Emerging Local Food Systems – The Role of Locally Developed Innovation in Small-scale Sustainable Farming in Northeast Georgia

Final Report for GS09-080

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2009: $8,492.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: University of Georgia
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Carl Jordan
University of Georgia
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Project Information


A study of innovation adaptation and development amongst 26 small-scale, resource limited and newer farms engaged in the creation of local food systems found investments in production, marketing, and network-based innovations. An inventory and analysis of 127 observed innovations demonstrated that the application of compost teas and slurries addressed the broadest number of production needs, an internet based farmers market facilitated numerous benefits within a rural region unique from traditional farmers markets, and a farmers network organization has increased the intensity of interaction amongst farmers with long-term benefits to the innovation capacity of the region.


The purpose of this project was to assess the role of locally developed innovations in the expansion of local food systems in two rural agricultural communities of North Georgia. In small-scale sustainable farming, innovation is a critical and necessary component to solving localized production and marketing challenges. Resource limited farmers often solve problems by substituting locally adapted innovations in place of more “capital intensive” solutions commonly utilized in conventional agriculture. Land grant universities and the Extension system, the traditional entities for the dissemination of innovation information, still lack capacity in addressing the rising needs of small-scale sustainable farmers. As a result, local food system communities have largely assumed the responsibility for developing innovative solutions to production and marketing challenges. However, little is known about the benefits and challenges encountered by local food system participants during the process of innovation development, implementation, adaptation and evaluation, or the role this process plays in strengthening emerging local food systems.

Historically the study of agricultural innovations has focused on single techniques, often technological in nature, intended to increase commodity yields and farm profitability (Padel 2001, Stephenson 2003, Rogers 2005). Many technological innovations have been criticized for being production focused, cost prohibitive to small farmers, inefficient in use of resources, indifferent to ecological, social and economic differences among regions, and cause rather than resolve economic inequalities (Francis et al 2003, Stephenson 2003).

Organic and sustainable agriculture practices, often regarded as a “suite of innovations,” look broadly at problems beyond production. Local food systems are being posited as a new organizing paradigm for addressing whole systems by examining relationships across all three spheres of environmental, economic and social challenges. A community of producers in Rabun and Habersham Counties in North Georgia is representative of an emerging local food system in a rural agricultural region.

The objectives of this research were to develop a better understanding of the types of innovations that local food system farmers are developing, the needs that lead to innovation, the process of innovation development (all at once or slow improvement of an initial idea), performance, benefits and replicability of innovations, and the context that shapes innovation (how economic climate and regional policy shape opportunities). Locally adapted innovations are anticipated to contribute to more cost effective solutions to problems, aid in the development of individual farm identities and strengthen community knowledge networks by building confidence and expertise in problem solving. Innovation is the primary tool utilized by individuals and broader society to adapt to changes in our environment. Innovations are developed to respond to needs currently unmet by other practices. In this regard, innovation can be viewed as providing a solution to problems. However the problems being addressed by sustainable agriculture and local food systems are significantly broader than those previously addressed by agricultural research. As a result, local food system communities have largely assumed the responsibility for developing innovative solutions to their concerns. Many of these concerns are uniquely community oriented and involve efforts to reengage agricultural production with processing and consumption through community processes as opposed to global economic processes (Lyson 2004).

These efforts are observed within the study region. Rabun and Habersham Counties, Georgia have a rich agricultural heritage of fruit and vegetable production, as well as rich food traditions such as seed saving, farm stands, canning, milling, and farmers markets. These components are coupled with a core of full-time sustainable farmers who serve as seeds to part-time, new and transitioning farmers. Community resources are quickly being assembled in the form of non-profit organizations, community gardens, web-based markets, and engagement of other resources (extension, NRCS, community canneries, national and regional NGOs, etc).

Resource limited farmers usually utilize more intensive versus more extensive systems by focusing on the optimal use and recycling of locally available resources (Altieri 1995). This management approach by small-scale sustainable producers to “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources,” is both an ideological decision to consciously reduce impacts to the environment, and a geographic, economic and socio-cultural condition that shapes the form of technologies and innovations employed (Pugliese 2001). This research attempts to expand and revise current innovation development and adoption models to more accurately describe these processes.

Understanding the mechanisms that influence how individual farm and community networks solve food system challenges is a critical component in promoting the development of local food systems.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1 - Assess the types of innovations that local food system farmers are developing, (or adapting). We categorized all innovations observed in the food system according to the parts of the system they are designed to address (production, processing, marketing, networking, information exchange) and sub-categorized innovations within these systems (such as functional roles within the production system – ie. building soil organic matter, disease control, microbial priming, etc). This innovation typology assessed where individual farms and the local food system community are focusing their solutions towards problems. Types of innovations are also categorized according to origin (locally or externally derived).

Objective 2 - Identify needs that lead to locally adapted innovation. Particular practices receive specific attention from some farm systems based upon need. The needs of individual farms and the presence or absence of innovations to address those needs were recorded followed by analysis to determine which needs lead to the development of locally adapted innovations. Needs and innovations of the broader local food system and collaborative efforts were also identified.

