Final report for GS19-216
Although sales within direct market outlets have been tightening, farmers markets and CSAs remain an important outlet for small farmers to sell their produce and products, while reinforcing the importance of local agricultural connections between consumers and producers. In the Southeastern U.S., many farmers markets exist, yet research data reinforced prior anecdotal observations that very few Hispanic immigrant farmers sell their product at these traditional, extension- or community-run, direct-to-consumer outlets in the Middle Tennessee area. While direct-to-consumer outlets present their own challenges, they offer valuable opportunities for these farmers to develop their enterprises and build local consumer connections. The question remains, then: What are some of the factors that seem to account for these absences? To begin to assess this question, this project sought to generate data on the composition and nature of area direct-to-consumer sites, using this data to address any informational barriers immigrant farmers may be experiencing in accessing these sites.
The primary focus of this project has been to gather data through a mixed-methods approach (including surveys and semi-structured interviews) to provide insights on area direct-to-consumer markets. Once initial data collection began, both through investigating online resources about each market and from early participant observation at markets, it became clear that easily accessible information on these markets was extremely consumer-focused and a comprehensive resource about these markets did not exist for area farmers. Each market had different stated and implicit requirements; served different customer demographics; and given market day, time, size, location, focus, and popularity, offered vastly different opportunities for farmers. As a result, the proposed idea to create a comprehensive resource on area farmers markets proposed in the initial grant application was confirmed and became a primary focus.
Specifically, this project carried out a comprehensive inventory of the 70+ extension- and community-run markets across Middle Tennessee by drawing upon publicly website available information on each market, then engaging in detailed participant observation and informal conversations at 46 of those markets. Additional data collection to supplement the above, including surveys and semi-structured interviews with market managers and immigrant farmers, is ongoing.
As a result of those activities, the researchers have concluded:
- Traditional extension- and community-run direct-to-consumer markets reflect an almost homogenous picture of local agriculture, dominated by White producers, vendors, and customers in this region, despite growing diversity both in residential and farmer demographics.
- The date and time of many rural extension- and community-run markets appear to limit their efficacy. Those taking place on weekday mornings and afternoons had far more limited vendor and customer participation than weekend markets, some not occurring at all on stated days. This lack of reliability is a challenge for farmers.
- The far more bustling weekend and weeknight markets occurring in larger cities and suburban areas posed different challenges. Particularly in up-and-coming cities and towns, produce and meat vendors adopted a rural aesthetic as a marketing tool to display their products and used professional signage touting active social media and website pages. New farmers may find managing these marketing aspects challenging in addition to the daily demands of running a farm.
- Targeted Hispanic immigrant farmers remain difficult to identify (and thus seemingly “invisible”). Rather than at extension- and community-run markets, Hispanic vendors more commonly congregate at Hispanic-dominated flea markets, as well as in online social media marketplaces. Online marketplaces, particularly, offer a flexible means of connecting to potential consumers outside of stated market times and locations.
- Considering the extremely high bar immigrant farmers face in establishing farms at the outset, including land, equipment, language barriers, information, capital, and markets, the increasingly competitive marketing seen at many extension- and community-run farmers markets imposes additional limitations on immigrant farmers, making online marketplaces low-stakes and attractive entry spaces into direct-to-consumer sales.
Despite the limitations that these area farmers markets pose, a comprehensive guide for limited-resource farmers—the primary target demographic of which here are Hispanic immigrants—to make informed decisions about the markets they may want to enter remains absent. As such, the graduate student researcher focused efforts on creating a widely accessible bilingual website detailing comprehensive information on all direct-to-consumer market sites encountered, including how to join them. This information will be disseminated through a variety of channels to reach target and other farmers, including directly to farmers, to extension agents and other local agricultural professionals, and via online marketplace sites where many Hispanic vendors are present. It is hoped this product will support an enhanced quality of life for farmers and improved sustainability of the region's foodshed. Because of ongoing difficulties in meeting target Hispanic farmers, the ability to measure outcomes directly through farmer responses at workshops or informational forums is not yet possible. However, because the graduate student researcher will remain in Middle Tennessee long-term, she plans to measure outcomes in the future after more farmer connections are made. Likewise, as new relevant results are generated, handouts or pamphlets may be generated, in addition to forthcoming conference presentations and published papers.
