Image Credit: Randie Hovatter
Feeling stressed? Looking for that perfect gift? Terrapin Tea has you covered! For a limited time, shoppers at the MD Food Co-op in the Stamp Student Union can buy packets of relaxing, organic herbal tea grown right here in the UMD Community Learning Garden by students at the Institute of Applied Agriculture.
^Terrapin Tea: a calming tea for a busy mind.
The packets of tea on the shelf are the culmination of months of work by Nicolas Tardif, an Ornamental Horticulture student at the IAA. “How this thing started was simple,” he says. Glori Hyman, the director of the IAA, had the initial idea for a product that IAA students could grow—something that could be sold or used as a promotional gift. Tardif adopted the idea for a semester-long group project for the Agricultural Entrepreneurship course—INAG 102—in fall 2016. He and his group members (Eric Michol and Becky Jones) developed a detailed business plan, carried out consumer research, and pitched the idea to groups of listeners.
Their instructor, Larisa Cioaca, says that Tardif conducted hundreds of consumer interviews. Students in INAG 102 are required to talk to real potential customers, rather than writing a business plan based on guesses. They explore how their product can solve a problem for customers or provide something of value—“in entrepreneurship terminology, pains and gains,” she says with a grin. Tardif and his group developed an extensive questionnaire. Did the prospective customers prefer loose tea or tea bags? How much would they pay for a product like this? Did they like mint? By the end of the semester, the group had a detailed business plan with compelling evidence that the product would be viable.
The team decided to enter their idea in the 2017 AgI2C (Agriculture Innovation to Commercialization) Undergraduate Ideation Competition. This competition, an initiative by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to “promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialization in agriculture, natural resources, and environmental sustainability,” required the students to deliver their business pitches to a panel of judges. The contestants attended workshops to prepare for their presentations, learning valuable business skills and developing their public speaking abilities.
^Teammates Eric Michol and Nicolas Tardif at the AgI2C Competition.
Although Tardif’s team did not win the contest, he didn’t give up on the project. Instead, he started thinking about putting it into practice on his own. Although many of his IAA cohorts have pitched in to help with specific tasks—such as packaging the dried herbs—the implementation of Terrapin Tea has been a solo journey, with Tardif at the helm.
From the outset, he had to learn about all of the rules for growing and selling a consumable product. Cioaca observes, “He really was self-directed and self-guided. He went from office to office, from the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship to the Office of Technology Commercialization to the Risk Management office.” The stringent regulations might have been enough to discourage a less motivated student, but whenever he met a snag, Tardif found a way to solve the problem. For example, when he learned that he had to use a certified commercial kitchen with a food safety expert for packaging the tea, he arranged to use the kitchen at the Co-op.
Tardif himself says that the legal side of the operation was the most difficult element. He had to be very careful about how the plants were grown, dried, and packaged. Even the packaging has to adhere to the rules: every packet must be labeled with a lot number, and Tardif must keep samples from every lot for at least three years. He has to carry insurance, as well (which, he notes wryly, is not usually a concern for a school project). None of these obstacles stopped him for long, though, and when he reflects on the difficulties, he says, “That’s what is fun; it’s just a learning opportunity.”
^Tardif examines a Tulsi plant in the UMD Greenhouse.
Although Tardif says that the business side of this venture was the biggest challenge, growing and harvesting the plants was a major undertaking as well. “My wife is an herbalist,” he explains, “so I had experience with the herbs,” but tending the plants still took lots of time. During the harvest, he says, it was “a seven-day- a-week job.” Sometimes he was filling his dehydrator twice a day, shuttling back and forth between the garden on campus and his home.
The final product is a relaxing, organic herbal tea, featuring such herbs as lemon balm and spearmint. It’s available at the Co-op, packaged as loose tea (in a ten-serving packet) or in tea bags (either as a single serving or a package of five). Don’t wait, though—it’s only available for a limited time, in a limited quantity. “To make more,” Tardif says, “I would need a much bigger dehydrator!” This undertaking has taught him that even a relatively small business can require significant investment in equipment.
At many stages of this project, Tardif’s coursework at the IAA provided valuable skills. As Cioaca points out, his courses continued to be relevant to this project after he’d finished with Agricultural Entrepreneurship: he learned more about growing and harvesting his plants in INAG 100 and INAG 224 (Introduction to Plant Science and Greenhouse and Plant Production Management), and he learned how to locate and build raised planters in INAG 251 (Landscape Construction). In the upcoming spring semester, the Agricultural Business Management class will study Tardif’s business model to determine whether Terrapin Tea is financially viable—does it scale? Could this business make significant profit? The business venture has also demonstrated that the students at the IAA are a tight-knit group with good teamwork skills. Although he was in charge of the project, Tardif’s classmates stepped up to help when he needed it—Conrad Mellin, for example, helped build the raised garden beds and joined him in the Co-op kitchen to measure and package the tea.
^Fellow student Conrad Mellin assisted Tardif with packaging tea at the MD Food Co-op.
As the IAA’s director, Glori Hyman, says, "Nicolas's work with Terrapin Tea validates the hands-on teaching philosophy at the IAA by illustrating a real-world success story. He has combined his horticulture skills with skills gained in his business, marketing, finance, and communication courses to bring his product to market. It's exciting, and we're proud of him."
Tardif is slated to graduate from the IAA in May. He already has a job lined up with Ruppert Landscape, where he worked during his internship. “Flower beds,” he says. “I’ll be working on the horticultural side of the landscaping.” The IAA is confident that Tardif will be an asset to his employer.