Objective 3 – Outline the process of innovation development. Innovation is developed to meet needs currently unmet by other practices. What advantage do locally adapted innovations present above and beyond solutions offered through other sources? Innovation studies examine a community’s response to an innovation once it has been introduced, typically from some outside source. Less attention has been focused on the process of innovation development at the local level. How are innovations shaped by the slow improvement of an initial idea?

Objecitve 4 - Assess the performance, benefits and replicability of innovations. Farmers may assess performance of innovations in different ways influencing their perceptions of benefits and the ability for innovations to extend laterally to other farms. Do farmers perceive benefits from locally adapted innovations unique from the adoption of externally derived innovations? Innovation may also create additional farm benefits by creating a farm identity around innovative practices that differentiate one farm from another. Such benefits acknowledged within direct marketing studies are seldom linked with innovative practices (for example – Red Mule Grits ground by a mule powered mill is both an innovative practice and a form of marketing). Communication of performance and benefits of innovations (and the networks involved) are also one of the most significant factors influencing the spread of innovations.

Objective 5 - Define the context that shapes innovation. The regional economic climate and policy shapes opportunities for innovation development and the expansion of local food systems (Hinrichs et al. 2004). These and other socio-economic and cultural conditions contribute to the context within which innovation can occur.


Materials and methods:

The study examined 26 farms and 10 social networks in a 6 county area of Northeast Georgia over a 3-year period (September 2009 to August 2012). Almost every small-scale, sustainable, and direct market farm in the study region was included in the study. Each farm and social network was treated as its own case study, and findings were the result of a synthesis amongst multiple case studies.

Each case study consisted of a combination of participant observation, informal and semi-structured interviews, as well as participatory action research elements applied within two social networks. During participant observation the researcher visited farms and participated in farm activities such as fieldwork and post-harvest practices as well as non-farm activities such as networking meetings and marketplace activities. Extensive field notes, journals and partially transcribed interviews were then used to develop analytical summaries for individual farms and innovations observed. Repeat visits following analysis helped to assess the broadest array of innovations applied, with more extensive questioning directed towards innovations significantly influencing individual farm management and the broader food system. Each case study was summarized by all innovations observed, and these innovations were compiled according to types, frequency, needs, and process of development.

Participatory action research (PAR) was employed beginning in years two and three of the study, most notably in the researchers role in the creation and management of an internet farmers market, and in the formation of the regions first formal Farmers Network. These activities acknowledge that the researcher embraces the commitment to social change embodied by farmers in this study, and is actively engaged in the adaptation of innovations to address local food system problems. This methodology allowed the researcher to work collaboratively within the study population to implement actions towards change. It also allowed the researcher access and data to these innovations that would have been difficult or impossible to assess as an outside observer. The researcher is considered by study participants as an “active part” of the community, lives within the community, and contributes to other associated community efforts such as management of a community garden and running a conservation non-profit. The researcher has also become personal friends with most of the study participants.

Research results and discussion:

Before summarizing the results, the term “innovation” is broadly defined in this study as the application of “knowledge of all types to achieve social and economic” goals that are new and novel to the farmer regardless of whether it is new to others across the nation or the world (World Bank 2007). “Adapted innovations” are defined as new combinations or improvements to existing innovations that address localized needs and abilities. Most innovations described in this study are best defined as “adapted innovations” in which users develop a new and better way of doing things and try them out in practice (Oxford Handbook of Innovation 2005). We are interested in how farmers in this local food system solve problems creatively (their innovation capacity), the innovation types they focus energies upon, and their process of continuous, incremental improvement upon innovations. For that reason this study focuses not only on technology and production but examines social organization, communication, management and marketing types of knowledge as well.

During the first year of the study 22 farms were visited and a catalogue of innovations developed. Each innovation was described and initial sub-types defined. Each innovation was attributed to one or multiple sub-types with 24 total sub-types identified that seemed to capture all innovations observed. As the sub-types expanded five general categories emerged. These were:

• Production and Post-production innovations;
• Planning and Lifestyle innovations;
• Network and Knowledge innovations;
• Marketing innovations; and
• Processing / Policy / and Food Safety innovations.

The following is a complete list of all 24 sub-types, and their associated general categories.

Complete List of all INNOVATION TYPES
1. Time Saving (production)
2. Cost Saving (production)
3. Body / Labor Saving –ex. transplanter, wheel hoe (production)
4. Better Performance – general performance compared to another practice (production)
5. Yield Enhancement – ex. zinc and iron spray that increases blooms, grafting (production)
6. SOM (soil organic matter) Management and Soil Amendment (production)
7. Nutrient Cycling
8. Irrigation / Watering – ex. gravity feed, rainwater capture (production)
9. Season Extension (production)
10. Insect / Pest / Disease Control (production)
11. Weed Control (production)
12. Harvest Quality enhancement (post-production)
13. Assessment Planning (planning / lifestyle)
14. Outside Income (planning / lifestyle)
15. Quality of Life / Lifestyle (planning / lifestyle)
16. Feedback (planning / lifestyle)
17. Income Enhancement (planning / lifestyle)
18. Network / Organizational (network and knowledge)
19. Farmer Training / Knowledge (network and knowledge)
20. Crop / Food Types and Uses (network and knowledge)
21. Marketing – ex. development of on-farm or online markets (marketing)
22. Food Processing – ex. certified kitchen (processing / policy / safety)
23. Food Policy – ex. interpretation re: processed foods (processing / policy / safety)
24. Food Safety Innovation –ex. water filtration for e.coli bacteria (processing / policy / safety)

