Investigating the economic sustainability of distribution channels for the urban farmer and consumer in food insecure neighborhoods

Final report for FNC18-1127

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $7,498.00
Projected End Date: 11/28/2020
Grant Recipient: Dirt Beast Farm
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Jameson Hubbard
Dirt Beast Farm LLC
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Dirt Beast Farm operates on 1/3 of an acre, and will be expanding into producing on an additional acre during 2019. We grow mostly market vegetables, and a small number of specialty crops. 2018 was our first year in production, and we use all organic growing practices, but hope to obtain organic certification within the next 5 years.


Like many urban farms, Dirt Beast Farm is located in a low income neighborhood.  Many farms operate in the Ivanhoe neighborhood, and each farm has its own unique method of supplying their produce to their neighbors.  While Ivanhoe neighborhood has more farms than most other neighborhoods in Kansas City, MO, access to the produce grown can be limited due to a number of reasons.  We will identify the most common concerns that our neighbors have when it comes to accessing fresh produce, and how neighborhood farmers can meet those concerns.  In order to do this, we will be conducting surveys, distributed to our Ivanhoe neighbors, and follow up these surveys with one-on-one discussions with a number of our neighbors.  Afterwards, we will interview farmers in the neighborhood, as well as nonprofit leaders, and discuss the topics brought up in the surveys and conversations.  From this we will present our findings so that they can be used as a case study by other urban farmers, suggesting ways to increase access to urban grown produce in low income neighborhoods. We plan to employ a number of these suggestions on our farm, and report on the effectiveness of the suggestions in the coming years.

Project Objectives:
  1. Identify boundaries between the local food market and low income Ivanhoe residents.
  2. Determine, through research and direct engagement, what causes these boundaries to exist.
  3. Identify and explain possible ways to create local food access, taking into account these boundaries and the reasons for them.
  4. Compile one document, workshopped with neighbors and urban farmers on our findings investigating the economic sustainability of distribution channels for the urban farmer and consumer in food insecure neighborhoods.
  5. Share our findings using social media, website, and presentations.
  6. Determine the likelihood of urban farmers and policymakers adopting these methods.


Materials and methods:

Throughout the first year of working on the project, I focused on two groups of people with experience and knowledge on the subject of distribution channels for urban grown food in the Ivanhoe neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods.  The first group were individuals whom I knew personally who either grew food in an urban setting, or who worked at nonprofits that addressed food security issues.  These individuals included farmer Neil Rudisill of Woodland City Micro Farm; Jenna Wilkens, who farms in Northeast Kansas City Missouri and is the founder and current operator of the Northeast Farmers Market; Dina Newman, Director at the Center for Neighborhoods at the University of Missouri Kansas City and founder of the Ivanhoe Farmers Market; Elisa Bedsworth, current manager of the Ivanhoe Farmers Market; Katherine Kelly, Executive Director at Cultivate KC; Dr Chhaya Kolavalli, assistant director of the Center for Social Justice at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, who studied racial equity within urban agriculture in Kansas City.  I also made notes on casual conversations on the subject with other farmers and organizers.  The meetings with these individuals served the purpose of determining what sort of work has been conducted in the past on the subject, what farmers and organizers are currently working on surrounding food security and distribution channels for urban grown food, and also to inform the language used when meeting with neighbors.

The second group of people that I focused on were my direct neighbors, members of the Ivanhoe neighborhood, and customers at the Ivanhoe Farmers Market.  In the summer of 2018, we hosted one large "farm dinner" as a general presentation of the project.  Following this, we handed out surveys at the farmers market and at community meetings at the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council.  These were used to identify preferred vegetables that were purchased at grocery stores or directly from farmers, as well as barriers to obtaining fresh produce.

Throughout 2018, I also attended a number of meetings with farmer groups and nonprofits, where I took notes on relevant information regarding local food distribution, access, and affordability.  These meetings included those hosted by The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition and KC Healthy Kids, Cultivate KC, The Kansas City Young Farmers Coalition, and the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council.  At many of these meetings, I presented on my project and handed out surveys directed more towards growers and policy makers.

