Alumnus Andrew Kesterson was an entrepreneur long before he stepped into his first class in Culverhouse’s Master of Science in Marketing program. His entrepreneurial spirit even shows in how he introduces himself to others students, “Hi, I’m Andrew and I run an organic farm in town,” says Kesterson.
What he didn’t reveal was the fact that engaging in the degree program was a big risk—taking him away from his farm, Belle Meadow. Enrolling in the marketing master’s program meant taking his eyes, ever so briefly, off the farm. And for what purpose?
Almost instantly, he found his answer. “Every class I took applied directly to what I was doing with the farm,” says the 2015 Culverhouse graduate. “A farm, at the heart of it, is one of the most basic business marketing ventures you can think of. All the things I was learning in my production class made me think of how I could improve my own production line—getting vegetables from the field to being washed, stored and distributed. One of my final projects for the production line class was basically revamping and rewriting my process. It was rewarding to delve into the business side of the farm.”
If you dine, by chance, in either Tuscaloosa or Birmingham, you’ve no doubt tasted Belle Meadow produce, found at River, Epiphany and Tuscaloosa Rivermarket (Tuscaloosa); Highlands Bar and Grill, Chez Fonfon, Bottega and Pepper Place Market (Birmingham). The balancing act-- growing enough of the right things at the right time -- takes marketing skills, planning and vision—traits Kesterson attributes to his long-time farming “hobby” and his Culverhouse master’s degree.
“I had the passion, the knowledge, desire, motivation and the skills to research and cultivate my business,” he says. “But in terms of business training, there were a lot of terms that are very basic to a lot of business students that I did not know. That was my baptism into the program. What Dr. [Buster] Allaway made me realize was that marketing, economic densities, and market research were the things that would move the cannon in a slightly different direction on where my farm needs to go to become self-sustaining and financially viable.”
After having just delivered pounds of produce to chef-owner Frank Stitt’s upscale restaurants in Birmingham, Kesterson took a break to reflect on how his growing successes began.
Kesterson came to Tuscaloosa from a small, private high school in Houston, intending to follow in the footsteps of his attorney father (a partner in tax, estate and trust law with the Baker Botts firm). He enrolled at Culverhouse as an undergraduate, but soon transferred to arts and sciences to study history and English literature. He also started gardens, each a bit larger than the last, around his Tuscaloosa apartments. As he took courses in Mexican-American, Civil War and World War I history (his particular favorites), he also grew more experimental and daring with his vegetable plots.
In 2011, a few things happened that led Kesterson to where he is today. First he completed his undergraduate degree, then came the what-next dilemma. Kesterson ruled out law school, he pondered the idea of a Ph.D. and a teaching track, yet in the back of his mind, he was drawn to organic farming. With the “loan” of 13 dormant acres from wife Laurie Beth’s family, the couple started raising crops.
“I thought I wanted to get a Ph.D.—to do something that would make me feel good at the end of the day and at the end of my life,” he explains. “When I got into the master’s program, I found so much value in what I was studying that it shot me off where I needed to go. And I’ve found great value in this choice.”
He learned, especially in his entrepreneurship class, about creating a corporate culture and cultivating standards as carefully as crops. “For us, it’s not all flowers and butterflies,” he says reflecting his business side. Looking to the future, armed with Culverhouse knowledge, Kesterson says, “I want to get as big as I can get with the farm, expanding to all our 13 acres [from the four he works today]. My classes emphasized having a long-term vision for the company. I am identifying the need, the market, where we can fit in—then making a plan we will stick with.”