johns, 2003).
Kilpatrick (1997) found that more profitable farm
businesses participate in more training than other farm
businesses (p 29).
Our operational definition of an agri-food entrepreneur in this study is an individual who has begun and
continues to operate a for-profit enterprise which
produces and sells agricultural and/or food products.
Examples include (but are not limited to) input suppliers, farmers/ranchers, processors, food manufacturers,
distributors, wholesalers or retailers. Skills needed by
agri-food entrepreneurs are similar to those needed by
any entrepreneur (Phelan and Sharpley, 2012). Over the
years, a body of research has examined the skills that
entrepreneurs should possess, with a strong emphasis
placed on the idea that managerial skills and entrepreneurial skills differ (Pyysiainen et al, 2006; Chen et al,
1998; Anderson and Jack, 1999). Managerial skills are
considered to be easier to learn, while learning entrepreneurial skills is more difficult, but carries a business into
the future (Pyysiainen et al, 2006; Morgan et al, 2010;
Carter, 1999). A recent study using a Delphi method
identified two sets of entrepreneurial competencies. The
first set, behavioural competencies, includes opportunity
recognition, opportunity assessment, resource
leveraging and developing business models. The second
set, attitudinal competencies, includes resilience, selfefficacy and tenacity (Morris et al, 2013). For McElwee
(2008), who has done extensive work in rural and farm
entrepreneurship, the important skills are networking,
innovation, risk taking, teamworking, reflection,
leadership and business monitoring. Lastly, some have
highlighted the jack-of-all-trades approach in which
the ingredients for successful entrepreneurship are
sufficient, with balanced skills in a variety of areas
(Lazear, 2005; Wagner, 2006).
A recent study of agri-food entrepreneurs in Vermont

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?

(Conner et al, 2014) explored entrepreneurial learning


using the explicit, tacit and co-created knowledge model
as found in Peterson (2009). Explicit knowledge refers
to knowledge that is not context-specific, can be codified and easily shared through manuals and lectures.
Tacit knowledge refers to knowledge that is contentspecific and not easily shared; it is gained through
practice and experience. Co-created knowledge refers to
new knowledge created by combining and sharing novel
combinations of explicit and tacit knowledge among
shareholders using experimentation and iteration. The
University was best able to foster tacit and co-created
knowledge and skills such as critical thinking, networking and peer learning through internships and
experiential learning. However, many students (particularly those in agricultural rather than business majors)
cited a lack of instruction in explicit knowledge critical
to business success, particularly management, finance
and marketing. As Politis (2005) pointed out, entrepreneurial learning is experiential in nature and should be
conceived as a lifelong process. And, as Peterman and
Kennedy (2003) pointed out, there is a wide variety of
approaches to the teaching of entrepreneurship and little
agreement on any one approach. The traditional university curriculum focuses on the transfer of skills and
theoretical concepts (Lans et al, 2004). Some scholars
advocate experiential learning as an approach to teaching entrepreneurship (Knudson et al, 2004; Morris et al,
2013) with a mix of practitioners and academics and an
emphasis on creativity and action over theory (Conner et
al, 2014). Factors not often addressed in the literature
are student differences in learning capacities,
motivations and skill sets (Vanevenhoven, 2013) and the
slow and incremental process of learning entrepreneurship skills (Politis, 2005). So, while the university
setting offers opportunities through experiential education to encourage creativity, critical thinking and skills
transfer (Conner et al, 2014; Morris et al, 2013), it may
not ever fully train entrepreneurs. In fact, some research
has found that formal learning is not considered by
entrepreneurs to be the best source of training
(Kilpatrick, 1997; Lans et al, 2010). Indeed, Lans et al
(2004) attribute the preference for non-formal or
informal learning activities to factors such as being
cheaper, being more specific and giving faster results.
Another aspect not often addressed in the literature is
that not everyone who wants to become an entrepreneur
accesses higher education or goes through a university
curriculum knowing that they want to become an
entrepreneur. While many schools have developed
entrepreneurship curricula (Kuratko, 2005), such
programmes will not reach everyone who desires to
become an entrepreneur. For example, farmers traditionally learned how to become farmers and the