In early spring of 2019, I sustained a serious injury to my left eye and was unable to continue work on the project for a number of months.  I spent the year catching up on work outside of the grant project, and continuing to consult with Dr Kolavalli, as well as during brief conversations with fellow urban farmers and with my neighbors.  An extension was granted for my project on December 30, 2019 for a project end date of November 28, 2020.

As of winter 2020, I had planned to continue talking with neighbors through one-on-one dinners as a means of gathering more detailed information and conduct "brain-storming" exercises.  However, due to the unforeseen circumstances surrounding covid-19 virus and the subsequent stay-at-home measures recommended throughout the city, these dinners were abandoned.  As an alternative, I have continued to survey my neighbors with updated surveys using new, more relevant questions after reviewing the first set of surveys.  After receiving a total of 52 surveys between the two rounds, and reviewing notes from 12 one-on-one conversations with neighbors, I began filming interviews with three neighborhood farmers and a follow-up interview with Katherine Kelly, director of Cultivate KC.

Because the survey questions changed, and because much of the information gathered from residents was from informal meetings, I have decided to focus primarily on generalized trends and preferences instead of metrics.  After feedback from our first round of surveys, we also removed any questions that pertain to income.  However, since this grant project is directly related to the consumption of urban grown food in low income communities, we kept the question of whether or not those surveyed receive any sort of food aid, such as SNAP benefits or WIC. 

Research results and discussion:

Our results were measured through aggregated data and conversations from the surveys we handed out to 1. Eaters, 2. Growers, and 3. Nonprofit leaders and Policymakers, as well as notes taken during and after individual meetings with nonprofit leaders, farmers, organizers, community members, and my direct neighbors.  Through these methods, we were able to identify three primary trends that limit access to urban grown food in the Ivanhoe neighborhood and similar neighborhoods:

  1. Convenience (proximity to home): How close a farmers market, urban farm, or farm stand is to a neighbor’s home often determines the likelihood of a neighbor's ability or willingness to procure produce from the farmer.
  2. Convenience (proximity to existing errands): The relation of a farm stand or other point of sale to a busy thoroughfare, commercial intersection, bus stop, or other commercial points of access.
  3. Advertising and communicating when, where, and how a neighbor can purchase produce at an urban farm.

Convenience was the dominant trend documented in the surveys and conversations with our neighbors.  This can be broken down into two categories: 1)How close an urban farm, farm stand, or farmers market is to the consumers household, and; 2) How close a farm stand or other point of sale employed by an urban farmer is to where a neighbor regularly runs errands.  This was a value expressed both prior to the recommendations put in place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic to limit outings, as well as during this time.  Additionally, the point of access is tied to access to transportation.  Many people in the Ivanhoe neighborhood mentioned the cost and inconvenience of taking the bus to the Ivanhoe Farmers Market during the weekends, which would take up to two hours each way if the individual was to walk no more than 1/2 mile.  Many individuals may not be able to walk to/from a bus stop, and they are dependent upon friends, family, neighbors, volunteers, or taxi services.  This is one side of the issue that the Greater Kansas City Food Coalition is working on, partnering with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in order to provide resources to residents on how they can more efficiently and effectively use the public transit system to access farmers markets and grocery stores.

Additionally, one neighbor talked about the history of small scale produce vendors selling on busy street corners.  According to him, these vendors have been pushed out by discount grocery stores, replacing high quality and affordable produce, meat, and eggs with produce similarly priced but of much lower quality.  These independent produce vendors referenced by this neighbor were located on busy streets near other public businesses, and enabled convenient access to that produce when customers were shopping at those other businesses, or on their way to/from another destination.

