From Farm to Business with Matt Birbeck

Birbeck, further discusses the Making It Michigan Conference and Trade Show, on In The Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.

March 29, 2016

Matt Birbeck, Michigan State University Product Center

“All of those farms that I worked on in the first sort of three or four years of my life as a farmer, really gave me a great outlook in what farming and agriculture was all about in England,” Matt Birbeck, Senior Project Director of the Food Processing and Innovation Center, tells Kraig Ehm on In The Field. Birbeck’s farming experience led him to the Michigan State University Product Center. “So what we do is we help small businesses and mid-size businesses create value-added products.” Birbeck, further discusses the Making It Michigan Conference and Trade Show, on In The Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.

in the field_birbeck

In the Field, From Farm to Business with Matt Birbeck - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to In The Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm Kraig Ehm. In this episode of In The Field, we will visit with Matt Birbeck, Senior Project Director of the Food Processing and Innovation Center. Matt, thanks for joining me. Matt, let's talk about your background. Where did you grow up?

Matt Birbeck: Hi, Kraig. Well, I was born in England, and that's where I came from. Born in London and started out really thinking about what I was going to do in my life, and was really interested in food and agriculture, and working on farms as a kid. So I went down the road of going to agriculture college, and sort of getting a degree in agriculture, and ended up working on a farm in Cornwall. And Cornwall, in England, is right by the coast, it's right in the southwest of England, it's a beautiful little place, and really started working off being a farm laborer, picking potatoes, and spraying crops, and driving harvesters, and doing things like that, and really sort of getting my feet wet, as it were. And as anybody knows, if you live in England, it can be pretty wet over there, and really started working my way up the ladder, of sort of like how does one become a farm manager? And that was always my goal, in farming. And then, over the years, I went to college in a place called Dorset, which is a very beautiful place in the middle of England, sort of the middle south of England, and did a degree. And then I worked on some farms in Dorset and some farms in Lincolnshire, which were very big arable farms.
And really, that combination of all those farms that I worked on in my first sort three or four years of my life as a farmer, really gave me a great outlook in what farming and agriculture was all about in England.

Ehm: Are there agricultural differences between England and the US? And if there are, what are they?

Birbeck: Well, the biggest difference is just size. I mean, in America, the farms are really huge, so when you come here, you'll see farms that are like 30,000, 40,000 acres, and they're all run with two people, and massive amounts of equipment. Really, the farms in England are much smaller. Typically, the farms are sort of like 500 to a 1,000 acres. And they're much more about animals, I think, in England. So really farms that I worked on were more about dairy and sheep farms. A lot of my life was spent on the hills, picking up sheep and being a shepard for lots of my life. But really, I think that the biggest difference is just size, and being more involved with animals.

Ehm: Being from England, do you have any favorite words that you used, and expressions that people here might not know the meaning of?

Birbeck: Well, the one that I always remember, that when I first when to Cornwall. Now Cornwall, they're obviously full of Cornish people, which is a very southwest, and they have a very strange accent down there. Buy my first boss, I always remember when I came, when I was driving a tractor, and I was delivering some stuff to the field, he walked over to me. He said, "Proper job." And proper job is the way that they turn around in Cornwall and say, "Good enough." So I always remember that being, and everyone I've always gone in the world, whenever someone does something for me, or a builder comes to my home and does something, or someone does some good work, I always end up saying, "Proper job." So I suppose that's probably the word I always remember.

Ehm: Okay, you've also worked in Africa, and that led you to America. So talk a little bit about your experience in Africa.

Birbeck: Yeah, no. So I've really traveled [inaudible 00:03:49]. So if someone had said to me way, way back, "Your life was going to be working in England, and then going to Africa, and coming to America," I would have said, "You're absolutely totally nuts. That's not going to happen." But it did, so I worked in England, and I worked on these small farms, and I got my degree in agriculture. And I got a phone call from a company in Africa one day that said, "Would I like to come out and be a farm manager for a big vegetable operation that used to grow fruits, vegetables for European supermarkets?" And I turned around and said, "Absolutely no way. I've had no interest in going to Africa at all," and I put the phone down. Anyway, about three weeks later, the same guy called me, and said that they were really desperate to get some farm managers out there, and my name had been given to them by the college that I got my degree in, and that was I interested. And it was just about that time that I actually, I remember. I got a really big bill from a car company to fix my car. And I had no money, and anyway, I ended up taking this job, and I flew out to Africa to Zambia, and I loved it, and I stayed there for 10 years. And I had the most fantastic life, and basically, that farming operation out there was a huge operation, that was very sophisticated. But it was owned by multiple supermarket chains in Europe and England, and the idea was that we grew fruits and vegetables for out-of-season produce for all the European supermarkets. And we used to fly pretty much like a 747 full of fruits and vegetables twice a week from Zambia into London, where it was sold to all the supermarket chains.

Ehm: And then that led you to America, right?

