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Applying Classroom Concepts to Real-World Crisis

By Torrie Sheridan, Purdue University


When Alan Kartchner was wrapping up his undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona, he had his sights set on putting his newfound Bachelor of Science degree to work, eager to gain industry experience. Today, he is the brand director and business manager for Grass Valley Beef in Oregon.

Since completing his undergraduate studies, Kartchner’s career in beef marketing has been full of accomplishments, none short of branding and launching Oregon Country Beef, a non-GMO project verified line of product from Country Natural Beef Marketing, a cooperative of over 70 ranch families who produce, sell and market quality natural beef in a sustainable manner. He also created and maintained yearly marketing plans for the cooperative, now doing the same for Grass Valley Beef, successfully hiring and leading a marketing team to carry out strategic objectives. These are certainly accolades to be proud of, but Kartchner’s drive didn’t stop there. After almost eight years of beef marketing experience, a few promotions and increased responsibilities, the thought of obtaining a graduate degree that had always been in the back of his mind began to get louder.

Kartchner is now just a few months away from completing the MS-MBA in Food and Agribusiness Management program where he will walk away with not one graduate degree, but two. This dual-degree program was created in partnership by Purdue and Indiana University and allows students to obtain a Master of Science in agricultural economics from Purdue’s College of Agriculture and a Master of Business Administration from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Designed specifically for working industry professionals, MS-MBA students complete the program in 27months with a majority of coursework taking place online in addition to five in-person residencies, all while working full time. Two residencies take place at Indiana University, two at Purdue, and one international residency in Brazil.

From classroom to real world
Talk about being in the right place at the right time, Kartchner stumbled upon the MS-MBA program online. After considering an MBA before, most other programs seemed to lack the education he wanted and the connections that mattered. In the MS-MBA, Kartchner was able to find all of that and more. Almost two years later, he’s found himself in the right place at the right time yet again. As COVID-19 swept across the beef industry shrinking the market overnight to a fraction of what it was, Kartchner has been able to pull knowledge from his MS-MBA courses on business strategy to immensely help his company during the world-wide pandemic.

A large portion of his company’s sales are foodservice related, with another large portion being exports to Europe — primarily Italy. As Italy suffers from extreme conditions, production for this line was forced to discontinue, leaving Kartchner’s company with a surplus of product on hand. Fortunately, Grass Valley Beef was able to continue its product flow and keep its processors busy by pivoting to a more retail-focused packaged product in collaboration with processors it already worked with for foodservice product.

While some retailers were mandated to diversify their supply chains in response to meat shortages, Grass Valley Beef picked up substantial additional accounts that will provide long-term profitable partnerships into the future. Kartchner believes his MS-MBA learnings allowed him to better identify and implement effective business strategy approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic that can be repeated if the need should ever arise again. He has an increased understanding of how his company can improve and become more resilient in the face of future crisis-related events.

“The MS-MBA program has vastly expanded my knowledge, connections and career opportunities,” said Kartchner. “The rigorous curriculum taught by faculty who are immensely qualified in their field has opened my mind to how various aspects of the greater agriculture industry work together. Textbook concepts have true, practical meaning that I have been able to apply in my day-to-day work and will continue to be useful in the future.”

According to program director Allan Gray, Purdue professor of agricultural economics, challenging student perspectives and ensuring classroom concepts practically translate to the professional world is important to program faculty. Providing relevant and practical tools and subject matter to students that they can immediately implement in their daily operations is one of the program’s main goals.

“As instructors, we work hard to evaluate each course in the MS-MBA program to ensure concepts and content are cutting-edge and applicable to industry,” Gray says. “In an effort to keep coursework relevant to business, we dedicate time to discuss the challenges students and their companies are facing during in-person residencies. It’s all about making sure what students learn in the classroom can make an immediate difference for them and for their organization.”

In lieu of a master’s thesis, students complete a capstone project on a problem or decision the student or their company is facing — one of the ways in which program concepts are immediately applicable. Kartchner’s capstone project leveraged his interest in blockchain and how it can transform our food supply chain to analyze consumer willingness to pay for blockchain traceability in beef. He feels the project has been rewarding and insightful.

A national network of experts
Each MS-MBA cohort kicks off the program by meeting and getting to know those they will study alongside for the next 27 months with a one-week residency at Indiana University’s Bloomington, IN campus. Throughout the program, students work together on projects and form a diverse professional network spanning the food and agribusiness sectors.

“Two years ago, most of my connections were beef-related,” Kartchner said. “Before the MS-MBA, I had even spent a couple of years in Brazil but wasn’t able to connect to Brazilian agriculture until taking part in the program. Back then, I never imagined this experience would give me access to such high-caliber domestic and international connections. Today, my network has expended greatly across the U.S. and the world, which has also expanded my opportunities.”

The diversity in the program provides a variety of perspectives and allows students to challenge one another in ways that prevent them from becoming singular in their thinking.

Investing the time
A busy career and other daily obligations didn’t stop Kartchner from adding coursework to his list of responsibilities. Doing so has been challenging, but he has been able to manage the time commitment with a little self-discipline and a lot of determination.

“Faculty understand that we have other responsibilities and structure classes in a way that allows us to take accountability for learning the material how and when it works best for us,” he says. “Knowing you have a cohort juggling the same tasks as you makes it easy to develop relationships and support each other along the way.”

After completing his two advanced degrees, Kartchner is leaving the program ready to tackle his long-term goals with a new perspective of the food and agribusiness industry.