This preference for consolidated errands by customers was likewise mentioned by each of the three interviewees as well as Dr Chhaya Kolavalli, referencing her conversations during research conducted for her dissertation.  A majority of our survey respondents stated that they purchase most of their produce at large grocery stores such as Price Chopper, Walmart, and Sam’s Club, where they can purchase things like pantry items and household goods.  This suggests that neighbors could benefit from small scale farmers selling their produce either to these large grocery chains, or nearby.  The Central District Farmers Market, located in Seattle, WA offers a good example of local produce being sold in close proximity to a grocery store chain.  This farmers market operates in the parking lot of a Grocery Outlet, which the Seattle Farmers Market Association has partnered with, enabling nearby residents to purchase their fresh, locally grown produce at the same site where they could purchase pantry items and household goods.

The third trend was tied to communication between farmer and neighbor.  Communicating the availability of produce grown by a neighborhood farmer can be accomplished in a number of ways, including forms of direct advertising.  During a conversation, one neighbor specifically mentioned how the survey that was left at her doorstep could just as easily be an advertisement from a farm, listing prices, produce availability, and times that her son could walk over to purchase produce.

In terms of the short window that urban grown food has been available to the public at the Ivanhoe Farmers Market, our conversations and survey responses show that one three hour window once each week is insufficient for most neighbors.  Logically, an increase in the times and locations that a neighbor has access to produce grown within the neighborhood would generally increase access to that produce.  Some farmers in the neighborhood have started selling their produce at their farms, and with the number of small-scale intensive farms in Ivanhoe, this gives a greater number of access locations and times that residents can purchase produce grown in Ivanhoe.  Gravitating to on-site sales was happening prior to 2020, but in response to the pandemic and closure of the Ivanhoe Farmers Market, this practice has greatly increased.  

Many farmers have developed personal relationships with their direct, and sometimes more remote, neighbors and will set aside designated amounts of produce each week.  Mr Neil Rudisill of Woodland City Farm has implemented a CSA pick-up on his farm, selling shares at $25 per bag of produce, while setting aside 5 to 10 bags of produce to be given away or sold at reduced price.  This serves as an informal "sliding-scale CSA", accommodating those who may not be able to afford the full price.

In a more formalized structure, a farm just outside of Kansas City offers another model of sliding scale CSA subscriptions.  This farm was mentioned by 4 of our survey respondents to supply their household with weekly fresh produce.  At this farm, CSA members are required to work a set number of hours on the farm, thus offsetting labor costs, while enabling the farm to offer discounted CSA subscriptions to those who can't afford the full price.  In all of my interviews with farmers, the subject of labor costs were discussed.  Depending on the farm and the management practices employed, outside labor often becomes a necessity after scaling up to a point unique to each farm business.  Most farmers had not reached this point, but many had mentioned that it was on the horizon.  When customers provide labor in exchange for reduced cost of goods, this exchange could help to provide needed labor without adding to the costs of production.

A perception of higher prices for “local food” was explored with the surveys, interviews, and conversations.  However, most participants stated that farmers market prices are similar or more affordable than grocery store prices.  After comparing prices at two nearby grocery stores in the Ivanhoe neighborhood with the prices at the 2018 Ivanhoe Farmers Market, we found that the average prices at the farmers market were between 10% lower and 15% higher, depending on the farmer, type of produce, and season.  This does not account for the fact that most, if not all, farmers at the Ivanhoe Farmers Market grow using all organic methods, while the prices at grocery stores were those of "conventionally" grown produce.  Organic produce was a value expressed in many of the surveys.

In my interviews with Katherine Kelly, she had referenced studies comparing the cost of produce at grocery stores and that of farmers markets.  One such study, conducted over a seven-month period, was conducted by University of California Cooperative Extension, concluding that prices at farmers markets are comparable to grocery store prices.  Katherine Kelly, in addition to other studies conducted throughout the country, mentioned that there is often more usable produce per unit sold than at grocery stores.  This includes tops of root vegetables that can be used in salads or soups, as well as larger “bunches” compared to produce offered at many grocery stores.

