Sustainable agriculture in Virginia and North Carolina: a multi-state assessment of the economic, social and political context

Final Report for LS08-206

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $155,481.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Jonah Fogel
University of Virginia
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Project Information


The consumption and desire for local food products has increased in recent years, with more consumers preferring to know where their food comes from and who produced it. Locally sourced food is also seen by some as a way for communities to provide residents with healthy food, enhance local business, and conserve the environment. Each community presents unique opportunities and challenges to achieving these outcomes though. The following project was undertaken to better understand the factors that help or hold a community food system back from developing. The findings of the research project were used to develop resources for food system advocates, to help them assess and plan the future of their community’s food system.

Project Objectives:

The project consisted of three components: 1) a review and analysis of past research, 2) a survey and case study analysis of six community food systems, and 3) development of a geographic information system to understand the nature of the context and factors that promote or discourage the ultimate sustainability of a community food system.

The findings of the research project were used to develop resources for food system advocates, to help them assess and plan the future of their community’s food system. The Community Food System Explorer (CFSE) is the home for these resources and can be found online at The CFSE is composed of four sections: About the CFSE, Explore!, Maps, and Resources. A summary of the six case studies, and lessons learned regarding the types of investments communities are making to help support their food systems can be found on the site, as well as map layers that can be viewed individually, or combined to explore local food system conditions. For example, the location of farmers’ markets can be viewed in combination with information about low-income people, to better understand food access and affordability issues. Viewing food system information in a map format provides new insights about the existing conditions and possible improvements for a food system. The CFSE maps are printable, to help communicate complex information about markets for sustainable agriculture to business owners, and decision-makers.


A community food system (CFS) is “a collaborative network of producers, consumers and communities that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of a particular place” (Feenstra, Ingels, Campbell, 2007). Local food advocates, community leaders, local officials, farmers, and consumers are interested in forming and sustaining community food systems, in order to achieve specific goals, such as:

Securing healthy food sources – Establishing a locally produced food base often provides consumers with food choices that are fresher and
contain fewer additives, pesticides, antibiotics.

Protecting the environment – Production practices that involve natural crop rotation and grazing principles can promote a cleaner and healthier environment.

Conserving farmland – Creating and sustaining markets for locally grown food helps keep farmland in production, and conserved open space becomes an asset for the area overall.

Creating local food-based business – The focus on the production and distribution of local products creates business for small farms and linkages developed between farms, consumers, and other businesses supports economic development.

Increasing production of locally grown food – Community food systems can generate new and expanded markets for local producers

Localizing distribution of locally grown – Using direct marketing methods can cut down on shipping, packaging, and production of waste.
Enhancing community networks and collaboration – Improving networks already in place or developing new linkages can support community development as a whole.

Improving working conditions for farmers and farm laborers – Improving working and living conditions for farm labor such that farmers and farm can be fully contributing members of the community.

No two communities are alike, however. Communities can differ in three ways that impact how or even if these goals may be achieved. First, each community has self-defined goals. For example, residents of an area may be more interested in securing healthy food sources than improving working conditions for farmers and farm laborers. In a world of limited resources and human energy, people will necessarily select some goals over others, leaving some goals left unmet; at least in the near term.

Second, not all communities have the same level of resources on-hand with which to achieve food system goals. One way to think about this is to think of a community as being composed assets that it can use to make investments in its future growth. This project was guided by the “Community Capitals Framework” (Flora, Flora, and Fey 2003). The Community Capitals represent seven diverse areas in which a community has assets and can make investments for future growth. The capitals served as a framework for the research are used to summarize and structure the research findings.

The seven capitals are:
1. Natural capital
2. Built capital
3. Financial capital
4. Social capital
5. Human capital
6. Cultural capital
7. Political capital

From a community development standpoint, each type of capital can be invested in, like one might add money to a savings account, to increase community resources or capital that can then be use to enhance their community. With respect to community food systems, businesses, non-profits, and governmental programs that add to any of the community capitals could be used to develop a vibrant Community Food System.

From this perspective it is easy to understand the third way communities differ, in the mix of existing community capital provides differing opportunities for food system development. For example, expecting a highly urban area to increase agricultural production in the same way as a more rural area is not a practical approach to food system development. A “one size fits all” approach to community food system development isn’t likely to be very helpful. Only by examining the factors that affect capitals present in a community, it is possible to understand how to make strategic investments in a community to increase the amount and quality of capitals.

The goal of the Southern SARE Research and Education Project (LS08-206) was to evaluate the economic, social, cultural, and political context that makes community food systems successful enterprises in Virginia and North Carolina. The project consisted of three components: 1) a review and analysis of past research, 2) a survey and case study analysis of six community food systems, and 3) development of a geographic information system to understand the nature of the context and factors that promote or discourage the ultimate sustainability of a community food system.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Mary Catherine Barganier
  • Michelle Eley
  • Susan Jakes
  • Seb Prohn
  • Nicole Sitko
  • Steve Smutko


Materials and methods:

Six communities across North Carolina and Virginia were selected for survey and case-study analysis based on the fact that they exemplified successful and thriving community food systems. The six sites highlight a variety of community characteristics including size, geophysical location, demographics, and economic profile.