- Drawing on a community-based participatory research model and based on extant connections with local extension agents, create a farmer advisory group made up of 6 to 8 Hispanic immigrant farmers. The COVID-19 pandemic-necessitated field site change to Middle Tennessee, and the diffuse and mostly invisible nature of burgeoning immigrant agriculturalists across this region have made identifying a cohort of Hispanic farmers to inform objectives as the project evolved impossible. It was learned that this might be possible in this site with a far longer project timeline and as a retrospective review of the project after all other research activities are completed.
- Carry out a comprehensive inventory of farmers markets and CSAs across the middle Tennessee area.
- Investigate where Hispanic immigrant farmers in middle Tennessee sell their crops and/or products, any difficulties they may face in accessing markets or other barriers, the possibilities for niche production, and what area farmers are growing or raising.
- Using the data collected to address the above goals, analyze, present, and disseminate research.
- Contribute to generalizable knowledge, theory and practice on barriers to direct-to-consumer market access for farmers in local markets as well as a model for studying direct-to-consumer access elsewhere in the United States.
- (Educator and Researcher)
The set of mixed methods below represent the sources of information that have and are being consulted to inform research conclusions, as well as the outreach activities.
- Participant Observation to Generate Farmers Market/CSA Inventory - A comprehensive inventory of farmers markets across the middle Tennessee region was completed in order to gather information that may be helpful to farmers and others interested in engaging with said markets. The inventory data derived from publicly available website information, Facebook and Instagram pages, and was supported by on-site visits to and participant observation at a majority of the markets. To supplement and gather additional information to support the observations, a structured survey is being sent to all identifiable farmers market managers (totaling around 70 persons).
- Semi-structured Interviews – Semi-structured interviews are being conducted with Hispanic immigrant farmers to gather information on farmer experiences, strategies, networks, and the challenges they face. These are also supported by in-progress semi-structured interviews with agricultural professionals (totaling around 10 persons) to provide a holistic understanding of local and national agricultural and market trends and with farmers market managers (totaling around 10 persons) to add nuance to the aforementioned inventory about the nature of local markets and consumer trends.
- Structured Survey– A structured survey offers Hispanic immigrant farmers unable to participate in the semi-structured interview sessions an opportunity to provide perspectives on their experiences. An alternate version is being sent to Hispanic immigrants selling agricultural products and prepared foods via online marketplaces. This aims to help triangulate data gathered from qualitative semi-structured and observational methods.
Data analysis is ongoing. Data is being input into Excel (for quantitative data analysis) and MaxQDA (for qualitative data coding and analysis). Quantitative data is currently being mapped and catalogued into the online website for farmer outreach (discussed below) and will be analyzed for descriptive statistics and put on information resources like handouts, fliers, and pamphlets for distribution to agricultural professionals and local immigrant farmers as opportunities arise. Qualitative data such as participant observation fieldnotes and interviews are being examined through an inductive, grounded theory approach, and coded for emergent themes (i.e. farmer barriers, customer preferences, unexploited gaps). The themes and emerging details will inform the outreach website and other informational resources, where applicable, as well as additional future conference presentations, papers, and the graduate student researcher’s dissertation.
As noted in a prior report, the onset of COVID-19 coincided closely with start of this project's data collection, which was subsequently suspended because the human subjects-based methods required face-to-face interaction. Given work among immigrant populations with whom trust had to first be built, and the fact that many participants lacked appropriate technologies to engage in remote research, proceeding as originally planned was not feasible. Moreover, the project had to undergo a research site change from Florida to Middle Tennessee. Shortly after COVID began, the organization in Florida originally linking the researcher to targeted farmers determined that they were no longer able to provide the previously agreed-upon assistance. The dissolution of the relationship meant the loss of ties to critical (but otherwise largely "invisible") research participants where entrance into these communities is difficult without internal contacts. Especially amidst the pandemic, it was not possible to generate these connections without outside assistance.