entrepreneurial aspect was secondary, if considered at


all (Daz-Pichardo et al, 2012; Bamberry et al, 1997).
Entrepreneurship learning is a life process during which
entrepreneurs do not draw on formal education only, but
also on previous work experience and support networks
of family, peers and service providers (Kilpatrick,
2002). This type of learning provides informal yet
crucial training opportunities (Wenger, 1998). Informal
learning is defined as unstructured, unintentional,
implicit learning (Lans et al, 2004). A qualitative study
including interviews with 17 agri-food entrepreneurs
revealed that informal learning was not recognized as
real learning by the entrepreneurs, yet when the notion
of informal learning was explained to them, they
recognized that they had done more of it than previously
thought (Lans et al, 2004).
Another aspect that affects entrepreneurial learning is
the training selection bias. When deciding whether or
not to seek additional training, entrepreneurs must
weigh the cost of the training and the opportunity cost of
lost work time against the future increase in profit as a
result of the new skills gained. Kilpatrick (1997) found
that more profitable farm businesses participate in more
training than other farm businesses (p 33). She also
found that entrepreneurs who were more educated were
more likely to seek additional training.
Overall, research about agri-food entrepreneurship
has been limited and has not often appeared in general
entrepreneurship journals (Daz-Pichardo et al, 2012;
McElwee, 2006). Gaps identified in the literature,
including some specific to agri-food entrepreneurship,
are:

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

209

the specific skills to be developed and the type of


training to be used (Knudson et al, 2004; DazPichardo et al, 2012; McElwee and Bosworth, 2010;
Politis, 2005);
strategies to use to encourage farmers to seek
additional training (Daz-Pichardo et al, 2012) and
workplace learning of entrepreneurs (Lans et al,
2004); and
the entrepreneurs learning demands, preferences,
motivations and conditions (Lans et al, 2004).

From this literature review, we have identified the


following gaps: where and how entrepreneurs learn their
skill sets, the skills they consider to be the most important and what are the best ways to learn them. Therefore,
the research objectives of this study are to understand:
(1) Where and how did agri-food entrepreneurs learn
the skills needed to start and operate successful agrifood businesses?
(2) How do entrepreneurs rate the relative importance
of these skills?

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?

(3) What is the role of formal education in imparting


these skills?
Our overarching research question is: how can these
results inform how higher education should best prepare
future agri-food entrepreneurs for success?

Methodological considerations
This paper reports on results of an online survey of agrifood entrepreneurs in Vermont. It builds on two
previous studies within the same project which utilized
(i) interviews of agri-goods entrepreneurs (Conner et al,
under review) and (ii) university instructors of entrepreneurship and recent graduates interested in starting a
business (Conner et al, 2014). These studies were highly
idiographic, utilizing qualitative methods to gain depth
of understanding of our subjects experiences in entrepreneurship education and practice. For this paper, we
chose to supplement these findings with a more nomothetic account which measures the preponderance of and
relationships among variables developed through
analysis of key themes of the aforementioned interviews
in a larger and broader sample.

Methods
The online survey was designed to explore the knowledge and skills needed to foster agri-food entrepreneurs
in Vermont and how this information should be taught.
The University of Vermonts Institutional Review Board
approved the research protocol. The survey questions
were based on the findings of 20 qualitative interviews
of Vermont agri-food entrepreneurs conducted in the
autumn of 2012 (Archer, 2013). The list of skills was
gathered from previous studies and the qualitative
interviews of the Vermont agri-food entrepreneurs. The
survey was designed to obtain information about
important skills and knowledge to run a business, where
these skills were learned, and knowledge the resources
and format they use for continuing educational needs
as well as firmographic and demographic characteristics.
The survey was piloted by three agri-food entrepreneurs
and revised accordingly.
The unit of analysis was the individual entrepreneur.
The survey sample frame was agri-food entrepreneurs in
Vermont, and included any business in the agri-food
supply chain. For example, there were: input suppliers,
farmers/ranchers, processors, food manufacturers,
distributors, wholesalers or retailers. We estimate that
this represents about 12,000 businesses. A list of 25
related professional organizations, service providers and
government organizations was created to deliver the
survey to the sample frame. The survey was uploaded
on an online survey platform, and e-mails containing a

210

short description of the project and the link were sent to


the contact list. The survey opened on 21 October 2014
and closed a month later. Three e-mail reminders were
sent, and we received 47 completed surveys. Coding and
data analysis were conducted using IBM Statistical
Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 21.0.
The data analysis was limited to descriptive analysis in
SPSS due to the small sample size.