• Abingdon, Virginia is a small community located in Southwestern Virginia. Its location in the Appalachian foothills makes it an idyllic landscape and a tourist destination. Abingdon’s community food system relies on the support of the Appalachian Sustainable Development group to develop linkages between producers and markets.

• Durham, North Carolina, is a large, urban center in the Piedmont region. Durham is close to farmland which provides the production to support food markets in Durham and the neighboring cities of Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Durham County Cooperative Extension plays an important role in providing the community connections to support the CFS.

• Wilmington, North Carolina is a coastal community whose local food system is dependent on fresh produce from surrounding farm lands, fresh seafood, and tourism.

• Richmond, Virginia is a large community encircled by farmland and reasonably close to Washington, D.C. Consumer interest in local food production is on the rise and this community’s CFS is expanding to accommodate these needs.

• Harrisonburg, Virginia is located in North Central Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. The area has a long history of farm production, including both small-scale operations, and larger, vertically integrated farms. Harrisonburg’s location and strong farming presence makes local food production and consumption a natural way of life.

• Lincolnton, North Carolina is a small, rural community located in the Foothills of North Carolina with moderate proximity to larger cities. Lincolnton is a largely rural community with a successful food system that thrives without support from a larger populace or university.

Through an exploration of the empirical and theoretical community food system literature, it was discovered that although political and theoretical support literature were prevalent, little empirical research exists which identifies the elements necessary for community food systems to succeed. Based on this discovery, a multi-method research process was designed. First, farmers’ market managers, producers, consumers, local food advocates, and restaurateurs were surveyed in each case study site about their perceptions of what made their food system sustainable. Following the survey, a focus group was assembled in each community to discuss what key food system stakeholders believed to be important supporting or inhibiting factors for their food system. Findings from the research guided the development of the geographic information system (GIS) developed for the CFSE.

Survey design and participant recruitment

For each case study area researchers met with local extension agents and other key informants to get a local sense of the food system. In these meetings the researchers explained the purpose of the study and conversed generally about food system development in the area. Guided by the knowledge gained in these conversations, and the previously conducted literature review, survey items and focus group questions were written, reviewed, and refined. A 37-item Community and Local Foods Questionnaire was disseminated in paper and internet versions. The final questionnaire contained 12 questions about the economy surrounding community local foods, 7 questions about community food policy, 7 questions about information dissemination, 3 demographic questions, and 8 questions about social connections.

Participant recruitment began with the identification of local producers, distributors, retailers, activists, farmers’ market managers and processors within each case study area. Information for each stakeholder was uploaded into geographic information system (GIS) software to create an extensive contact list and map. State extension personnel from the targeted region provided amendments and suggestions to this potential participant lists. Surveys were also distributed to consumers and vendors at farmers markets, sent to CSA operators, and local food advocacy networks for wider distribution within each case study area.

Focus group protocol and participant selection

Approximately four months after the survey completion, a focus group was held with local foods stakeholders in each case study site. Each focus group included at least one producer, food retailer, local food activists, consumer, and farmer’s market manager. It is important to note that even though each participant self-described as playing a particular role in the community food system, it became apparent through the discussion that the focus group participants each held multiple roles in the community food system.

The focus group session lasted approximately 90 minutes and was facilitated by two researchers, one serving as a discussion leader and the other taking notes about the group context and focus group climate. Focus group events were held in a geographically central and neutral meeting space in each instance. Participants were offered compensation for their travel costs to the event and offered refreshments during the course of the meeting.

A prewritten protocol was used to facilitate the focus group process in order to maintain the consistency of the focus group for comparison with focus groups in the other five case study regions. A protocol is a script and an outline for facilitating the focus group. The protocol for this research contained seven sections each with instructions and scripts where appropriate including: 1) a materials list; 2) an introduction to the study; 3) participant and facilitator introductions; 4) a brainstorm activity based on the 7 community capitals (Flora & Flora, 2007); 5) an activity to identify and describe relationships among community food system stakeholders; 6) a discussion of the survey results; and 7) a time for wrap up, describing future steps, and thanking participants. Questions posed to participants were derived from survey findings and community food system literature and were structured to address the perceived impact of public policies, economic factors, and social structures on the development of community food systems.

Focus group participants were selected from either having been identified as a key informant or having completed the survey and indicated an interest in participating in the focus group. Community food system stakeholders, including food producers, food consumers, food activists, food processors and food distributors, were solicited for involvement in the focus group.