Birbeck: And then to America, yeah. That was the other, so I'd been in Africa for 10 years, and I was riding around my farm on my horse one day, and I fell off my horse, and I broke my arm. And the guys took me to a mission hospital, it was just down about 10 miles away from where the farming place, where I lived. And a very beautiful American doctor was fixing my arm, and we fell in love, and she obviously lived in America, and so when she finished being a trainee, not a trainee doctor, but she was out there doing some work, and just being, not missionary work, but just being a doctor out there for a while. And so when she came back to America, I said that I would follow her, and about a year later, I came to America. And the big culture, is I remember getting on a plane in Zambia, in Lusaka, and it was just the most wonderful place that I've ever lived, and it was just a very open country. It was beautiful, and the plane touched down in LA, and I remember getting off the plane in LA thinking, "This is probably a really bad plan." Thinking like, "What have I done?" And if you've ever lived in LA, it's just a place where it's all about image, and car, and so I went from elephants to BMWs, and from you name it, just to footy people. And so thought, "Well, what do I do here?" And so I started to think about what someone that was in farming could do. And I ended up going down to the LA downtown market early one morning just to look around, and I bumped into this guy, and we got chatting. And he said, "What are you doing here then? What are you going to do?" And I said, "I have no idea." And he said, "Well, I've just got a, I'm starting a distribution company that is going to sell organic fruits and vegetables to this new supermarket chain called Whole Foods. Would you be interested in coming working for me? We don't know what it's going to be like, we don't know what's going to happen, but we've got this small business, but we're going to grow it and do all this produce for Whole Foods." And I said, "Sure." So I ended up getting into sort of supply chain and distribution. And that's really how I changed from being a farmer and got myself more involved in food distribution and marketing.

Ehm: And that led you to Michigan State, and one of your responsibilities is the Making It In Michigan Conference and Trade Show. What is Making It in Michigan?

Birbeck: It's basically a trade show and a conference that allows people in the state, that have made these value-added products. So really, when I talk about my role here, now at MSU, I work for a place called the MSU Product Center. And we're all about food and agriculture here, so what we do, is we help small business and mid-size businesses create value-added products. So we make all the jams, and the jellies, and the barbecue sauces, and anything that a client might like, but we really help them with the business plan, and the idea, and the solutions, and all the stuff that go into making these products. And when we did this, we really felt about, "Well, what's the carrot at the end of the day, where the client or the customer can be seen to sell their product?" So we created the Making In Michigan to do two things. One is that the morning activity, which is a conference, really is inspirational. So it tells a want-to-be client that wants to go and make a new food product, or something in the food and agricultural arena, what they'll need to know, and how they'll need to mitigate and do all the things in packaging and food science, and regulatory stuff, and what they got to go through when marketing. And that's the conference part of the morning. And the afternoon is the trade show, and they're all the clients that have been through the process of the product center, and now have a real product to sell to somebody, and it's the first time they really get typically seen by buyers from all over Michigan, looking for these Michigan-made value-added products.

Ehm: So why should people exhibit, and why should people attend?

Birbeck: Because it's a really good way to be seen, and therefore, to walk into a supermarket if you're not used to selling things, to walk into a supermarket with your product, and try and sell it to the manager can be a very daunting experience. And therefore, the trade show really is a way where they come to you, so really, exhibiting at the trade show is a great way of being, it's your first foray really to start selling products, and it's a very conductive, friendly atmosphere. It's got lots of support, there's lots of people around to help you. If the buyers come over to you and ask some difficult questions, or they want more information, there's lots of product center people there. There's lot of my colleagues there that can help answer questions. It's just very friendly environment, if you really want to get involved in selling something, and find new customers. And we have some pretty big customers. I mean, we have Meyer, we have Kroger, we have Whole Foods, we have Westborn Markets that has a wonderful competition every year, where they're looking for three new products to put into their store, and they give very small people shelf space for a year. So that's a really cool thing to be able to do. There's Spartan Nash that come every year, there's lots of food service people. So basically, probably about a 150 buyers all come to this day, looking for these new products to put into the store, but it's just a great way that you can be seen without all the sort of the stress of having to go and talk to people if you're not used to it.

Ehm: And what are the dates for this year's Making It In Michigan?

Birbeck: November the 10th. So November the 10th, I think it's a Tuesday. It is a Tuesday, and basically, all the details are online at the MSU Product Center website, which is And you can find out about that, but you can either come as a conference attendee to be inspired and learn. Or, you can come to the trade show in the afternoon, and walk the aisles, and look for all these Michigan products. Or, there are some booth spaces if you have that product, there's some booth spaces still available. And you can rent one, they're really inexpensive, and you can be seen by buyers. But we do, the only criteria is that you do have to have a finished product. And when we say a finish product, something that's labeled and got all the nutritional labels and the barcodes. We expect this to be something that a buyer could do business with you.

Ehm: I would like to thank Matt Birbeck, Senior Project Director of the Food Processing Innovation Center for joining me today. Tune in next time for another episode of In The Field.

Related Series