Despite most neighbors not being concerned with produce at farmers markets being too expensive compared to produce sold at grocery stores, cost is an important factor with any type of good sold, no matter the type of business.  Produce sold at the Ivanhoe Farmers Market in prior years, and at farm stands in Ivanhoe, tend to be less expensive than produce sold at farmers markets in more affluent neighborhoods.  This was witnessed when comparing prices at one of these neighborhoods and with prices at the Ivanhoe Farmers Market in 2018.  This is a common strategy among small-scale farmers selling primarily at farmers markets.  Recognizing that this is the case, and that if farmers are attempting to sell their produce to lower income markets, we explored the relation of farm investment to the cost of produce.  Mr Neil Rudisill went into detail about how much a new farmer can expect to pay in upfront investment for infrastructure, as well as yearly expenses on his farm.  Mr Mike Rollen talked about how creative cost-saving strategies employed at his farm to lower those yearly operating expenses.

Lastly, most of our survey respondents and conversation participants stated that they did not utilize any form of financial assistance to access produce, including SNAP, WIC, etc.  Likewise, only one neighbor stated that they regularly get their groceries from a food pantry.  This suggests, given the low median income in the neighborhood, that we did not get the perspective of those neighbors utilizing such assistance or services.  This could be caused by a sampling bias.  Our guess is that those who chose to return their surveys and who were willing to take part in one-on-one conversations were the same people who already purchased locally grown produce, could afford to purchase produce, could spend the time to make trips to farmers markets, and/or possessed the time required to cook using fresh produce.  More research would be required to identify the options that neighborhood farmers have when supplying produce to neighbors who utilize forms of financial assistance or food pantries, however some practices could be suggested.  These suggestions will be made in the following suggestions, “lessons learned.”

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers participated
3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

During the fall of 2020, we filmed a series of interviews with urban farmers and Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate KC, based on the information gathered in our surveys and conversations with Ivanhoe neighbors.  These interviews were condensed into one "production" and are currently with our editor, to be released on YouTube and shared over facebook and with the GrowersKC listserv on Monday, November 30th.  Dr Chhaya Kolavalli, who has studied aspects of food access in the East Side of Kansas City, MO, consulted on our project and she recommended changes to the survey questions, survey strategies, and aspects of the video production.

After processing the surveys and interviews, the final production was determined to be best suited for those interested in farming in an urban setting, or those just starting out.  The introduction framed the presentation along those lines, however many aspects of the presentation could be applied to established farmers looking to increase access of their produce to a lower income population.  We decided to focus on new and potential urban farmers because much of the expense that dictates the final cost of produce ends up being the up front investment in land and infrastructure.

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Convenience and choice, over price, have been the most prominent values by most of the neighbors with whom we talked.  Especially given the circumstances of living through a pandemic, most of the people we’ve talked with try to run as few errands as possible.  This applies to the majority of those surveyed before spring 2020.  By positioning a farmers market or farm stand as close to a grocery store or other area of high commercial traffic (such as a busy intersection in a commercial district or on a busy street that serves as a thoroughfare), this decreases the amount of time consumers need to travel to get the produce they need.  Additionally, if a farm is located close to where a number of their customers live, as is the case with many urban farms, direct advertising to their neighbors could offer an opportunity to inform when/where that farmer's produce is available.  It’s a simple tactic, but a number of our survey respondents stated that they would be more likely to purchase produce from a neighbor who farms if they knew when they could visit the farm and what would be available each season, in addition to a list of prices.

This preference of convenience and choice over price by most of the survey respondents was unexpected.  Our assumption was that price would be the dominant concern by a majority of those surveyed in a low income area.  This incorrect assumption could be explained by a common market pricing strategy used by many small scale farmers in Kansas City, and possibly by most farmers selling at multiple farmers markets located in neighborhoods of vastly different median income levels.  For instance, Katherine Kelly mentioned in our first interview that some farmers selling at one farmers market in an affluent neighborhood often price their produce higher than if those same farmers sell their produce at a farmers market in a distinctly lower income neighborhood.  The produce sold at the Ivanhoe Farmers Market tends to be priced lower than the farmers market in the more affluent neighborhood.

