How Local Food System Development Affects the Sustainability of Agriculture: The Impact of Farmer-Consumer Interactions on Production Practices

Final Report for CS15-092

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2015: $34,830.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Charlie Jackson
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
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Project Information


This research project investigated the dynamics of personal(izing) market relationships in Western North Carolina, the location of a long-running local food campaign. Research activities analyzed 10 years of farmer production data and studied farmer-customer interactions at farmers markets around growing practices. Findings show the importance of sustainable growing methods to farmers market shoppers and the need for farmers to clearly communicate their practices to customers. Other findings allude to the impact market experiences can have on larger food purchasing patterns and to the relationship farmers markets have to the ongoing formation of region’s local food system.


The purpose of this project was to look at the impact of local food system development on the production practices of farmers. Across movement and academic literature, local food system building is conceived as a means to change the food system and create triple bottom line sustainability. With regard to environmental sustainability, the small farms typically producing for local food systems are thought to use more ecologically sound production practices (e.g., Goodman & Goodman, 2007; Lockie & Halpin, 2005; Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield, & Gorelick, 2002; Pirog, 2004). The close production-consumption relationships possible in local food systems are theorized to create market transparency and through the development of engaged consumers and personal market relationships directly impact farmer practices (e.g., Allen, FitzSimmons, Goodman, & Warner, 2003; Allen & Hinrichs, 2007; Johnston, Biro, & MacKendrick, 2009; Kloppenburg, Hendrickson, & Stevenson, 1996; Perrett 2013). But, as has been argued by Allen and Hinrichs (2007), Born and Purcell (2006), Johnston et al. (2009), and others, supporters and advocates of local food attribute intrinsic qualities to local food and close market relationships do not automatically lead to more sustainable food systems. The claims of local food supporters and advocates have not been substantiated (Allen & Hinrichs 2007).

This research project studied the effect of personal(izing) market relationships on farmer production practices and on the assumptions and choices of local food consumers. At a high level, the research focused on investigating the impact of localizing markets on agricultural production practices. Are farmers producing for local markets using or moving toward practices that are environmentally sustainable? More specifically, what do farmer-consumer interactions play? Little research has looked at how localizing food and farm market relationships impact food production practices. If a goal is to build systems of food production and distribution that are environmentally sound, then we need to understand how the dynamics in localizing food systems, specifically the interactions between farmers and consumers, are shaping and can shape production practices.

Allen, P., FitzSimmons, M., Goodman, M., & Warner, K. (2003). Shifting plates in the agrifood landscape: The tectonics of alternative agrifood initiatives in California. Journal of Rural Studies, 19(1), 61-75.

Allen, P., & Hinrichs, C. (2007). Buying into ‘buy local’: Engagements of United States local food initiatives. In D. Maye, M. Kneafsey & L. Holloway (Eds.), Alternative Food Geographies (pp. 255-272). Oxford: Elsevier Publications.

Born, B., & Purcell, M. (2006). Avoiding the local trap. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26(2), 195-207.

Goodman, D., & Goodman, M. (2007). Localism, livelihoods and the ‘post-organic’: Changing perspectives on alternative food networks in the United States. In D. Maye, M. Kneafsey & L. Holloway (Eds.), Alternative Food Geographies (pp. 23-36). Oxford: Emerald Publishing Group.

Johnston, J., Biro, A., & MacKendrick, N. (2009). Lost in the supermarket: The corporate-organic foodscape and the struggle for food democracy. Antipode, 41(3), 509-532.

Kloppenburg, J., Hendrickson, J., & Stevenson, G. W. (1996). Coming into the foodshed. Agriculture and Human Values, 13(3), 33-42.

Lockie, S., & Halpin, D. (2005). The ‘conventionalisation' thesis reconsidered: Structural and ideological transformation of Australian organic agriculture. Sociologia Ruralis, 45(4), 284-307.

Norberg-Hodge, H., Merrifield, T., & Gorelick, S. (2002). Bringing the food economy home: Local alternatives to global agribusiness. London: Zed Books.