Research results and discussion:

According to Flora, and Fey (2003), there are seven areas in which a community can have assets to help develop itself as an entrepreneurial community. Moreover, these assets can be invested to increase community resources or capital. No two communities are alike. Each community has a unique mix of existing Community Capitals, providing differing opportunities for food system development. Also, each community has different goals for what it sees as priority issues, so “one-size-fits-all” approach to CFS development isn’t likely to be very helpful. For example, expecting a highly urbanized area to increase agricultural production in the same way as a rural area is not a practical approach to food system development.

By examining the factors that affect capitals present in a community, it is possible to understand how to make strategic investments in a community to increase the amount and quality of capitals.From the research project, we learned that there are several factors that are powerful contributors to robust community food systems. Following is a list with each type of capital and the research finding that falls under that capital. Many of the factors discussed below involve multiple capitals, but for simplicity, we placed them under a single capital.

Natural Capital
Proximity/access to markets – A CFS marketing outlet’s location in relation to a concentrated source of consumers is important; consumers will only travel so far to find products. Proximity can be “virtual,” too. Internet sales (i.e., e-commerce) also increase the proximity and access to potential customers.

Cultural Capital
Food culture – In some areas, consumers are used to gardening, canning, hunting, or producing and preserving their own foods. These customers place a high value on local food production and claim to have a taste for such products. Consumers can also identify with regional or ethnic food varieties, and these specialty products can often be found only at local markets.

Human Capital
Education awareness – Communication networks can provide education and awareness opportunities that serve to inform consumers of the presence of the CFS and enforce its role in the community. These can include field trips to a farmers market as well as 4-H and Future Farmers of America involvement.

Innovation – This includes being able to quickly identify problems impeding market growth and address them with an innovative solution.

Social Capital
Community and institutional drivers – Supportive nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental organizations; interest groups; food advocates; and informal communication networks can provide the impetus to create the food system and the interest to keep it going.

Political Capital
Political environment – Local governments can provide incentives to support local producers and the exchange of local products. They can provide facilities for the exchange of produce, taxation policies, and other fiscal incentives to promote the success of small businesses, and cost-sharing programs to offset the fiscal burden of startup capital.

Regulation and liability – The issue of regulation remains controversial because many food safety laws benefit large-scale production, but compliance is difficult for small producers. The complicated web of regulation can strain connections between local producers and larger distributors. Should food safety become an issue, the burden of liability can be a problem for producers.

Financial Capital
Financial ability – Economic conditions determine the frequency with which consumers choose to purchase more affordable products or pay the premium for local fare. Government financial support determines positions related to local food systems (cooperative Extension), grants, and capital provision.

Built Capital
Institutional drivers – Restaurants, school cafeterias, and hospitals can contract to purchase products from local producers, and businesses can coordinate events (markets, fairs, etc.) where local products are featured and provide event space or parking for these opportunities.

Infrastructure capability – This includes the numbers of producers, farms, and general interest in local foods and sustainable production. Infrastructure requirements such as market venues, refrigeration capabilities, or meat processing facilities ultimately determine the ability of a CFS to grow or thrive.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Fogel, J., Peery, S. Barganier,M.C., Sanberg,N., Smutko, S., Jakes,S., Eley, M., and Prohn, S. “Community Food Systems:What Makes Them Work?”. Virginia Cooperative Extension. in review(2011).

Bargainer,M.,Eley,M., Fogel, J., Jakes, S., Peery, S., Prohn, S., Sanberg, N., Smutko, S., “The Community Food System Explorer: A resource for community food system development”. Virginia Cooperative Extension. in review (2011).

Bargainer,M.,Eley,M., Fogel, J., Jakes, S., Peery, S., Prohn, S., Sanberg, N., Smutko, S., “Community Food Systems of Virginia and North Carolina: A diversity of character”. Virginia Cooperative Extension. in review (2011).

Bargainer,M.,Eley,M., Fogel, J., Jakes, S., Peery, S., Prohn, S., Sanberg, N., Smutko, S., “Community-Based Food System Assessment and Planning: Facilitator’s Guidebook”. Virginia Cooperative Extension PUBLICATION 3108-9029(2011).

Fogel, J., Peery, S., Community Food System Explorer. 2010. Sponsored by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Retrieved from

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In 2011 the project’s deliverables were used to conduct four Extension agent in-service trainings (50 total agents from VA and NC attended). As a result, several groups used the resources to support their activities, including: The City of Richmond, Virginia in developing a city-wide food system plan, University of Virginia in supporting a graduate student service learning project in southwest Virginia, and Arlington, Virginia to develop a local food system work group. The CFSE has also been employed as a tool in another NIFA funded research program at North Carolina State University. The data collected and mapped for the CFSE GIS deliverable continue to be a valuable resource to the communities of the region and helps to further community-based research projects.

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.