What Makes a Local Food System Resilient? Lessons from Small and Midsize Farms during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Progress report for GNE20-245

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,654.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2021
Grant Recipient: University of Massachusetts Amherst
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Elizabeth Brabec
University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Project Information

Summary:

Scholars and practitioners have documented the importance of resilience for the future of our food system. Yet, there remain major gaps in understanding how local food actors make decisions during crises and how those decisions relate to building a resilient food system. Examining the experiences of small and midsize farm operators in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts during the COVID19 pandemic, this project investigates disruptions in production, supply chains, markets, labor, and food safety requirements. Using qualitative research methods (in-depth interviews and focus group) this research aims to deepen our understanding of 1) what strategies small and midsize farm operators used in response to COVID19 2) how farm operators made decisions during and after the crisis 3) what challenges and opportunities farm operators faced in making adaptations  4) how small and midsize farm businesses were changed by the COVID19 pandemic. Through collaboration with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), findings from this research will be shared directly with farmers and food business owners, local food practitioners, and community members, in order to build knowledge around how the local food system can respond, adapt, and transform in the face of crisis and disaster. In addition, findings will contribute to resilience planning literature through publication in an academic journal. Building on existing demands for a resilient food system, this project will support farmers in the Northeast to build diversified, financially viable, and resilient farm businesses which nourish our communities into the future.

Project Objectives:

1. To understand what strategies small and midsize farm operators used in response to the COVID19 pandemic

  • How did business plans and models change?
  • How did mission, vision, or goals change?
  • How did production plans and practices change? 
  • How did food safety plans and practices change?
  • How did marketing practices and plans change?
  • How did hiring and labor practices change?
  • How did operational budgets and financing change?
  • How did division of labor change?

2. To understand how small and mid-size farm operators made decisions during and after the COVID19 crisis

  • What factors influenced proactive vs. reactive approaches?
  • What factors influenced decisions to adapt vs. other options (i.e. to close temporarily or permanently)
  • What barriers did farm operators face in enacting decisions?
  • What other factors influenced decision-making?

3. To understand what challenges and opportunities small and midsize farm operators faced in making adaptations during the COVID19 crisis

  • What were the primary challenges/barriers farm operators faced in making adaptations?
  • How did farm operators overcome barriers?
  • What barriers could not be overcome?
  • What factors contributed to successful adaptation?

4. To understand how small and midsize farm businesses were changed by the COVID19 crisis

  • How is the farm business different after the crisis?
  • What adaptations remain after the crisis subsided? Why?

Deepening our understanding of how small farm operators respond, adapt, and transform amidst crisis will contribute to both ensuring that small and midsize farm businesses remain viable and stabilize the local economy during and in the wake of disaster, and assure food security during times of crisis.

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Introduction:

The purpose of this project is to document the strategies small and mid size farm operators in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts (including Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties) used in response to disruptions in production, supply chains, markets, labor, and food safety during the COVID19 pandemic. This research serves to deepen our understanding of how farmers in the Northeast build resiliency by remaining productive and  profitable in the face of crisis. 

In recent years, a string of disasters have rocked the world, including most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected over 93 million people globally (The New York Times, 2021). With climate change driving these crises, it is evident that crisis is the new normal. Food security continues to be a concern during these disruptions. While the conventional food system is lauded for its ability to feed billions of people, it also leaves over 850 million people worldwide suffering from chronic undernourishment (World Bank, 2007). The adverse impacts of conventional agriculture to the global environment, local economies, community social structures, and public health are also well-documented and severe (Altieri, 2009; Holt-Gimenez & Shattuck, 2011).

In response to this increasingly unsustainable system, the local food system offers an alternative – a food system that works to increase environmental sustainability (Altieri, 2000), foster vibrant community-based economies (Gibson-Graham, 2006), cultivate purposeful connections to place (DeLind, 2002), and promote food justice and health equity (Weiler et al., 2015). At the heart of thriving local food systems are small and mid-sized farm operations feeding their own communities. Small farms are defined as those with revenue less than $350,000 and midsize farms are defined as those with revenue between $350,000 and $999,999 (USDA Economic Research Service, 2020).