During this initial survey of farm innovations 127 total innovations were observed, described and categorized with all innovations fitting into at least one sub-type and many occupying between 4-9 sub-types. Of these 127, several occurred on multiple farms, so this number does not represent distinct innovations, but total innovations observed.

One goal of the research was to determine the types of innovations most commonly encountered on farms engaged in the development of local food systems, so a rank listing of innovation occurrence per sub-type was compiled. Sub-types were determined by identifying the aspect of the local food systems an innovation was designed to address.

ble 1 – Innovations Types ranked by frequency of occurrence within the study region.



Better performance


Cost Saving




Network / Organizational


Yield Enhancement


SOM management and soil amendment


Harvest Quality


Body / Labor Saving


Time Saving


Season Extension


Insect / Disease Control


Nutrient Cycling


Weed / Control


Farmer Training / Knowledge


Assessment Planning


Income Enhancement


Crop / Food Types and Uses


Irrigation / Watering


Quality of Life / Lifestyle 




Food Processing


Outside Income


Food Policy


Food Safety Innovation


Before commenting on the ranking, the researcher estimates that approximately half or less of all farm innovations were able to be observed during the study period due to the intricacies of farm management, willingness of participants to reveal all aspects of their farm operation, and time limitations in long-term observations of practices. However, it is likely that principal innovations critical to the farm operation were observed, with un-observed practices consisting of smaller more subtle practices less critical to the farm operation.

It is not surprising that innovations that demonstrated better performance when compared to another practice were the most frequently encountered as this is the very definition of an adopted innovation. This sub-type ended up being a catch all for many small variations in type that were not frequent enough to warrant another sub-type category. Examples include practices that optimize limited space such as unusual trellising, use of soil blocks (that reduce materials, sanitation, and empty cell space), or a bed shaper adapted to ride in the tractor tire path which improves soil tilth. These are examples of highly specific needs and benefits making them difficult to class, though most fell into other categories in addition to “better performance” innovations. An emphasis on “cost savings practices” was observed well above “time” and “labor (body)” saving practices (34 occurrences compared to 15 and 16) was somewhat anticipated due to the relatively low resource allocation of small farms, and frequent substitutions of time and labor for input costs.

The next five most frequent types all scored close enough together to be considered relatively equal. “Marketing” and “Network/Organizational” innovations became a major focus of this study in part because they were the focus of farmer collaborative efforts during the study period, and contributed the most significantly to advancements of the local food system as a whole. Not surprisingly “yield enhancement” followed closely by “SOM management and soil amendments” were the most frequent production innovations encountered. “Harvest quality” emerged late in the analysis as a production innovation attribute worthy of its own sub-type, and reveals that quality is nearly as important as yield in this type of system.

Though frequency of occurrence should not imply relative importance to development of the local food system, it does indicate general trends amongst farms. There is also likely a bias towards production and away from processing innovations in part due to the time and location that the researcher spent with farmers, most frequently in the fields, not in the kitchen. Food processing and sales of processed foods could be examined more closely, though time constraints by farmers to process food seemed to relegate this to lower significance for nearly all farms. Other elements of food processing within the food system are in early stages of development.

It would be impossible to scrutinize each of the 127 innovations observed, however, there were several that occurred on only one farm, and were categorized into only a few sub-types that still have great merit for their ingenuity, and potential application. Some brief examples include: a cob furnace for heating greenhouses, kaolin clay sprayer replacing shade cloth for greenhouses, homemade sand filter tank for treating surface water used washing, steam genie for weed control, motion activated bird distress call to protect berries, eye threads on blackberry stakes, and many other. However, this study focuses on those innovations that have the widest applicability and the highest likelihood of shaping individual farm management across the region, and the local food system as a whole. As a small snapshot of how preliminary data collection shaped subsequent in-depth case studies chosen, the following table shows a few of the individual practices that addressed the broadest number of innovation types. Again this is not a measure of worth, but a suggestion of the types of needs met or potentially met by an individual innovation.

Table 2 – Short listing of specific innovations ranked according to the number of innovation sub-types they address.