As such, in mid-2021, a project scope change was submitted for a research site change to Middle Tennessee, an area with a small, but growing number of Hispanic immigrant farmers. It was hoped that because the graduate student researcher had connections to agricultural professionals in the area, she would be able to obtain farmer referrals. However, due in part to agricultural professionals’ busy schedules, some agricultural professionals’ concern at providing direct contacts to immigrant farmers, and some immigrant farmer hesitance, this has unfortunately not proven to be a successful direction as previously anticipated.
As a result, the graduate student researcher turned her primary focus and efforts to generating data to support the direct-to-consumer market inventory, hoping this would be a more fruitful means of generating farmer contact. There are more than 70 such direct-to-consumer market spaces across the Middle Tennessee region, a majority of which are listed with basic data only on state-run agricultural websites (location, day/time, and contact). Nearly all these markets also have some public-facing online presence (typically Facebook or Instagram, or less commonly a website) as a means of spreading the word about their activities. What is notable, however, is that these online resources seem primarily focused on being public-facing means of attracting customers, highlighting eye-catching pictures and farmer/vendor stories. As such, the information relevant to potential farmers or vendors to inform a choice on whether to participate is often minimal and hard to find. This reinforced the need for a comprehensive, farmer-oriented inventory to assist farmers in making decisions on which markets might suit their needs and support their commercial activity best. Consequently, the graduate student researcher visited and completed detailed observations at 46 of these 70+ area farmers and flea markets that include agricultural producers and other vendors, collecting information on market site infrastructure; observed customer demographics and average number of customers present; number and observed demographics of vendors; booth decorations and aesthetics; and the agricultural produce, prepared foods, and/or crafts present at each booth. These markets comprised a representative cross-section of regional markets according to market size, consumer demographic, location, and population density.
The data collected at a vast majority of these 46 markets at which observations occurred illuminated the racially and ethnically homogenous nature of these spaces. While this is not entirely surprising given the racial and ethnic demographic makeup of the Middle Tennessee area, it reinforced, in part, the extremely segregated nature of agriculture in Middle Tennessee despite its growing diversity. This lack of diversity extended not only to immigrant communities that have a relatively shorter historical presence in the area, but also to minority Black communities whose presence is centuries-long. During all of the market visits, the graduate researcher only encountered two Hispanic immigrants selling agricultural products at traditional extension- or community-run markets, both of whom had White spouses with whom they farmed. Only two other immigrant farming families, both of Vietnamese backgrounds, were also observed, both at the same market. In the metropolitan city of Nashville itself, it was slightly more common to see immigrant prepared food and craft vendors booths—including some persons of Hispanic heritage and others from across the globe—and these individuals often highlighted their immigrant background or the specialty foods or crafts from their native communities that they sold. However, these represented still a relatively small segment of the total number of vendors. Even in suburban and rural communities with a significant Hispanic population, where the graduate researcher expected to see farmers and vendors more closely representing the area’s population, no such diversity of farmers was observed.
In contrast to the lack of diversity at typically extension- and community-run farmers markets, the graduate researcher has started to encounter local spaces that are dominated by persons of Hispanic heritage. These include a few local weekend flea markets whose vendors are predominantly of Latin American origin. In each of these is typically one produce vendor, most of whose produce is imported; however, there are also some smaller nursery vendors selling plants. In Nashville itself, there is also a church-run farmers market directed to a congregation that is three-quarters Hispanic. This farmers market is comprised by community vendors, including some local farmers, although the farmers currently represented were not of Hispanic origin. Some school-aged mostly Hispanic children, however, were selling produce and plant starts from a local community agriculture program in which they took part. Lastly, the other most frequently observed space dominated by persons of Hispanic heritage are online marketplace sites such as Facebook marketplace. Likely because of the low time investment and lack of space, overhead, and regulation required, it is common to see prepared foods, whole and butchered chickens, and exotic produce, as well as a wide variety of (sometimes exotic) house plants, seasonal crops, herbs (such as papalo or epazote), plants, and occasionally gardening supplies for sale by local Hispanic growers and vendors. As a result, it appears a large portion of micro- to small-scale commercial agricultural activity by Hispanic immigrants is occurring via social media on primarily Spanish-language flea market sites, eliminating the need for a physical booth or space outside one’s home. This has the added value of reaching a far wider audience than those who might attend a physical farmers or flea market, while allowing the farmer or vendor and the customer to do so in their own time. Given that the work schedules of many immigrants conflict with the weekday daytime markets and even some weekend markets, this provides a far more convenient means of connecting farmers and vendors with customers, and these increasingly common social media marketplaces should be considered valuable direct-to-consumer spaces.