The Connecticut River Valley has a rich lineage of diverse family farming. Today about 2,045 small and midsize farms keep 175,000 acres of farmland in active production in the region (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017). However, these farmers faced significant challenges in responding to COVID19. Many small and midsize farms raise labor-intensive products. With social distancing and stay-at-home orders in effect, recruiting, hiring, and training labor is difficult. In addition, many market outlets were shuttered. Concerns about health and safety also force farms to redirect resources toward food and employee safety procedures. The result is both significant strain on the local food economy, and innovation. Farmers face critical decisions about how to pivot their business models to remain financially viable and continue to feed their communities.

What makes a local food system resilient? If the local food movement is our pathway toward a more sustainable future, and our future is marked with crises, then equipping small and mid-sized farm operators to become resilient is essential.  The more we know about how small and midsize farms adapt to production changes, supply chain disruptions, market restriction, labor shortages, and food safety requirements, the better we will able to provide this support. The findings from this research will contribute directly to this knowledge base.

Research

Materials and methods:

This project will triangulate qualitative research methods for data collection and analysis (Denizen, 1970) in order to corroborate findings and reduce potential researcher bias. The collection methods used in this project will be 1) document analysis 2) demographic survey 3) semi-structured in-depth interviews and 4) focus groups.

In fall 2020 the researcher prepared an ethics review/IRB protocol for approval by the UMass IRB to ensure that the project follows appropriate human subjects research ethnical requirements. The protocol is currently under review.  

Document Analysis

Durning fall 2020 and winter 2021 the researcher is using document analysis to collect data about research participant’s farm operations. Document analysis will continue in advance of, during, and after interviews and focus group. Documents being analyzed are primarily web-based, including farm business websites, online marketplaces, social media accounts, and newsletters. Documents also include articles in local newspapers or other media outlets (Bowen, 2009; Goldstein & Reiboldt, 2004).

Information gathered in this initial phase of research was used to develop an interview guide and a focus group guide which will be used to steer conversations with farmers in January, February, and March 2021 (Bowen, 2009). The analysis of these documents is described in detail in the following Analysis section. 

Demographic Survey

A short demographic survey will be used to capture basic information about research participants in advance of their interview. In fall 2020 the researcher developed the survey, which includes questions about contact information, gender identity, race, age, and farm business details (i.e. acres in production, gross income, staff, and market outlets). 

Semi-Structured In-Depth Interviews

The researcher will use purposive sampling (Patton, 1990), inviting research participants deliberately based on their experience operating a small or midsize farm in Franklin, Hampshire, or Hampden county during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In collaboration with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), the researcher developed sample inclusion criteria to guide research participant recruitment. Sample inclusion criteria are: 1) Farmers with operations located in Hampden, Hampshire, or Franklin county, 2) Farmers with farm business gross income at $1 million or below (qualifying as small or mid size farms as defined by USDA), 3) Farmers that primarily grow speciality vegetable crops (as defined by USDA), 4) Farmers that have demonstrated successful adaptation or adaptive capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Successful adaptation can be described as sustained economic value, social welfare, or environmental welfare (Tendall et al., 2015); adaptive capacity may be described as the ability to convert existing resources into effective adaptation strategies (Kangogo, Dentoni, & Bijman, 2020)

In fall 2020 the researcher, in collaboration with CISA, developed a recruitment script and plan for inviting participants to engage in the project. The plan is as follows: In winter and spring 2021 CISA will contact potential participants based on the inclusion criteria. CISA will share the recruitment script with them via email or phone. Interested participants will be encouraged to complete the consent materials through an electronic link set up in Qualtrics, then set up an interview time. We may also publicize the study on CISA and participating farms’ Facebook pages and newsletters. In addition, we may use Internet searches to identify potential participants, using publicly available contact information to reach out to farmers directly.

A sample of 12 to 15 homogenous interview participants will be selected for participation in the project. In their in-depth review of appropriate non-probabilistic sample size for qualitative inquires, Guest et al. (2006) found that data saturation occurs after 12 interviews, making this minimal sample size for obtaining meaningful findings. Due to the ongoing pandemic gathering restrictions, interviews will be conducted via Zoom or phone. Interviews will last about one hour. Interviews will be recorded on the researcher’s MacBook Pro using QuickTime player software. 