Perrett, A. (2013). Cultivating Local: Building a Local Food System in Western North Carolina (Doctoral dissertation). University of South Florida, Tampa.

Pirog, R. (2004). Food miles: A simple metaphor to contrast local and global food systems. Ames: Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture.

Project Objectives:
  1. Review literature that pertains to the impacts of farmer-consumer interactions on farmer practices and consumer knowledge/expectations/choices.
  2. Conduct research with farmers growing for/selling to local markets to find out about their interactions with local customers. What kinds of interactions are they having with customers about production practices? How/what do they communicate with their customers about production practices? What have they learned from these interactions in terms of what customers want to know and what their concerns are? (How) have these interactions affected their production practice decisions and what/how they are communicating to the public?
  3. Conduct research with consumers of local food to find out about their interactions with local farmers around how food is being produced. Specifically, what are consumers’ assumptions about local food and the way it is produced? What kinds of interactions are they having with farmers about how food is being produced? What are they learning from farmers, what are they communicating to farmers? How is this interaction influencing their perceptions and actions around local food?
  4. Study trends in farmer production practices in the project region to understand how agricultural practices in the region have evolved in relation to local food movement activities.
  5. Disseminate project findings (to farmers and farmers markets, local food practitioners, and the public).  


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Carlye Gates
  • Allison Perrett


Materials and methods:

The research for this project was developed within a larger theoretical framework. At the center of this framework is the belief that place-based experiences with food and farms increase people’s engagement with the food system. Knowledge and interest gained through experience motivates people to participate in the creation of food systems, and this process of food system “democratization” shapes the values of food system practices.

Informed by this framework, this project focused on farmers markets because they provide opportunities for face to face interaction between farmers and consumers. Farmers markets uniquely provide the opportunity for farmers to communicate with shoppers about their growing practices and for market shoppers to ask farmers about how they are growing food. These types of local food and farm venues facilitate the exchange of information among and between farmers and shoppers, stimulate participants’ interest in food and farms, and support the expansion of the region’s local food system.

Specific research activities included interviews with farmers, surveys with market shoppers, and an analysis of primary data on farmer production practices. For this study, local farmers and consumers of local food were identified through their participation at area farmers markets. Five farmers markets located in the vicinity of Asheville, NC, the largest commercial center in the region as well as the center of local food movement activity, were selected as research sites. The markets chosen were producer-only, a designation that means that the farmers that sell at those markets are required by market rules to sell only what they grow themselves.

To sample a mix of markets from urban and rural contexts, two markets in Asheville city center, one market in Asheville’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), and two others in more rural environments were selected. Farmers from the markets participated in one structured interview that focused on their production methods, their interactions with shoppers at markets, and the impacts of those interactions on their production practices and communications.

Customer intercept surveys were conducted at all five markets and asked shoppers about their preferences for food grown using certain production methods, their interactions with farmers at markets on the subject of growing practices, and how they would like to see information about farmer growing methods communicated to them at farmers markets.  

Additionally, researchers conducted an analysis of data collated from ASAP’s Local Food Guide, a directory of farms and the food businesses that purchase and sell products from local farms in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians. The Local Food Guide is published annually and ASAP has used it to collect data from farmers since 2004 on products they grow and markets they sell to, and since 2008, on production methods they use. Producers listing their farms in the Guide have been able to choose from a list of specific practices - animal welfare approved (not a choice until 2013), biodynamic, Certified Naturally Grown™, conventional, free range, GMO-free, humanely raised, integrated pest management, low spray, certified organic, organic (non-certified), pasture raised, permaculture, and wild harvested. For this project, the data for farms located in 23 counties of Western North Carolina were collated and analyzed and used to provide deeper insight and context for local food and farming in the region.

