In order to understand the current transformation of the food system, a research team from ASAP, UNC-Asheville, and UNC-Chapel Hill have been analyzing the economic, environmental, and social changes of the developing local food system in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians. The methodology employed has built on existing research in the region and has included interviews with farmers, food industry buyers, and community decision-makers, a survey with consumers, analyses of USDA Census of Agriculture data, etc. To date, the project has developed a framework for theorizing how and why local food systems can be an engine of change, identified opportunities and barriers to local food from the perspectives of stakeholders operating in different places in the food system, identified the strategies “successful” farmers use to mitigate risk in local markets and improve farm viability, studied the implications of the food dollar for the economic impacts of localizing food systems, and studied the transition from tobacco to food production in the region.
The primary objective of this project has been to examine the impacts of food system localization on local economies, farm profitability, production practices, and health. Long term research questions ask: How are consumer values and behaviors impacting the characteristics of the local food system? How are changes in demand for local food affecting production practices, farm profitability, the distribution networks, and the health of local communities? What have been the impacts of the 2004 Tobacco Buyout in the region? What are the unintended consequences of localizing food production and consumption? Can consumer demand change the food system (increase sustainable production, change policy, decrease obesity and increase health, modify food distribution)?
For this phase of the project, research activities included:
- Developed a food system theory of change logic model, which outlines anticipated stages of change and their indicators.
- Developed a framework for theorizing how and why local food systems can be an engine of social change.
- Collated and assessed all existing data on the food and farming economy of the region and identified missing baseline data. ASAP has collected data annually since 2002 from local farms and businesses.
- Conducted an in depth analysis of the 2002 and 2007 Agricultural Census Data to assess the impact of the 2004 Tobacco Buyout on agriculture.
- Conducted interviews with ‘panels’ of farmers, buyers, and decision makers to baseline and measure changes over time.
- Conducted a consumer survey to measure consumer values and purchasing practices.
- Identified opportunities and barriers to local food from the perspectives of stakeholders operating in different places in the food system.
- Identified the strategies “successful” farmers use to mitigate risk in local markets and improve farm viability.
- Studied the food dollar to better understand the real potential economic impacts of localizing food systems.
- Studied the impacts and potential impacts of food hubs as a strategy toward local food system development.
- Conducted research at two farmers markets in the region to better understand the relationship between total market sales, credit card terminal transactions, and market attendance.
- Presented research findings at a national conference.
- Developed and submitted a journal manuscript (currently under peer review).
In 2000, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) began a research program to evaluate the impacts of food system localization on farm profitability and viability, production practices, distribution networks, and the health of local communities. With support from the SARE Large Systems program, this project has continued to measure these changes. Long term research questions ask: How are consumer values and behaviors impacting the characteristics of the local food system? How are changes in demand for local food affecting production practices, farm profitability, the distribution networks, and the health of local communities? What have been the impacts of the 2004 Tobacco Buyout on farming in the region? What are the unintended consequences of localizing food production and consumption?
ASAP’s work is grounded in the conviction that when the distance between consumer and producer decreases, food system transparency increases and drives changes to the way food is produced. In a local food system, consumers are close to the source of food production and have firsthand knowledge of agriculture, production practices, the impacts of agricultural production, marketing practices, etc. With this close connection, consumers are able to make informed decisions about what they purchase and eat and directly impact the qualities of their food system.
To study and understand the ongoing transformation of the food system, a research team from ASAP, with researchers from UNC-Asheville and UNC-Chapel Hill, have been analyzing the economic, environmental, and social changes. The methodology employed has built on existing research in the region and has conducted interviews with “panels” of farmers, food industry buyers, and community decision-makers, conducted a survey with consumers, and has collated and analyzed a body of existing data on the region’s food system (including Census of Agriculture data and data collected by ASAP for nearly 15 years).
This region is in a unique position to have in place both a mature and growing local food economy and years of data on the transition in agriculture and in food consumption. The quantity of data and relatively isolated market and agriculture environment make this the perfect place to study the theory of change that underlies the rationale for localizing food systems. There is little long-term scientific research into the underlying assumptions that are the foundation of the emerging local food movement. The conditions and expertise in place can provide the knowledge needed to move forward in the localizing of food systems.