Focus Group

The researcher will also hold at least one focus group. Morgan (1996) highlights that pairing focus group methodology with interview methodology is a common and appropriate strategy for obtaining both depth and breadth of experience. In addition, local experts at CISA suggest that a focus group may be viewed by research participants as an incentive for participation; farmers are familiar with and value the opportunity to come together to share experiences, ideas, and strategies.

The researcher will again use purposive sampling (Patton, 1990), inviting focus group participants deliberately based on their experience operating a small or midsize farm in Franklin, Hampshire, or Hampden county during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. All interview participants will be invited to participate in the focus group. CISA will again support the researcher to conduct outreach to research participants. The focus group will be held via Zoom, following ongoing pandemic gathering restriction guidelines.

Analysis

Documents, interview transcripts, and focus group transcripts will be analyzed using grounded theory and coding. The researcher will use deductive sorting to establish broad themes associated with the data (Ryan & Bernard, 2003; Saldaña, 2013). She will then use inductive sorting to open code data (Galman, 2013). Through this process she will establish themes and develop a code book. The researcher will use Dedoose software to code the interview and transcripts, then analyze the coded data through text searches, word frequencies, matrix coding, and co-occurring themes. The researcher will code documents by hand, then triangulate and integrate with interview and focus group findings.

Research results and discussion:

This research is ongoing, therefore there are no results to report yet. Data collection will take place in winter and spring 2021. 

Research conclusions:

This research is ongoing, therefore there are no results to report yet. Data collection will take place in winter and spring 2021. 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

In the final phase of this project research findings will be developed into a comprehensive report for the funder, as well as an academic journal article. The article will be submitted to the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, which reaches both an academic as well as a professional audience. The aim will be to share the findings with scholars in the fields of food systems, urban/regional planning, geography, and anthropology, as well as practitioners and activists engaged in local food system work. The research will also be submitted for presentation at academic conferences (i.e. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Conference; The American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting; The American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting) and professional conferences (i.e. The Community Food System Conference; The Northeast Organic Farming Association Conference. 

In addition to reaching scholars and practitioners, findings from this research will be developed specifically for farmers and community members. The researcher will collaborate with CISA to develop findings into a style appropriate and useful for these audiences, which may include a web or print based infographic, one-pager, interactive website, pamphlet, audio recording, in-person presentation, or other multimodal communications tool. In addition, the researcher will present findings at farmer meetings and events, including at least one presentation where research participants are explicitly invited. If farmer research participants are interested, the researcher will organize a follow up to the focus group to discuss findings and promote an on-going community of practice for farm business resiliency in the Connecticut River Valley. 

As the Connecticut River Valley’s primary farmer support and community-oriented “buy-local” organization, CISA has an extensive outreach network, which will be leveraged to disseminate researcher findings associated with this project. CISA’s direct network includes 412 dues-paying farm and food business members, including 265 farms, 64 restaurants, 43 retailers, 24 institutions, and 16 specialty producers who they reach with monthly newsletters and email blasts. In addition, the organization reaches approximately 6,000 people who are interested in local agriculture through listservs, online listings, email newsletters, traditional radio and print announcements, word of mouth, and direct outreach. These networks include other organizations that serve farmers in Massachusetts, including the state and federal agencies, statewide farm associations, and those organization that provide services to start-up, immigrant, and urban farmers. This deeply rooted network will ensure that the findings from this research project reach a broad base of farmers and community members, as well as program leaders, policy makers, and government agencies. In addition, the researcher will coordinate with the UMass Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment and UMass Extension to disseminate findings through existing professional and academic networks. 

The purpose of this dual outreach strategy, targeting both academic and professional audiences is to ensure that this research contributes to the scholarly literature around crisis planning, resiliency in the food system, and economic development, as well as providing food systems leaders and farmers with tangible, specific, and actionable goals for building a stronger and more resilient local food system. 

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.