Research results and discussion:



Overall the research reveals a dynamic in which consumers are seeking out sustainably grown foods and farmers are supplying it. At farmers markets in Western North Carolina, farmers growing food using sustainable production methods dominate and shoppers shopping at farmers markets are overwhelmingly looking for food grown in sustainable ways. The findings also point to the impact of market experiences on consumers’ food purchasing patterns and to the relationship farmers markets have to the ongoing formation of region’s food system.

The research also identified gaps in knowledge and communications that can be improved upon at the markets. For farmers, the findings point to the need to clearly communicate growing methods and to view farmers market interactions as a key opportunity to build customer trust and loyalty. The findings also suggest the need to provide consumers with information and guidance they can use to engage in conversations with farmers about growing methods. Shoppers want to know how food is grown but, as reported by farmers, frequently arrive at market with false understandings or specific expectations about growing methods. This finding suggests a need for additional opportunities at markets for conversation about farmer growing methods and the true costs of small-scale and sustainable farming.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:


Disseminated selected findings to 200 farmers and market managers at a regional farming conference focused on local markets (ASAP’s Business of Farming Conference, February 2017, Asheville, North Carolina).

Developed a report of research findings.

Developed recommendations for farmers, farmers market managers and leaders, and local food movement organizers.

Further dissemination plans include a manuscript submission to a peer-review journal that reaches practitioners, farmers, and agricultural support personnel (manuscript is in process, potential journals have been identified) and a paper at a food and agriculture- related conference (potential venues have been identified).  

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This was a research project. Accomplishments in this section are the research tasks completed.

  • Reviewed the literature
  • Developed all research documents (interview and survey instruments, recruitment language, informed consent forms)
  • Executed the selection criteria for farmers markets and farmer participants
  • Conducted farmers market and  farmer outreach
  • Conducted farmer interviews and analyzed them
  • Analyzed farmer production data in ASAP’s Local Food Guide
  • Conducted surveys with local food consumers at five farmers markets and analyzed surveys
  • Disseminated selected findings to 200 farmers and market managers at a regional farming conference focused on local markets (ASAP’s Business of Farming Conference, February 2017, Asheville, North Carolina)
  • Developed a research report
  • Developed recommendations for dissemination to farmers and farmers market managers and leaders

Potential Contributions

Through this project, farmers and farmers markets will have a better understanding of consumers (their knowledge, expectations, and concerns about the production practices of farmers) and how best to communicate production practice information to them. With project results, farmers and markets will be able to make immediate changes to the way they communicate to their (potential) customers. Specific recommendations include:

  • Clearly communicate growing practices: Farmers market shoppers want to know the growing practices farmers are using - 97% of surveyed indicated they were interested in farmers’ growing practices. In addition, nearly 70% indicated they want to see clear signage at farmers’ stalls stating their growing practices.
  • Describe growing practices succinctly: For shoppers that ask about growing practices, farmers need to be prepared with a straightforward response, a brief “elevator speech” that they, their employees, and/or their interns use to communicate about the farm’s growing practices.
  • Connect to other market outlets: Through face to face interaction and the opportunity to promote their products, their farm, their practices, etc, farmers markets provide farmers with significant opportunities to build trust in their products and a loyal customer base that will continue to seek out their products.
  • Educate about growing practices: Increasing consumer knowledge is about more than providing consumers with information, but also creating additional opportunities suitable for conversation about farmer growing practices and the costs of sustainable growing methods.
  • Promote producer-only markets: Several farmers indicated that in addition to questions about their growing practices, shoppers are also interested, and in some cases more interested, in knowing whether farmers grow the food that they are selling. This finding suggests a strong need for public outreach and communications about producer-only markets in Western North Carolina.

Future Recommendations

To further explore the question of farmer-customer interactions on farmer growing methods in this region, future research could target a different pool of farmers - well-established farmers from families that have farmed in the region for generations. In Western North Carolina, these farmers are likely to have inherited farms producing crops historically grown in the region (e.g., tobacco, cows for auction markets) in conventional ways and were farming in the region long before the impacts of changes federal policy and local food movement activity.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.