Progress report for GS19-216
Although sales within direct market outlets are 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 anecdotal evidence and observations suggest that many Hispanic immigrant farmers sell their produce to wholesalers rather than through direct-to-consumer outlets. 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: Why might they not be engaging in these opportunities?
This research project investigates the conditions informing and potential barriers facing limited-resource farmers within the direct-to-consumer market in middle Tennessee, along with the rationales behind Hispanic immigrant farmer market choices. It does so through a mixed-methods approach including surveys on area farmers markets and CSAs, semi-structured interviews with market managers and farmers, and of Hispanic immigrant farmers from a community based participatory approach. This project’s outcomes will provide valuable insights on direct-to-consumer markets in middle Tennessee, permitting targeted area stakeholders, leading to enhanced quality of life for farmers and improved sustainability of the region’s foodshed. Although this research project is focused on middle Tennessee, the methods and findings may have broader implications for direct-to-consumer markets elsewhere.
- 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.
- Carry out a comprehensive inventory of farmers markets and CSAs across the middle Tennessee area.
- Through semi-structured interviews and participant observation, investigate how Hispanic immigrant farmers in middle Tennessee identify markets to sell their crops and/or products, how they obtain information to identify markets, the possibilities they observe for niche production and the means or difficulties in accessing them, what they perceive as their greatest market and production barriers, and what farmers are growing or raising.
- Based on farmers market/CSA surveys, farmer-expressed needs, and farmer advisory board consultation, 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.
As discussed below under “Results and Discussion,” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for a research site change, engaging in these methods to gather data has been severely delayed. Thus, the methods discussed below represent those begun in the few weeks of fieldwork prior to the onset of COVID-19 and that are now being undertaken again as the research resumes in the new field site:
- Building a farmer advisory group – The goal of this farmer advisory group is to ensure that data collection proceeds in a way that generates information that is valuable to the farmers’ needs and contexts. These farmers will be consulted when and where possible on the value of data collection materials (and instruments adjusted accordingly) and on potential forms of outreach helpful to them and other farmers like them.
- Farmers Market/CSA Inventory – A comprehensive inventory of farmers markets across the middle Tennessee region is being undertaken in order to gather information that may be helpful to farmers and others interested in engaging with said markets. This involves disseminating a structured survey to all farmers market managers for completion. It is hoped this data will form one basis of the outreach to farmers.
- Semi-structured Interviews – Semi-structured interviews occur with the three groups listed below. Semi-structured interviews provide a critical level of detail and the flexibility to pivot with differing questions and topics depending on what the interviewees seem to indicate is most important to them.
- Farmers market/CSA Managers – These interviews add valuable qualitative data and nuance to the aforementioned inventory and to gather critical information about the nature of local markets and consumer trends.
- Hispanic Immigrant Farmers – These interviews gather critical information on farmer experiences, strategies, networks, and the challenges they face, in turn identifying gaps where outreach can provide assistance.
- Agricultural Professionals – These interviews lend professionals’ opinions and insights to provide a holistic understanding of local and national market trends to farmers market/CSA managers’ and farmers’ perspectives.
- Participant Observation – Participant observation occurs with the two groups listed below. These long-term repeat observations provide greater chronological and experiential depth that helps support data gathered from semi-structured interviews.
- Area Farmers Markets – Observations and informal conversations with farmers’ market vendors/attendees contribute additional nuance on the nature of local markets and consumer trends.
- Hispanic Immigrant Farmers – Observations support and provide critical long-term data farmer experiences, strategies, networks, and the challenges they face, in turn identifying gaps where outreach can provide assistance.
- Structured Surveys – Two kinds of structured surveys have been added to the original project’s methods; these not only permit data collection to proceed remotely but can help triangulate data gathered from qualitative semi-structured and observational methods.
- Hispanic Immigrant Farmers – This offers farmers unable to participate in the participant observation or semi-structured interview sessions an opportunity to participate through a shortened quantitative version of the semi-structured interview.
- Hispanic Immigrant Vendors in Flea Markets and Online Marketplaces – Based on observations during COVID that many Hispanic immigrants appeared to be selling agricultural products and prepared foods via online marketplaces and in flea markets, a structured survey targeting these vendors has been generated in order to better understand whether these vendors represent additional market opportunities for farmers.
- Data Analysis – As it is generated, data will be imported into Excel (for quantitative data analysis) or MaxQDA (for qualitative data coding and analysis). Contingent farmer advisory board suggestions and my own analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, themes and findings will be presented via handouts, fliers, and pamphlets, or as papers, conference presentations, and informational materials for agricultural professionals.
The onset of COVID-19 coincided closely with start of this project’s data collection, which was subsequently suspended because the above human subjects-based methods require face-to-face interaction. Face-to-face interaction was necessary because the primary research focus is among an immigrant populations with whom trust must first be built, and many participants lack appropriate technologies (e.g. Zoom) to engage in remote research.
Moreover, the project has undergone a research site change from Florida to middle Tennessee. In Florida, the organization originally linking the researcher to target farmers determined shortly after COVID 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, a project scope change has been submitted for a research site change to middle Tennessee, an area with a growing number of Hispanic immigrant farmers and where the graduate student researcher has personal connections to agricultural professionals who can assist in providing farmer referrals.
Because of the aforementioned situations, there is not enough data yet to provide measurable results that would be of assistance to farmers and practitioners. The information gathered from the first weeks of data collection, including repeat participant observations with three different farmers and semi-structured interviews with three agricultural professionals, will be examined in light of the data collected in the new research site for insights highlighting valuable similarities and differences between the field sites and research contexts. In the new site, data collection has recommenced first with observations at local farmers markets, as the researcher gears up for dissemination of structured surveys and the administration of semi-structured interviews and farmer observations.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Because data collection on this project began a few weeks before COVID-19 began, and the primary methods of this project involved human subjects research, data collection and thus any outreach activities deriving from it have had to be put on hold. Moreover, due to COVID and the inability of the initial non-profit organization involved to provide agreed-upon connections to target farmers, the research project has changed field sites from Florida to middle Tennessee. As such, no outreach activities have as-yet begun, and will commence in the coming months as data collection in the new field site begins to yield insights that can result in effective outreach.