Innovation Practices (date observed)

Sub-types addressed

Compost Tea (3.13.09)


Compost Tea (3.19.10)


Compost Tea (4.19.11)


Compost Slurry (6.18.12)


CSA shares system / Cafeteria Style (3.19.10)


Impact Grazing


Focusing on Locally Grown internet market


On-farm Farmers Market (9.12.09)


Locally Grown market (3.13.09)


Basement growing using grow lights


Aquaponics system (7.15.11)


Well and watering lines Grant


NRCS high tunnel and irrigation grants


Biodynamic treatments


NRCS Irrigation system (7.3.09) (3.13.10)


Organic Certification (3.11.09)


Using cardboard for weed suppression


Raised Beds in High Tunnel


Outsourcing Transplants


Use of tunnels


The focus during year two and three keyed in on 3 key innovations contributing to rapid development and shifts in the shape of the local food system. While all innovations observed had value to individual farms on which they were observed, these 3 key innovations are anticipated to have the most significant impact on the local food region in the short and long-term. The following are case study summaries for each of these innovations.

SOIL FOOD WEB PRIMING TECHNIQUES – compost teas and slurries

This practice involves the application of compost teas and slurries as part of the fertility, pest control and plant vigor management systems on individual farms. While this technique is only being applied at 3 of the 26 farms in the study region (Mountain Earth Farms, LoganBerry Farm, Mill Gap Farm), each of these 3 farms are fairly large and/or established compared to other farms, and play a significant role in influencing the characteristics of the broader food system. This is also the first innovation studied that involves significant collaboration with individuals with specialized backgrounds, experience and equipment for creating and applying a compost designed to enhance microbial activity in the soil. These collaborators are non-farmers and could be characterized as non-traditional consultants. Fees have been relatively low averaging $200-$500 per acre per application.

The initial source of this innovation is closely related with techniques developed by Dr. Elaine Ingham (currently of the Rodale Institute), and all users were familiar with her work. However, local techniques had been broadly adapted based on independent discoveries, and considerable practical experience by non-farmer collaborators. Compost teas and slurries represented the Production innovation that addressed the broadest number of production needs including: soil building, fertility, nutrient cycling, plant vigor, fruit quality and yields, and pest prevention and control. Each adopter / adapter of this innovation had experienced a small trial on their farm that had “made a believer” out of them.

Innovation development advanced from an initial trial to a broader trial during which more careful observation of results occurred. Slowly each farm began investing in greater resources toward implementing the practice. The general practice consists of mixing water with a high quality biological inoculant (worm castings, hen litter based compost, aged wood chips) and various food sources including simple or complex sugars (table sugar, molasses or sorghum syrup, fish emulsion) and mineral mixture (sometimes including humic acid, azimite, gypsum, soft rock phosphate, high cal lime) to stimulate a microbial flush. Aeration or mixing for 12-24 hours is desired to stimulate the microbial flush. Application of the liquid compost is then by sprayer (5-50 gallons) or by hydroseeder as a slurry (200-400 gallons). Application rates differ considerably by farm and by year. Recommendations are for highest frequency possible, but at a minimum of 3-4 times per year, mainly in fall and winter, and at least once in the spring. Early applications are thought to have the best effect “so microbes are building up before plants need to take up nutrients. The most consistent user applies 500 gallons, 2-3 times per week on average, throughout the growing season.

During the process of innovation adoption several farms have demonstrated interesting innovation adaptation strategies. The most significant was recognition that high-pressure sprayers likely damage and kill microbial populations, and contribute a diluted effect when compared to using a “slurry” which incorporates a wider opening on the nozzle allowing sediment to be pumped with the water. This technique uses a conventional hydroseeder (designed to spray grass sprigs without killing them), and a homemade motorized compost sifter to remove small bits of debris that would clog the nozzle.

Rationale for the practice include a belief that increased microbial activity releases nutrients formerly locked in the mineral and organic components of the soil, making them available to plants. There is also an understanding that microbial organisms compete with and kill pathogenic and other pest organisms in the soil and on the plant vegetation itself.

Farms measure their results differently but in general crop performance (such as yield, pest resistance, crop quality), comparisons with a control, and the brix method (testing sugar content as an indicator of plant health and quality) have demonstrated positive results in 2011-2012. For example, Mountain Earth Farms in their first year of application of slurry to corn, tomatoes, and blueberries in 2010-2011 experienced the following results:
• Organic corn with no additional pest control showed few to no earworms, and a sweet flavor, with a brix rating of 56 when 24 is considered to be excellent (using the standard refractive index of crop juices chart) allowing ears to be sold for $1.00 each, a 100% increase in price from the prior year.
• Mature blueberries yielded 10 gallons a bush (a 1/3 increase) and maintained full size berries over the course of the season with no size down. New bushes in their second year gained considerable growth in comparison to expected growth.
• Tomatoes and Peppers were exposed to a late freeze (May 5, 2011 – observed 28°F, recorded 31°F). Plants had been treated with compost sprays in prior weeks and a mineral application the day before the event. 1800 tomatoes and 1200 peppers survived the event with less than 5% loss.