The characteristics of the state- and community-run markets also appeared to have a concrete impact on their success and popularity. Unsurprisingly, the weekend markets were far more popular and better attended overall, both by customers and vendors. Geographically, these tended to be located in larger towns, cities, or suburban areas, whereas the weekday morning or afternoon markets tended to occur in more rural areas. Weekday afternoon-occurring markets were often far more poorly attended, sometimes with as few as three farmers or vendors, many of whom were older and retired, engaging in market-scale gardening or small-scale farming or selling baked goods as a hobby. In most of these markets, aside from the nearly ubiquitous presence of baked goods, one would find summer fruits and vegetables traditional to the mid-South, such as fresh sweet corn, green beans, a variety of tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, okra, collard greens, yellow summer squash, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, or produce like pumpkins, cabbages and apples as the fall approached. Occasionally, one could also find fresh eggs and farmers providing various cuts of chicken, beef, lamb, or pork. Thus, the variety at these markets reflected that which had been traditionally grown or raised in the area, leaving an unexploited opportunity for niche produce or products, although day, time, location, market size and popularity certainly limit the value of this unexploited gap. Also worth noting was that, in several cases on weekdays and even in a few rural weekend markets, there were no vendors, organizers, or customers present during stated market times, limiting the efficacy of these markets as reliable direct-to-consumer spaces altogether. It is information like this that is valuable to farmers considering these local markets that is not available without direct observation, underscoring again the value of a comprehensive inventory and website outreach tool.
On the other hand, the relatively more bustling weekend or weeknight markets in larger towns, cities, and suburban areas revealed altogether different characteristics that set them apart as not only spaces for commerce but entertainment. Many had live music; children’s activities such as coloring and painting, three-legged races, and petting zoos with farm animals; and a variety of food and drink trucks, some even selling craft beers and cocktails. Many of these markets tended to focus on crafts, decorative items, jewelry, candles and body products, a variety of baked goods (many vegan or gluten-free), breads, prepared foods, and even franchised booths selling pastas. Notable also was an increased presence of animal products, including fresh eggs and refrigerated cuts of beef, chicken, pork, and lamb. Likewise, farmers at this market also offered the range of “traditional” warm-season summer fruits and vegetables, as well as prepared foods such as jams, pickled vegetables, and baked goods, common at the smaller, rural markets. However, they also included a wider range of cool season and specialty crops such as a wide array of lettuces and greens, kale, cauliflower and broccoli, peas and beans, along with heirloom tomatoes and other notable specialty varieties. An important departure from the booths at the smaller, rural markets—which usually consisted of a table, simple signage, and the products for sale—was that many of the vendors’ booths at these popular markets were highly decorated. These decorative elements included professionally printed signage, often with a website address and Facebook and Instagram pages; heirloom quilts as tablecloths; galvanized washtubs and decorative wooden or painted crates to display products; and chalkboards to advertise products and pricing. Many of these farms, too, were not named by the farming family but rather creative names such as the “Pig and Leaf,” “A Bushel and a Peck Homestead,” or “The Farm and Fiddle.” All these elements combined to capitalize on a rural aesthetic that seemed quite effective in drawing in customers, compared to the foot traffic at relatively simpler booths at these markets. It is worth also noting that the same trend for a higher degree of decoration was also present at many of the craft booths at these same markets, indicating an overall trend in this direction.