Results
Survey respondent characteristics
Summary demographic and firmographic statistics are
presented in Table 1. The sample is highly educated, as
57.5% of the respondents hold a Bachelors degree and
25.0% hold a Graduate degree. Respondents were on
average 48.7 years old and the sample was gender-split
(52.6 male and 47.4% female). Majors in college were
reported in an open-ended question. Out of the 33
respondents who reported a major, 18.2% had a degree
related to business, entrepreneurship or economics.
Other majors included engineering, environmental
studies, agriculture, geography, anthropology and
education.
In terms of firm characteristics, 85.4% had started the
business, and respondents had been operating the
business for an average of 14.8 years. The size of the
operations tended to be small, with 87% of respondents
running an operation which had a 2012 gross revenue
under $500,000. More entrepreneurs reported being in a
phase of growth (48.7%) and fewer reported being in a
start-up phase (25.6%). Overall, 51.2% of respondents
desired their business to be somewhat bigger and 26.8%
desired it to be much bigger. Products produced by the
businesses included: fruits and vegetables, meat, cheese,
maple syrup, mustard, bread and caramels.
Where did agri-food entrepreneurs learn the skills they
have?
Entrepreneurs were asked where they had learned the
skills needed to run an operation (Table 2). Entrepreneurs possessed most of the identified skills. Three skills
were reported as being the most intuitively learned
skills: aligning values and passions to business opportunities (32.5%), oral communication (29.3%) and
innovation (23.1%). Entrepreneurs reported that they
just know it as the manner in which these skills were
learned. Three skills were most often reported as never
learned this. These were: risk management (15.4%),
supply chain management (13.5%) and bookkeeping
(11.6%). Two skills were possessed by the entire
sample: aligning values and passions to business
opportunities, and marketing.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?


Table 1. Summary statistics for demographic and firmographic variables.
Variables

Sample mean/proportion

Gender (n = 40):
Female
Male
Education (n = 40):
No high school diploma
High school diploma
Some college
Bachelors degree
Graduate degree
Age (n = 39)
Number of employees (n = 41)
Number of years in business (n = 41)
Ownership of business (n = 41):
Started the business
Purchased the business
Inherited the business
Dont own the business
2012 gross revenue:
Less than $100,000
$101,000 to $250,000
$250,001 to $500,000
$500,001 to $750,000
$750,001 to $1 million
More than $1 million, less than $5 million

Experience had provided most of the entrepreneurial


learning for the sample. Almost 40% of the skills had
been learned through the experience of operating a
business, 12.3% through another job, 10.3% through
collaboration with business stakeholders, and 73.2%
belonged to one or more professional associations.
Formal educational settings, such as classroom and
outreach, played a small role (7.8 and 5.6% respectively). It is interesting to note that the least businessspecific skills, such as written and oral communication
and computer skills, were the top three skills learned in
a classroom setting.
Are there skills considered more important than others
by entrepreneurs?
All of the skills ranked as important for at least 63% of
the respondents, suggesting that an entrepreneurs skill
set must be comprehensive (Table 3). It does not appear
that there is a preference for explicit, tacit or co-created
knowledge, but rather a mix. The skill that was the most
often considered as not important was human resources
management (15.2%). Knowing that respondents had an
average of 4.3 workers illustrates that they might not
perceive human resources management as a necessary
skill.
Is there a role for formal education in the eyes of the
entrepreneurs?
The favoured delivery system of entrepreneurs for
continuing education was peer-to-peer (70.2%) and

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

Standard deviation

47.4
52.6
2.5
15.0
57.5
25.0
48.7
4.3
14.8

12.8
7.3
20.9

85.4
7.3
4.9
2.4
59.0
10.3
17.9
7.7
0.0
2.6
2.6

conferences (66.0%), while 10.6% of entrepreneurs


favoured classroom learning. This result suggests that
formal education does not have a role to play for
existing entrepreneurs, but it may have a role for
potential future entrepreneurs. To find out, we looked at
the knowledge and skills that entrepreneurs considered
important to learn in a formal classroom setting and
compared them with where the respondents had learned
these skills (Table 4). The skills considered most
important to be learned in the classroom had not actually
been learned there. For instance, 31.9% of the respondents considered that legal knowledge such as food safety
and tax law was important to learn in the classroom.
Only 4.7% of respondents had learned these skills in the
classroom. On the other hand, written communication,
one of the skills considered less important to be learned
in a formal setting (4.3%), was the skill that had been
most often learned in the classroom (42.5%). This seems
to suggest that, as far as entrepreneurs are concerned,
there is a disconnect between the university curriculum
and entrepreneurial skills. This may be due to the fact
that when entrepreneurs went through school, they did
not have an eye towards running a business.
The six skills considered most important to teach in
the classroom are categorized as explicit knowledge and
would most probably be included in a business or
entrepreneurship major. So while entrepreneurs are not
likely to go back to school, a possible place to fill the
gap in teaching explicit skills is through outreach/
extension education. The top three skills important to