The farmers implementing this practice are three of the more experienced sustainable growers in the region. Two of the three farms are amongst the largest in region (12 and 14 acres each in fruit and vegetable production). The two largest farms are also equipment intensive. The other relevant context for this innovation is the contribution by two local non-farmer collaborators. These are unconventional specialists who introduced all three farmers to these practices and implemented the initial trial. Two of the farms have invested in programs independently of collaborators, though they still consult and occasionally hire them to do spraying. The third farm has partnered with a collaborator by investing in the hydroseeder and sifter and in exchange for assistance in preparing and applying the mix the collaborator has access to the equipment for off-farm jobs.

Perception of the practice by the researcher is that the technique has particular appeal as a substitute for other more costly and more difficult soil organic matter management techniques such as extensive inputs of large volumes of compost to replace N and C losses by tillage, additions of hay mulch or management of cover crops. The technique does not replace these techniques, and the researcher has some concerns that a microbial priming effect may demonstrate short term gains by mobilizing stored nutrients held in organic matter, but that overtime soil C levels and stored nutrients could be depleted by priming microbial decomposition of soil organic matter.

INTERNET BASED FARMERS MARKET – a rural food distribution network

An Internet based farmers market was created in the study region by area farmers (and active participation by the researcher) and launched on April 28, 2010. The market was patterned after the Athens Locally Grown market (hereafter ALG market), which utilizes a highly developed Internet ordering system created in 2004 by Eric Wagoner, market manager and software engineer. As of 2009 the ALG market had achieved annual sales of nearly $500,000, or $8,000 to $14,000 in weekly sales. One of the most cosmopolitan farmers in our study region (referred to here as Charley) had experience selling to this market and understood the system from a grower’s perspective. The researcher had experience with this marketing system as a customer. These two individuals became co-market managers and established the Northeast Georgia Locally Grown Internet farmers market, hereafter NGLG market. Now in its thirds season, annual sales were $25,000 in 2010 (April thru December), $38,000 in 2011 (January – December), and $26,148 so far in 2012 (January-August 24). There are currently 40 active vendors for the market, 20 of whom are farmers included in this innovation study (the remainder are food processors, or marginal food producers).

The foundation for the NGLG market is a website marketplace where approved farmers list photos, descriptions and prices of their products on a weekly basis. Customers with an account order using a shopping cart system after which farmers receive an e-mail of their orders for harvest. The website generates labels which are affixed to every item sold identifying the customer, product, farm, and delivery location. Farmers then deliver their items on Wednesday afternoons to one of the two delivery locations closest to them. They separate their items based on the two delivery locations (Grace Calvary or Mill Gap Farm), placing items into market coolers, and are paid a check, before leaving the market. Market managers then load items bound for the other delivery location and shuttle them a 24 mile distance, swapping coolers before returning (market managers alternate shuttle duties weekly). Once the shuttle run is complete, items are unloaded and customers come to pick up their orders between 5-7pm. Market managers and volunteers use a packing order form to gather items from coolers as individual customers arrive, identifying products by their labels. Items are checked off to confirm order completion, and customers pay the market managers.

The NGLG market creates several advantages for farmers distinct from typical farmers markets such as: less time and labor relative to farmers markets (requiring only driving and unloading times), less risk of waste and spoilage (products are pre-sold so farms only harvest and deliver items known to have sold), reaches customers across a broader region, a midweek market enhances the freshness of perishable products, and delivery locations create opportunities for networking and knowledge exchange with other farmers. Some disadvantages of this type of market appear to be lower overall sales compared to live markets (due to no impulse sales), more risk by the customer in unknown products, less customer interaction (less correction re: concerns with quality), greater time spent in packaging products (due to labels), and extra time required to list and describe items on the site.

This marketing system responds to several specific needs of individual farmers in a rural Local Food System. The first is the great benefit of a Centralized Marketplace accessed by farmers and customers throughout a wide region. Before the NGLG market, farmers could not easily access customers in adjacent counties without setting up farmers market stands in multiple locations (expending considerable labor, travel costs and risk). A centralized marketplace on the web reduces one of the central barriers to accessing disperse customers over a geographical distance; letting potential customers know what is available. By increasing the breadth of local food availability it allows farmers to reach new customers beyond their typical markets, and likewise customers gain access to farms and farm products that do not setup tables at their nearest weekend markets. The NGLG market has also helped unify local food system participants (producers and consumers) across a broad geographic area that once had little to no interaction with one another. This new local food system area is loosely defined as Habersham, Rabun and adjacent counties (which would include Stephens, Banks, White, Hall, Towns counties in GA, and Oconee county, SC and Union county, NC). Most farmers from adjacent counties did not know one another prior to this collaboration, so this market became the starting point of networking collaborations throughout the region.

Just as a centralized marketplace on the web made it easier for farmers and customers to meet each other (creating a sales point of transaction), the “shuttle run” system between two delivery locations (24 miles apart) increases the efficiency by which farmers products reach customers in physical space. The NGLG market is essentially able to expand the distribution reach of any participating farm by accessing customers that would be impractical for them to access alone or through other markets due to the costs in labor, travel and risk.