To study and understand the ongoing transformation of the food system, a research team from ASAP, with researchers from UNC-Asheville and UNC-Chapel Hill, have been analyzing the economic, environmental, and social changes. The methodology employed has built on existing research and data in the region and has conducted interviews with “panels” of farmers, food industry buyers, and community decision-makers, conducted a survey with consumers, and has collated and analyzed a body of existing data on the region’s food system. Existing data includes 2002, 2007, and 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture data and data ASAP has been collecting from farmers, food industry buyers, and the public for nearly 15 years through ASAP’s Local Food Guide, consumer surveys conducted between 2002 and 2011, and data collected annually from farmers and food industry buyers that participate in ASAP’s Appalachian Grown program. Additionally, because this project has been studying an emerging movement, project research activities have in part responded to new developments and new knowledge. Accordingly, this phase of the project included research into two related areas of movement activity not anticipated with the original proposal – economic assessments of local food systems and food hubs as a strategy to overcome perceived market access barriers.
Research findings, with specific reference to outcomes in the original proposal:
- Through our review of the literature, ASAP’s Local Food Research Center (LFRC) has developed a theoretical framework that articulates how and why local food systems can be an engine of change. While this framework is evolving, it draws from:
- the idea of social embeddedness or embedded economies to theorize the significance of local place-based economies for creating change
- the notions of civic agriculture and resilience to theorize the qualities/ characteristics possible in local food systems that promote triple bottom line sustainability and adapt to changing conditions, e.g., climate change
- the concept of social capital (as well as the related concepts of human, produced, and natural capitals) to theorize the importance of developing social relationships for collective action and the significance of utilizing local knowledge, skills, and resources for bottom-up development and the creation of feedback loops (for the development of environmentally, socially, economically sustainable food systems).
- Our analysis of long-term research with consumers in Western North Carolina (between 2002 and 2013) show that the values residents associate with local food and farms is increasingly connected to community. As a food quality “local” is more important to consumers than organic.
- Analysis of 12 years of Local Food Guide data and Appalachian Grown program data quantifies the growth in the region’s local food economy.
- The number of farms growing for local markets increased eleven fold, from 58 farms in 2002 to 661 farms in 2014. The number of CSAs increased nearly 800 percent, from 12 in 2002 to 107 in 2014.The number of farmer tailgate markets more than tripled, from 32 to 102.
- Diversity of the fresh local produce available has expanded dramatically and local food now includes meats, cheeses, eggs, honey, herbs, wine, processed products, and other products. Between 2002 and 2014, farms producing fresh fruits and vegetables for local consumption increased more than 20 fold. The 2002 Local Food Guide listed a handful producers raising grass-fed or pastured beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and rabbit; the 2014 online guide lists 103 farms producing beef, 82 producing pork, 84 producing chicken, 3 producing bison, 1 producing beefalo, 47 producing lamb, and 26 producing rabbit. The number of cheese producers increased from three in 2002 to 31 in 2014. Egg producers increased from 3 to 214, and producers of honey from 2 to 117.
- Over the past decade, the proportion of farms in the Local Food Guide using sustainable farming practices has greatly expanded: integrated pest management (+207%), free range (+247%), humanely raised (+187%), pasture raised (+248%), low spray (+218%), biodynamic (+97%), GMO-free (+285%), permaculture (+129%), certified naturally grown (+540%), organic not certified (+214%), and certified organic (+175%)
- Appalachian Grown certified producers grow local food and farm products on 68,400+ acres of land in the Southern Appalachians
- Farmers and markets participating in the local food economy have expanded into the more rural reaches of the region.
- Estimated farm sales by Appalachian Grown certified businesses was $17.1 million in 2007. In 2013, the most recent year for measure, the value has surpassed $170 million (+900%)
- Analysis of USDA Census of Agriculture in relation to the tobacco buyout: Analysis of the 2002 and 2007 censuses of agriculture also shows that while nearly 1,700 farms stopped producing tobacco between 2002 and 2007 only 679 farms stopped farming altogether. The difference (about a 1000 farms) suggests that many former tobacco growers are continuing to farm, transitioning their production into different crops, and/or new farmers are taking their place. With the precipitous decline in tobacco production, fruit and vegetable production is on the rise in the region.