This observation is important for three reasons. First, it extends observations made by social scientists in the last decade that farmers markets are spaces largely occupied by White consumers and farmers, often rendering invisible minorities that have always played a significant role in agriculture. Here, too, the increasing diversity of Middle Tennessee farmers attested by USDA Census statistics is not being reflected in public direct-to-consumer market spaces. Rather, the rural aesthetic upon which booths at these markets capitalize draws upon ideas of a traditionally bucolic, pastoral (largely White) America, a vision that is commodified greatly in Nashville’s country music and tourism industry but is being increasingly lost with the region’s rapid population growth and development. Second, it highlights that farmers in these direct-to-consumer spaces have a much higher bar to surmount than simply that of selling high quality produce or meats. Rather, the marketing aspects of direct-to-consumer sales—contingent the market and location—may involve significant additional work, from amassing decorative items that help create a rural aesthetic, to maintaining a social media and website presence, on top of the day-to-day tasks of farming. While the rewards may be high in terms of name recognition and generating a loyal customer following, for small farmers considering certain busier markets, these implicit additional requirements may demand too much initial effort to compete with extant vendors. Third, returning to the focus of this research—the increasing number of Hispanic immigrants entering agriculture—extant scholarly and applied literature has already established that the bar for immigrants entering farming is already extremely high. They must establish reliable access to land, equipment, capital, and information, as well as the markets to which to sell their products, accomplishing all of this in a language that is often not their first. Considering the additional bar that establishing a thematic decorative aesthetic at markets adds, in addition to marketing via dedicated and often elaborate social media and website pages, it is no surprise that transitory sites like Facebook marketplaces have become much more common commercial spaces, especially for very small-scale growers.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Given the ongoing nature of the research, along with the difficulties encountered in meeting an accessible active community of Hispanic immigrant farmers, more traditional forms of outreach such as workshops or forums have not yet become actionable. The primary form of outreach at this point, thus, is the compilation of the comprehensive inventory of data on local direct-to-consumer markets such as farmers markets and, soon to be included, local Community Supported Agriculture programs. This bilingual website, in the process of being populated, is hosted in English and Spanish at https://www.midtnfarmersmarketoutreach.com/. It includes a clickable map identifying each site, and each site has its own page with information including location, day, time, season, and website or contact information; a general profile on the market, its vendors, and its customer base; information about the kinds of products seen or sold there; observations the nature of vendor booth signage and decoration or the materials or setup farmers might need; and what each market requires for its participants. Other elements of the website include a space for contacting the researcher with questions, a community forum for interested farmers to establish connections with each other, and a blog that will address a range of topics of interest to both farmers and consumers.
Grant funds were used to purchase site hosting with advanced analytics, allowing the graduate researcher to track website traffic over time, and the subscription purchased allows for three years of website hosting with a custom domain name (through August 2025). This means that this resource will be accessible not only to those to whom it is directly advertised, but for other farmers or vendors who are searching generally for information on farmers markets, helping them learn how to get involved in Middle Tennessee direct-to-consumer outlets. The graduate researcher plans to update the website for the duration of the three-year subscription, and potentially thereafter, contingent web traffic, practitioner interest, and her ongoing working relationships with area farmers.
The graduate student researcher also presented a paper in May 2022 at the Agriculture, Food and Human Values and Association for the Study of Food and Society joint annual conference in Athens, GA. At this conference, she presented a paper entitled “Revisiting the “White Farm Imaginary” at Farmers Markets: Instagrammable Booths, Marketing Pressures, and the Need for Sustainable Entry Points for Immigrant Agriculturalists” to a room of about 20 agricultural practitioners and academics. This paper drew upon collected data to argue, as noted in the results and discussion, that social science researchers’ claims that farmers markets appear to be exclusionary spaces seemed to bear out in recent observations. For limited-resource farmers like Hispanic immigrant agriculturalists, racial and ethnic exclusion may be one factor limiting their direct-to-consumer market participation, likely exacerbated by struggles in accessing land, equipment, information, and markets. However, in the age of social media, these barriers are amplified by the increasingly high bar set at certain markets to have an attractive website and decorative elements reflective of a certain rural and/or agricultural aesthetic to attract customers. This places a higher set of expectations on farmers consumed with the day-to-day realities of farming for whom barriers are often already extremely high.