The researcher has recognized that the distribution benefits to the market could be quantitatively analyzed using GIS software to calculate distances from each participating farm to their nearest drop off location (actual delivery miles) and the furthest drop off location (shuttle distance). An estimate of mileage saved for each individual producer could be calculated by multiplying the shuttle distance by the average number of farms participating weekly. An average cost per mile could be calculated accounting for fuel, vehicle wear, and hourly time losses if farmers ran these shuttle distances themselves. Such figures would quantify the actual distribution costs to access customers across a geographical distance, and the distribution efficiencies gained by developing collaborative distribution networks inherent to this market.

The use of the NGLG market as a distribution network is where this model diverges slightly and is an adaptation from the ALG market upon which the initial innovation is formed. The ALG market has a single delivery location in a customer saturated urban city, so multiple delivery locations would have limited benefit in terms of reaching greater numbers of customers, or reducing farmer distribution costs. However, distribution collaboratives, particularly amongst rural farmers within the locally grown markets have been independently formed almost from the beginning, in which farmers from a general region pool their products and take turns making deliveries, reducing the total distribution costs for all products. The benefits of these distribution collaboratives in rural areas can be significant.

Such distribution collaboratives are especially common between farmers that participate in multiple independent but adjacent Locally Grown markets. For example, three farmers from the NGLG market also sell to the CAFE market (Clemson Area Food Exchange), which is also part of the Locally Grown system. The average distance to Clemson from these farms is 45-60 miles. A fourth producer, referred to here as ABC Beef (who also sells to both markets), is located in Westminster, SC, which is about 27 miles from these farms and 17 miles from the delivery location in Clemson. The three farmers take turns delivering items from all three farms that are sold through the CAFE market to ABC Beef and he carries them the additional 17 miles to Clemson, and in exchange they carry his products that have been sold to the NGLG market back to be delivered the following day.

The performance, benefits, and replicability of this innovation allow it to be classed uniquely from more typical farmers markets. For most farms, the NGLG market is a smaller percentage of total annual sales relative to other farmers markets. Based on rough estimates it may represent between 5-20% of the average farm’s annual sales. This may be due to lower weekly customer volumes, absence of impulse buys, risk by customers in purchasing unknown products, and fewer product listings by growers compared to other markets. The NGLG market takes a 12% table fee for all items sold to cover expenses, and some farmers likely prefer the greater income derived from direct retail sales for this reason, as well as the face-to-face customer relationships developed. For many of these farms, Locally Grown represents an overflow market in which to sell products that cannot be sold through direct retail markets alone.

However, a select number of farms have made Locally Grown their primary market, with one such farmer commenting, “Why would I sell at any other market.” For him, Locally Grown removes many risks and costs associated with retail markets. All NGLG sales are certain, and since one of his main crops is lettuce, their quality is better preserved compared to long, hot, outdoor farmers markets. His labor costs are lower, and he doesn’t have to work weekend markets, which adds a workday to his week. This farm ranked #2 of 32 farms in total sales through NGLG in 2011. His product selection, diversity, delivery and marketing style are all geared towards success in this market.

For the NGLG market co-manager, between 50%-60% of all sales from his farm are either to the NGLG, the ALG, or the CAFE markets. Part of the appeal is the networking and knowledge exchange opportunities with farmers in these markets. Once the system is embraced, it’s easy to print out and package multiple orders for multiple markets, and using distribution networks, increasingly easy to get products to customers further away.

The Locally Grown market model is notable for its replicability, which is a product of the software design and ease in use. There are no upfront fees, so anyone can set up a market, and populate it with farms and products before paying. The software fee is 3% of market sales. The system can also help pay for market management costs with optional membership fees, and optional table fees (established by market managers). These provisions have allowed markets to establish with very low to zero initial costs. While the formation of many farmers markets have required initial start-up funds from grants and other sources, NGLG has generated funds over expenses of nearly $3,000 (from membership fees) since 2010 to be used towards potential capital expenses or collaborative projects.

The adoption and replication of the Locally Grown market model in Georgia is influencing collaborations amongst markets and amongst adjacent local food systems that were unanticipated. Their contribution towards initial development of regional distribution systems, and as a network for rapid knowledge exchange is worthy of further study.


Nationally, the spread of sustainable agriculture has been greatly facilitated by a variety of organizations, many of whom focus on the generation and exchange of knowledge amongst practicing farmers (Hassanein, 1999). During farm visits in the study region, farmers frequently mentioned the desire for a cooperative of some kind, or described their efforts to glean knowledge from other farmers, at farmers markets, or by attending farmer meetings or workshops in other communities. A need for more frequent interaction between local farmers was observed, with one of the primary goals being to exchange knowledge leading to potential solutions to problems (ie. innovations). One farmer commented that “Charley (the NGLG market manager and a fixture in the sustainable farming scene) kind of officially is the farmers network in Rabun County,” demonstrating that key farmers served as hubs for information. Aside from one-on-one interactions between farmers, meetings related to farmers markets were the only occasions that farmers met together, and these meetings focused primarily on the needs of the market, and less so on individual farms, knowledge exchange, cooperative opportunities, and local food system issues.