While conducting our surveys and talking with neighbors and other farmers, we wanted to acknowledge that the cost of food doesn’t exist within a contained bubble.  Like the rest of an individual’s budget, the cost of food is alongside other expenses, as well as in relation to their available income.  Given this reality, we asked each of those interviewed, “if there was something unrelated to local food, that directly impacts the access to local food within a community, what sort of policy would address that concern?”  Raising the minimum wage was a popular response.  This could potentially enable more people to afford fresh produce.  Personally, I would agree with this, given my own experiences.

In regards to how a farmer prices produce in relation to investment and operating costs, the more assistance that a farmer can get with those costs, the more likely that farmer will be able to keep prices affordable for their customers.  All of the farmers we talked with stated the importance of grants as a means to offer affordable produce.  In our opinion, grants issued by state and nonprofit entities to assist with operating expenses or one-time farm investments could be thought of as similar to a necessary subsidy.  This subsidy is similar to the subsidies that corn and soy farmers receive from the government to grow cattle feed.  Due to the expense of starting a farm in an urban setting, the importance of grants to a small scale farmer growing produce for low income communities cannot be understated.  In a cut portion of my interview with Mr. Mike Rollen of Ophelia’s Blue Vine (due to the battery on my camera dying during this part of our interview), we discussed the need for access to grant-writing classes, seeing as there is often a specific framework and language required to create a successful grant.  Personally, I have been lucky to receive personalized help in the past with grant writing.  That expertise may not be available for many farmers in low income communities.

Also in relation to investment and operating costs, Mr. Rollen mentioned a number of cost saving strategies that he employs on his farm.  These include in-ground worm bin composting buckets buried throughout his high tunnel.  These buckets, after the material is composted, leach nutrients to surrounding crops, and encourage the aeration of the surrounding soil.  This might be best implemented on a small site that requires a high amount of fertilizer application.  This compost system can cut the cost of fertilizer, while improving soil structure.  He has also installed a number of automated vents that decrease the potential expense of hired labor, which is often the highest cost to any business.  These creative strategies are common to small scale farming, and in many cases, essential.

In order to reach those neighbors who rely on some form of financial assistance to access produce, or some form of heavily discounted produce, neighborhood farmers should be aware of what type of assistance is available to these neighbors.  This is where discussions and/or partnerships with area nonprofits and other organizations that supply these services can be helpful.  These partnerships can also benefit the farmer in a number of ways should the farmer be in a financial position themselves to supply their produce to these organizations.  As an example, we have partnered with Kanbe’s Market to donate produce grown on our farm for their Healthy Corner Stores program, where they manage and sell low-cost, high quality produce out of refrigerators at area corner stores. In exchange, Kanbe’s Market draws from their volunteer labor pool to host volunteer work days at our farm, assisting with the management of crops for the Healthy Corner Stores program, as well as other chores on the farm.  Another example would be for a farmer to partner with a nearby church or food pantry, to donate produce.  Often, these organizations will be able to offer the proper forms to claim an Enhanced Federal Tax Deduction for a percentage of the market value of the donated produce.

Access to SNAP processing equipment, and the authorization to process SNAP, can be important for farmers supplying produce within a low income neighborhood.  Due to the pandemic, the USDA granted eligible farmers the ability to process SNAP benefits directly on their farm.  The continuation of this program could be of great benefit to the farmer and those utilizing SNAP benefits.

Lastly, we determined that the information generated from this grant project would likely be most useful to people just beginning to farm in low income communities, or in the planning stages of starting a farm.  From our conversations with urban farmers, finding low cost land in an urban area means that prospective urban farmers tend to look for land in areas of the city with low property values, which tend to be low income neighborhoods.  Being exposed to this information before that land is purchased, and before infrastructure investments are made, could be of benefit to creating a framework to think about how these initial costs will translate into the cost of produce within a low income neighborhood.  In essence, one of the best ways to ensure affordable produce is to develop good business practices.  

Similarly, especially for those who did not grow up in a low-income household, but who are growing produce in a low income neighborhood, the framework for thinking about how their neighbors might value convenience and price can be especially helpful.  No two neighborhoods are the same, but the suggestions generated from this project can serve as a valuable springboard for neighborhood farmers to find ways to better provide their produce to their neighbors.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
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.