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Niche FFA market project now source of income

By Staff | Apr 2, 2010

Mark Jewell, a Spirit Lake entrepreneur, calls up his Web site demonstrating how live bait can be purchased from his business online and delivered to wherever the purchaser wishes.

SPIRIT LAKE – To Mark Jewell, growing up around leeches and worms was as normal as it is for most farm kids growing up around cows, sheep or hogs.

It was just the way things were in northern Minnesota as he watched his father sell bait to those who yearned to pluck from the water what they couldn’t see from the surface.

But when Jewell joined the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle FFA Chapter in his Minnesota high school, his supervised agricultural experience project was not the typical kind of project.

His project was classified as specialty animal production and consisted of selling leeches and worms.

Since those days, that business has changed into a growing online bait shop called “Jewell Outdoors,” which is now a Spirit Lake-based business that reaches people around the globe – but primarily around the Midwest.

Jewell’s business delivers live bait to the front doors of people who fish. Testing those waters in 2009, Jewell realized a customer base of nearly 500 people through his savvy use of the web and social media marketing, combined with his already-established connections in the live fishing bait industry.

“FFA has a lot to do with where I am now,” he said. “Sometimes we take it for granted what folks do. No one wants to grow up to be a leech salesman.

“But FFA taught me to appreciate a good idea, an honest day’s work, the importance of record keeping and a healthy respect of money.”

Jewell Outdoors takes online orders from fishermen, and has the bait shipped from Minnesota and Wisconsin gathering areas directly to homes, work sites or fishing destinations.

“One great thing about it,” Jewell said, “is that his business can be headquartered out of anywhere, since it’s an online bait store.”

Where it began

Jewell’s father, Jim Jewell, was a trapper and fur trader, raising fox for their pelts.

“Growing up, most kids had to go out and slop the hogs, but I had to feed the fox,” he said.

Over time, Jewell said animal activism shut down the fur industry, adding that his father sold his last fox pelt for $13, when ordinarily it may have sold for as much as $80.

After that happened, the older Jewell looked at another niche market – the live bait industry around Minnesota and Wisconsin, and found some promise.

Mark Jewell recalled this his father would dig for worms for awhile, put them in his van, then literally go out and peddle them to those who would buy them. That’s what inspired the younger Jewell to look at fishing bait as an SAE project, and eventually, as a living.

“I paid my way through college by trapping and selling leeches,” he said. Jewell graduated from high school in 2000. “Back then I was but a lowly leech trapper, with my dad as my only customer. Over time, the business grew, and we decided the profit margin was larger when we shipped them out, instead of personally delivering them.

“So now I’m shipping them (leeches and worms, such as Canadian night crawlers and European crawlers) all over the Midwest,” he said. His typical customers come from Iowa, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky. All of his bait comes primarily from Minnesota and some from Wisconsin.

Jewell said that having an SAE project through FFA allowed him to manage his own business and learn about record keeping.

As a high school FFA member, Jewell’s project earned him the coveted “State Proficiency Award.”

He also received the FFA “Ag Entrepreneur of the Year” award in his senior year, and his project was also mentioned in speeches by National FFA officers.

“It speaks to how the FFA organization has grown to expand and include nontraditional projects,” Jewell said. “FFA is agriculture, science and business.

“We tend to separate agriculture and aquaculture, which also produces a product. It (his project) fit very well into FFA, and I got a lot of exposure because it was so unique.”

Jewell pursued a degree in ag education at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 2004. He followed that with a stint at a charter school in the Twin Cities, managing 225 “city kids” in an ag-oriented school.

He wrote software for feed companies and cooperatives, did some construction work, and also spent four years training FFA officer teams, before returning to seriously tackle the online live bait industry.

Making memories

Because of an SAE project-turned-occupation, Jewell, now 28, has found that he enjoys being self employed because he is his own boss. But that’s only part of why he takes such pride in doing what he does.

“I like being a part of helping fishermen make those memories that last a lifetime,” he explained. “like the first time your kid catches a fish at the dock, or the last time you went fishing with your dad.

“I really enjoy being part of those memories. My online live bait business makes sure that the bait part of the fishing weekend is ready, and delivered to your door. That’s what makes us different from everyone else, our extreme customer service.”

The line of live bait at Jewell Outdoors is quickly expanding, and this year Jewell has added fishing tackle to the list of products. Still, leeches and night crawlers are their true claim to fame.

“We evaluate our leeches and night crawlers like producers evaluate cattle,” Jewell said.

Jewell Outdoors can be found online at www.jewelloutdoors.com.

Contact Karen Schwaller by e-mail at kschwaller@evertek.net.

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