In September of 2011 the national non-profit Certified Naturally Grown (hereafter CNG) awarded a small grant of about $2,000 (solicited by the researcher under encouragement from a producer) to help with the formation of a farmer-centered network. The grant funded an organizer (the researcher) to help develop “a shared vision for the network with other area farmers.” The organizer also participates in monthly conference calls and e-mails with six to seven other organizers hired by CNG in GA and TN to exchange experiences, insights and ideas to help further develop each network.

The researcher conducted phone interviews with 12 farmers for input on “possible activities for a growers network” prior to the first meeting on January 25, 2012. Farmer feedback was recorded and circulated prior to the meeting and a list of priorities generated. All network meetings have followed a similar format starting with a farm tour by the host farmer, then a potluck social, and followed by a network meeting. Twenty-two farmers participated in the first meeting, and priorities for the group were determined using a sticky dot voting system, in which each farmer received 3 stickers which they could place next to the items they felt were most important. The priorities and votes were as follows:

Possible Activities for a Growers Network
or what would you like a Growers Network to accomplish?

• Cooperative Marketing efforts (8 VOTES)
Example- Develop systems for bulk deliveries to Atlanta area, restaurants, etc.
• Coordinating Bulk Orders (7 VOTES)
To increase availability and reduce shipping on amendments, supplies, seeds, potatoes, onions.
• Share up-to-date Contact Lists (6 VOTES)
That includes other farmers, but also restaurants who buy local, local suppliers, technical experts, etc.
• Host Farm Tours (5 VOTES)
Specifically for GROWERS (focused on sharing information)
• Acquisition and Sharing of Equipment (5 VOTES)
Such as compost tea sprayers, bed shapers, others?
• Obtaining or Producing Organic Feed (5 VOTES)
It is difficult and costly to obtain organic feed easily.
• Organization of Crop Mobs (4 VOTES)
Labor assistance. Bringing volunteers to your farm to have them work on a project or weed for an afternoon.
• Create Forums for more frequent Farmer Communication (3 VOTES)
Possibly launch a Yahoo Group or website so that we can post information for each other to see.
• Developing Marketing as a Group (2 VOTES)
Co-branding regional products like a logo, identity
• Organizing specific and technical workshops (1 VOTE)
Bringing in experts from other areas
Increase customer base / awareness

Shortly thereafter the organization chose the name Georgia Mountains Farmers Network (hereafter referred to as the GMFN), created a website to post calendar announcements and other communications and began working towards several priorities identified on this list. The GMFN has had two subsequent on-farm tours and meetings (2.27.12 and 4.24.12), organized a bulk order (3.8.12), and hosted a regional farm tour (6.29.12 and 7.1.12).

This network is in its infancy; therefore analysis of its role in the local food system is very preliminary. However, the network itself and its development process could be considered an innovation in communication, information exchange, community development, issue prioritization and collaboration among participating farmers.

The researcher has observed farmers’ responses to meetings and the network itself over the last 8 months, and discovered secondary benefits and innovation exchange occurring around the peripheral of such meetings, in side conversations and phone number exchanges. Following the first meeting, the researcher received several inquiries for phone numbers of certain individuals they’d met at the meeting. Such interactions have led to farmers coordinating visits to each other’s farms. A small number of farmers often remain after meetings to continue exchanging ideas on particular projects and needs. One farmer commented, “this is more important than the actual meeting.” There is still cautiousness in such interactions, with farmers sharing secrets to the extent that there is a real balance within the exchange, or that one person is only willing to share as much information as the other is willing to share with them.

During the initial interviews, one farmer commented on the value of a network to knowledge exchange and trust building. “The biggest problem I see that small farmers have in Habersham and Rabun is we don’t talk with each other and we feel real isolated. People talking about what they’re doing, makes people feel less isolated. It makes them more open and less competitive. We all need new ideas.”

In regard to the network as a venue for knowledge exchange, and innovation diffusion, new practices seem to move most rapidly laterally from a point of initial observation. Everett Rogers’ (1995) summary of Attributes of Innovations points out that five attributes of innovation influence their appeal for adoption:

1. RELATIVE ADVANTAGE - Benefits above and beyond those offered by existing practices. Considered one of the best predictors of adoption.
2. COMPATIBILITY - Consistent with existing needs, previous ideas, and individual and cultural values.
3. COMPLEXITY - Extent to which an innovation is considered difficult to understand and implement.
4. TRIALABILITY - Extent to which an innovation can be experimented with under “one’s own conditions.”
5. OBSERVABILITY - Extent to which an innovation can be seen by others.

Network activities, and specifically farm tours, improve information exchange regarding relative advantage, compatibility, and complexity, but tangibly achieve observability, which is frequently the most challenging innovation attribute for busy and isolated farmers to acquire. The value of farmers organizing to see an innovation in practice is not only its direct relevance to your farm practice, but in its ability to stimulate discussions that lead to new combinations or improvements of multiple practices on multiple farms.