- Food dollar analysis: Our analysis of the way food dollars flow through local communities indicates that the estimated (immediate) economic impacts of localizing food systems are often over-estimated because they ignore or oversimplify many of the most fundamental aspects of the food dollar. To better understand the way food dollars move through communities, our research has been exploring new ways to quantify and understand how local food systems impact communities, and the true value of local food production in our region – not just economically, but environmentally and socially as well. The outcome of this ongoing research will be to document the multi-faceted impacts of local food economics to help guide communities in their food system development.
- Farmer research: The results of our farmer research document the diversity of strategies that “successful” leader farmers use to mitigate risk and improve the viability of their operations; these findings have tremendous extension value for farms growing food for local customers. Findings show:
- The significance of direct relationships with customers for the viability of their businesses, for their ability to educate consumers, brand their farms, and develop a repeat customer base, and for the development of feedback loops (i.e., customer/buyer feedback on products they desire and on production practices they desire).
- Market diversity is a risk management strategy, particularly cross marketing between direct and non-direct market outlets.
- Product diversification is another risk management strategy, allowing producers to access a wider variety of customers and market opportunities
- Farmers’ ideas of “success” go beyond just earnings – farmers weigh economic considerations with extra-financial considerations (e.g., with environmental stewardship and quality of life issues including the value of family).
- To mitigate the effects of climate change (e.g., the inability to plan due to high weather variability from year to year), a key farmer strategy is product diversification – increasing the diversity of fruits and vegetable varieties and/or diversifying into other types of production (farmers growing produce diversifying into meat production and vice versa)
- Buyer research:
- Research with buyers operating within different market segments (grocers, restaurants, wholesalers, institutions) reveals the relationship between personal and professional boundaries – positive personal experiences with local food and farms affect individuals’ perceptions of local farms and food and their propensity to take actions to source food from local farms
- Food industry buyers use multiple strategies to source food from local farms – direct from farms and farmers markets, through regional and national wholesale distributors, through a centralized warehouse. These strategies are not mutually exclusive
- Food industry buyers perceive varying challenges with local including product consistency, volume, multiple and conflicting notions/definitions of “local”, seasonality, price, consumer knowledge and expectations, having the time to find sources of local, the centralized corporate model (which conflicts with local), etc.
- One of the primary advantages of local cited by buyers is the relationships they develop with farmers – both for the enjoyment of it and for the accountability it builds in local food supply chains
- Buyers are mitigating challenges through a variety of ways including sourcing local product through regionally based wholesale distributors (who are able to pool produce, achieve volume, and provide consistency), buying readily available product in season (for volume and price), avoiding higher priced local product (e.g., cheese and meat) and, to specifically address the higher price of locally raised meats, move toward using the whole animal – utilizing other, lesser known cuts of meat and educating their customers about it.
- Food hub research: The results of our research around food hubs (particularly those operating as non-profits) shows most are dependent on outside funding and assistance – food hubs work to aggregate the product of many smaller farms in order to meet the volume requirements of larger scale markets but struggle and usually fail to sustainably meet larger volume markets’ price points. Accordingly, they come to rely on outside support to help pay for operating costs. Primary data from a national sampling of food hubs shows that the research population is heavily skewed with a very small number of older and larger firms contributing disproportionately to the “positive” averages and attributes of food hubs as a whole. ASAP is integrating knowledge from this study into our extension work – providing communities with accurate and realistic information on food hubs: what is required to operate and sustain them, the advisability of considering food hubs given local conditions, the need to identify and evaluate any existing local infrastructure (that can be used to aggregate and distribute), and potential unintended consequences of food hub development.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Scholarly outreach: developed and submitted article and presentation abstracts on approaches in local food systems development.
- National conference presentation: University of Vermont Food Systems Summit, Burlington, Vermont, July 17-18, 2004 – Beyond Efficiency: Reflections from the Field on the Future of the Local Food Movement. A copy of this paper is attached to this report.