211

212

Risk management
Supply chain management
Bookkeeping
Human resources management
Managing life stages of the business
Promotion
Market development
Written communication
Finance
Receiving and acting on
customer feedback
Innovation
Operations
Product development
Pricing
Legal (food safety, tax law)
Oral communication
Business plan writing
Computer skills
Aligning values and passions
to business opportunities
Marketing

5.1
0.0
14.0
0.0
0.0
0.0
2.6
2.5
7.5
0.0
2.6
2.4
4.8
7.0
9.3
4.9
24.4
9.3
10.0
7.1

2.6
0.0
2.4
0.0
4.7
22.0
4.9
20.9
0.0
0.0

Non-formal
education
(outreach)
setting

7.7
5.4
7.0
2.6
5.3
2.4
2.6
42.5
10.0
4.4

Formal
education
(classroom)
setting

47.6

43.6
43.9
50.0
51.2
46.5
19.5
22.0
23.3
40.0

33.3
48.6
37.2
39.5
50.0
46.3
55.3
15.0
42.5
51.1

I learned it
through the
experience of
operating my
business

11.9

12.8
19.5
4.8
11.6
2.3
14.6
12.2
23.3
5.0

12.8
10.8
7.0
28.9
10.5
12.2
10.5
7.5
10.0
17.8

Through
another job

Table 2. Venues for acquiring knowledge and skills for running a business (%) (n = 47).

9.5

0.0
9.8
11.9
9.3
16.3
0.0
22.0
7.0
7.5

7.7
2.7
11.6
0.0
5.3
7.3
2.6
10.0
7.5
2.2

Through
secondary
sources
books,
online, etc

9.5

10.3
14.6
14.3
11.6
14.0
7.3
7.3
4.7
5.0

12.8
10.8
9.3
10.5
13.2
14.6
13.2
7.5
10.0
4.4

I learned it in
collaboration
with stakeholders

14.3

23.1
4.9
7.1
4.7
2.3
29.3
4.9
9.3
32.5

5.1
8.1
2.3
7.9
5.3
7.3
5.3
7.5
5.0
13.3

Just knew it

0.0

5.1
4.9
4.8
4.7
4.7
2.4
2.4
2.3
0.0

15.4
13.5
11.6
10.5
10.5
9.8
7.9
7.5
7.5
6.7

I never
learned this

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?


Table 3. Importance of different skills when running a business (%) (n = 47).
Important

Neutral

Not important

97.9
91.5
91.1
89.4
89.4
87.2
87.2
87.0
85.1
84.8
82.6
80.0
78.7
78.7
78.3
76.1
73.3
67.4
67.4
63.6

2.1
8.5
8.9
6.4
10.6
10.6
10.6
13.0
8.5
13.0
13.0
20.0
14.9
12.8
19.6
19.6
22.2
23.9
17.4
29.5

0.0
0.0
0.0
4.3
0.0
2.1
2.1
0.0
6.4
2.2
4.3
0.0
6.4
8.5
2.2
4.3
4.4
8.7
15.2
6.8

Bookkeeping
Receiving and acting on customer feedback
Operations
Legal (food safety, tax law)
Marketing
Market development
Product development
Pricing
Computer skills
Oral communication
Finance
Innovation
Promotion
Written communication
Managing life stages of the business
Risk management
Aligning values and passions to business opportunities
Business plan writing
Human resources management
Supply chain management

Table 4. Knowledge and skill sets found to be the most important to be taught in a formal classroom setting (%) (n = 47).
Knowledge and skills
more important to be
taught in formal
classroom setting

Respondents who
learned skills in
classroom

Respondents who
learned skills in an
outreach setting

31.9
29.8
27.7
27.7
23.4
23.4
14.9
14.9
10.6
10.6
10.6
8.5
6.4
6.4
4.3
4.3
4.3
2.1
2.1
0.0

4.7
4.9
7.0
10.0
20.9
0.0
2.4
7.7
0.0
5.3
2.6
0.0
2.6
22.0
2.4
4.4
42.5
0.0
5.4
2.6

9.3
24.4
14.0
7.5
9.3
7.1
4.8
5.1
10.0
0.0
2.6
7.0
0.0
4.9
0.0
0.0
2.5
2.4
0.0
2.6

Legal (food safety, tax law)


Business plan writing
Bookkeeping
Finance
Computer skills
Marketing
Product development
Risk management
Aligning values and passions to business opportunities
Managing life stages of the business
Market development
Pricing
Human resources management
Oral communication
Promotion
Receiving and acting on customer feedback
Written communication
Operations
Supply chain management
Innovation

learn in a classroom setting have been learned through


outreach more often than they have been learned in the
classroom.