As an example of a lateral observation, followed by adoption and later adaptation of an innovation, the GMFN adopted it’s farm tour model for the 1st annual Georgia Mountains Farm Tour almost entirely from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Piedmont Farm Tour (in North Carolina – 17th year) and Upstate Farm Tour (in South Carolina – 6th year) including mimicking its structure, and brochure design. Many GMFN farmers were familiar with these tours and a few had even attended or participated in the event due to its relative proximity. However, the GMFN adapted and modified the event in order to allow farmers to visit one another’s farms as an outcome of the event. In the original tour, participating farms would host two consecutive days of farm tours (leaving no time to attend one day of the tour), but in the GMFN tour farmers hosted just one day and could visit other farms on the tour on the other day. Many farmers took advantage of this and were able to visit multiple farms in a weekend, with many farmers reciprocating the visits the following day. This example indicates the value farmers place on networking and observing one another’s farms, as well as the value they place on creatively adapting existing innovations to address further needs and challenges.

While the first phase of this research focused on an inventory of innovations and the types of innovations most prevalent within the study region, later stages of the study have identified mechanisms that should increase the “intensity of interaction” amongst stakeholders which is believed to be central to the innovation capacity of a given region (World Bank 2004). If “interaction” is correctly equated with “access to new knowledge” then farmer focused networks may provide the best vehicle for speeding up the adoption, adaptation and diffusion of innovations within emerging local food systems.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Further results of this study will be published in a dissertation submission to the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology by Justin S. Ellis and under the direction of Dr. Carl Jordan, advising professor. Additional scholarly publications will be developed for submission. No other publications or outreach were formally included as part of this study. However, a case study summary of the Georgia Mountain Farmers Network was prepared by Certified Naturally Grown in May of 2012 and is available on their website at http://www.naturallygrown.org/documents/GeorgiaMtnFarmersNetwork.pdf.
Additional insight on the functioning of the NGLG market can be found on the website http://northeastgeorgia.locallygrown.net/. Additional information on current and past activities of the Georgia Mountain Farmers Network can also be found at http://georgiamfn.blogspot.com/.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This study creates a starting point for examining innovations and innovation processes in rural, small-scale local food systems. The study of innovations has typically focused on single practices in isolation from one another, and outside of the economic, environmental or social contexts that shape local food systems. This research suggests that development of an inventory of innovations in practice, and the process of development of those innovations may reveal general trends in the needs, values and resource allocations of farmer participants in the food system.

Economic Analysis

In-depth economic analysis of innovations was beyond the scope of this study. However, the nature of the NGLG market allowed for extensive collections of data for evaluation of trends. Such data sets are valuable to individual farmers in determining annual sales per product category. Market managers are likewise able to assess sales volumes per week, sales volumes per farm, and with considerable difficulty sales volumes per product category. Such data help managers understand which farms perform well, and some indications of market performance based on variations in product diversity, specific farm participation, and seasonal influences (with limited ability to assess performance based on price variations). These data are expected to be further developed and analyzed in future research.

Farmer Adoption

This study demonstrates that small-scale, rural and sustainable farmers must consider, adopt and adapt multiple innovations beyond the production environment to be economically, socially and environmentally successful. These adaptive practices can address planning and lifestyle decisions; network and knowledge needs; marketing; and processing, policy, and food safety. These innovations can be qualitatively described and quantitatively compared to determine general trends in farmers’ needs, values and resource allocations. In this study 20 of 26 farms participated in the NGLG market, 3 of 26 farms participated in compost teas for microbrial priming, and 24 of 26 farms participated in a new farmers network. Adoption recommendations for any practice in this study must be considered individually.


Areas needing additional study

In keeping with the Participatory Action Research approach implemented during parts of this study, future research should engage farmer participants in a critical analysis of their own observed innovations and those found throughout the local food system. Insights from farmers regarding their own practices will likely reveal approaches to innovation development not easily observed, additional innovations not catalogued, generate perspectives on other farmers innovations that may lead to improvements and/or reasons for non-adoption, or stimulate new approaches to needs and problems identified.

Research assessing microbial priming reactions through the use of compost teas and slurries is in a very early stage, and reliable information is not readily available to farmers for aid in practical applications. Many components of this practice are highly difficult for farmers (and even for scientists) to assess. For example, how effective are users in stimulating and maximizing the microbial flush when mixing the compost tea, and are the most desirable organisms being stimulated? How can farmers determine or manage the active versus passive carbon pool in their soils to ensure they are releasing nutrients locked in passive pools and not just depleting active pools? Evaluative methods for farmers would be highly useful.

This study identifies rural distribution networks as an important component to local food system growth. Studies that examine current efficiencies achieved by existing distribution networks may gain insight into creative collaborations amongst farmers in adjacent or overlapping food systems.

Tools to assess a local food system’s “innovation capacity” will be useful to their growth and development. Such assessments might include, current knowledge resources within the system (ie. current farmer knowledge), access to research, and access to research relevant to current needs. Perhaps one of the best markers of innovation capacity will be the extensiveness of patterns of interaction (World Bank 2004). Assessment tools to determine and compare the “intensity of interaction” as a measure of innovativeness should be employed in local food systems.

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.