- Journal submission: Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development – Local food, Food Democracy, and Food Hubs. This paper is currently under peer review. We will submit a copy to the SARE Large Systems program once it has been accepted.
- Published an article in the Mountain Xpress Green Building Guide – Growing a Sustainable Food System.
- Published an article to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger blog – Transforming Our Food System: A Look at Western North Carolina’s Food Movement.
- Published monthly blogs on ASAP’s FromHere.org site describing the type of research being conducted and preliminary findings.
- Published a more extensive and scholarly blog on local food and hubs and distributed it through ASAP website and partner websites (including RAFI-USA) and through the COMFOOD listserv.
- Developed a blog page on asapconnections.org specific to the LFRC’s research findings: http://asapconnections.org/category/research/writings
- Developed “Why Buy Local? Our Choices Matter” for businesses sourcing from local farms to display (in their stores, restaurants, cafeterias, etc). The reasons developed are informed by the theoretical framework developed by this project and from research that shows what messages resonate with the public.
On an on-going basis, findings of the research inform our extension activities with farmers, food industry buyers, and the public. Specific extension outcomes include:
- Marketing assistance to farmers in the form of workshops and/or one-on-one consultations that stresses the importance of market diversification (as a means to manage the risk and fluctuations in developing markets for local food) and developing meaningful connections to the community (as a crucial means of enhancing the economic viability of their farm businesses).
- Providing businesses with local food sourcing assistance given real and perceived constraints.
- Marketing assistance to businesses sourcing local. Informed by the project theoretical framework and the results of research with the public, the project developed “Why Buy Local? Our Choices Matter” for businesses (in their stores, restaurants, cafeterias, etc) to display to demonstrate their commitment to local and educate their customers.
- Informed by the food hub research, expanded emphasis working with the region’s existing wholesale distribution infrastructure to support further development of the local food economy. Specifically, ASAP is working with wholesale distributors to gain an understanding of their procurement and distribution systems, to help them expand their procurement of local food, and help them maintain the identity and value of local product with regional branding.
On an organization level, the theory of food system change and accompanying logic model have been incorporated into annual organization and strategic planning.
While this is a research project, the results of research flow into ASAP’s farmer extension activities. The framework developed that theorizes how and why local food system building can be a means of food system change is shared with farmers in terms of the importance of developing a community presence and personal market relationships. For the past two years, for example, ASAP’s annual Business of Farming Conference has held a workshop that focuses on the importance of connecting to the community (through events, farmers markets, on-farm stores, cooking classes, farm tours, etc) and how this community focus contributes to their quality of life and to the viability of their farm businesses.
The findings on market diversification as a key risk management tool is also shared with farmers through workshops at ASAP’s annual Business of Farming Conference and through one on one farmer assistance.
Informed by results of our food hub research, ASAP has intensified its focus on working with the existing wholesale infrastructure in the region – working to understand their procurement and distribution systems, helping them to identify and connect with more farmers to source from, assisting them with local food identification and maintaining its identity and value throughout their systems.
Areas needing additional study
Farmers market focused research is needed to understand how farmers markets are functioning now in relation to facilitating community interconnectivity and what actions can be taken to increase this function and broaden community engagement. The presence and development of social capital is important to movement strategies and goals. Social capital, understood as networks and bonds between people, is a foundation for the development of collective identity and collective action. Farmers markets hold significant potential toward the development of social capital. As sites of community interaction, they are vehicles for the dissemination of information, they are spaces where members of the public can discuss and debate matters of community importance and reach mutual understandings.
Consumer research focused on understanding the ways movement strategies and actions affect “consumer” sensibilities and incite civic engagement. What opportunities do particular movement strategies hold for moving consumers and what are the limitations?
With research findings suggesting the economic unsustainability of food hubs (specifically nonprofit food hubs), focused research on existing, for profit food distribution networks in the region is needed to understand their (potential) role in local food system development.
Emerging data from ASAP’s Growing Minds Farm to School program suggest that place-based experiences centered on local food and local agriculture are an important catalyst of change; they increase individuals’ knowledge of food and agriculture and impact their actions around around food and eating. These data need to be collated and analyzed to understand their significance for movement strategies and actions.