Discussion and implications


Informal education and experience were by far the most
common methods of entrepreneurial learning reported in
this study. We found the entrepreneurs in the survey to
be well connected with their peers, and this was considered to be the most important delivery system for

ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

continuing education. Almost three-quarters of the


respondents belonged to one or more professional
associations.
The skill set needed by an entrepreneur is comprehensive and includes a mix of explicit, tacit and co-created
skills. Something that has not often been done in the
literature is to ask entrepreneurs about the skills that
they consider important when running a business. When
asked about the most important skills to be learned in a
formal setting, the top five skills were all considered
explicit, suggesting that perhaps tacit and co-created

213

Where do agri-food entrepreneurs learn their job?

skills might not be the best suited skills for the formal
education set-up.
As other scholars have found before us, informal
education is key for the development of knowledge
and skills for entrepreneurs. Previous work experience,
learning from others and learning by doing were the
most frequent sources of informal learning in our study
as well as in others (Gabrielsson and Politis, 2012;
Shane and Venkataraman, 2000; Lans et al, 2004). Our
findings suggest the importance of having many types
of skills, from explicit to co-created, confirming the
jack-of-all-trades approach (Lazear, 2005). Our study
also found that entrepreneurs were able to source their
toolkit of skills from many different venues, showing
that entrepreneurs are also entrepreneurial in their
approach to learning. One important finding is that
formal education does not play a key role. This could
be because educational programmes focus more on
general business functions and less on entrepreneurial
skills (Morris et al, 2013). Finally, we arrived at
similar conclusions to Phelan and Sharpley (2012),
who had found that the skills the farmers valued as
important were the skills in which they had least
confidence: managing finances and marketing. In our
study we found that the skills entrepreneurs ranked as
being important to learn in a formal education setting
had not been learned there.
These findings suggest important implications for
the development of skills for entrepreneurs and people
who might want to become entrepreneurs. Majors at
the university level and in trade schools where people
are likely to start an agri-food business such as agriculture and food sciences should include the explicit skills
and knowledge deemed necessary by the entrepreneurs
to run a business; while not the most crucial, they are
nevertheless important for the survival of the business.
These skills and knowledge are: legal (food safety and
tax law), business plan writing, bookkeeping and
finance. Even though there has been a lot of interest in
teaching entrepreneurship at the university level for
entrepreneurs, this is not where they are learning the
necessary skills. We find yet again the importance of
informal learning through previous jobs, networks and
operating the business. The role of the institution of
higher learning is then to continue providing the
building blocks that can be used by any students
whether they start a business or not; these include
critical thinking, knowing how to identify resources
and how to use them, and the importance of networks
and how to connect with them. This means that service
providers such as extension workers have a key role to
play as they can work with the entrepreneurs to
strengthen the skills and knowledge that they feel they
lack.

Conclusion

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ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND INNOVATION Vol 16, No 3

Our study explored where agri-food entrepreneurs learn


the skills they have, whether there are some skills that
are more important than others, and the role of formal
education in training agri-food entrepreneurs. We found
that entrepreneurs valued a wide set of skills, making it
hard to narrow training down to the few most important.
The importance of informal learning was confirmed in
this study, implying that the role of formal education in
entrepreneurship is not clear for agri-food entrepreneurs.
What seems to be important is that they have access to
service providers who can tailor the information to their
needs and provide access to networks of peers through
professional organizations. It seems that the role of
education is to provide individuals with a set of skills
than can be used in any situation, including providing
education on thinking critically, recognizing opportunities, developing networks and identifying resources.
Limitations of our study included a small and nonrepresentative sample, which does not allow for
representation of the findings to a larger population of
agri-food entrepreneurs, and which limits the complexity of our analysis. However, we began to fill the gap in
agri-food entrepreneurship by comprehensively exploring where entrepreneurs had learned the skills they had,
the ones they considered important and how their
learning needs could be supported.

Acknowledgments
The authors acknowledge funding and support from the
USDA National Agency and Food and Agriculture,
Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Project
Number 2011-68006-30799.

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