The graduate researcher plans to produce additional presentations and journal articles that will also draw upon and extend the audience to which the data and results identified here are publicized. Ongoing connections with farmers and agricultural professionals are expected to result in the creation and dissemination of other handouts, pamphlets, or other brief informational resources, on the website and via other channels.
This project has produced a website with a comprehensive index of, information about, and logistics for joining all identified regional farmers markets and certain flea markets. This website aims to provide farmers with economic and social benefits, given its primary function as a decision-making tool that can reduce time-intensive research about regional markets and their characteristics. Likewise, it is hoped that the forum tools will provide farmers a space to connect with one another, ask questions, and learn from one another in a variety of ways. By extension, community members who frequent these markets stand to benefit by getting to know new farmers who choose to join these markets, contributing to farmers’ economic well-being as well as the region’s environmental and economic sustainability by supporting local agriculture. In a time where consumer prices are skyrocketing, direct connections between farmers and customers offer promising economic and environmental benefits, cutting back on transportation and middlemen costs.
As outreach related to this project continues and additional handouts or brief informational resources are produced, this project will contribute to agricultural professionals’ and local consumers’ knowledge about the growing number of Hispanic immigrant farmers across the Middle Tennessee region. At the moment, local knowledge about this trend remains very low, and surmounting this knowledge barrier is one of the first critical steps to reducing or eliminating the farmer invisibility factor that plagued much of this project. In turn, consumer and agricultural professional awareness has clear economic and social benefits for burgeoning Hispanic immigrant agriculturalists, who may begin to form connections with a wider array of consumers and receive greater degrees of informational and financial support.
Although it was not entirely a surprise, the graduate student researcher became incredibly aware of the complexity of identifying, reaching out to, and maintaining contact with busy farmers and agricultural professionals, especially with Hispanic immigrant agriculturalists, a fact that attests, in part, to the demanding lifestyle sustainable agriculture engenders. Likewise, she became extremely aware of the racial and ethnic divide in the Middle Tennessee area with regard to farmer demographics—divisions that she did not expect to be quite as stark as they were. In general, the divide she observed between small farmers who actively seek to promote themselves through various forms of media versus those who choose to engage in more traditional, in-person and word-or-mouth promotion—regardless of racial or ethnic background—was stark. This begs consideration of how new farmers can enter competitive (often urban and suburban) markets fruitfully and build a customer base and name recognition. The term “sustainability” has a clear environmental component, something many of the farmers she encountered espoused to uphold. However, the term also has clear implications for farmers’ lifestyles, and the number of balls farmers must metaphorically juggle has seemed to increase. Because marketing through social media channels may be more intuitive to a younger generation of farmers, older farmers and immigrant agriculturalists facing language and cultural barriers (among others) may be at a competitive disadvantage.
This project also deeply underscored the difficulty in providing support to the growing number of Hispanic immigrant agriculturalists in the United States, particularly in the mid-South region where many migration histories are relatively recent, many immigrant communities are small, and where local attitudes toward immigration are not always friendly. Access among this relatively “invisible” group of farmers continues to be a barrier, and this barrier is likely exacerbated in regions of the U.S. where Hispanic immigration is more recent. This underscores the need for creative strategies to reach these farmers, especially in these areas. It also calls into question what constitutes the definition small-scale agriculture, underscoring the need for a better way to enumerate micro-scale, sometimes hyper-local agricultural activity, such as selling fresh eggs to neighbors or selling herbs and garden-grown vegetables over social media. These may be promising, low-stakes ways for future farmers to gain valuable knowledge about successful agricultural practices, marketing channels, niche production gaps to exploit, and what they do best or enjoy doing most. Especially since this seems to be a domain capitalized upon by many immigrants, future research should attend more to these domains as valuable sources of data and potential farmers for outreach.