Growing Local – Phase II

Final report for LS14-260

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2014: $299,943.00
Projected End Date: 02/18/2018
Grant Recipient: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Charlie Jackson
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
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Project Information


In Phase 2 of Growing Local, ASAP’s Local Food Research Center conducted surveys and interviews with farmers, food industry buyers, and consumers and completed analyses of data from the Census of Agriculture and ASAP’s Local Food Guide database. The research revealed the important role of place-based food and farm experiences for driving interest and demand for local food, identified strategies for farmers to use to build their farm brand and customer bases, and identified findings relevant for food buyers and entrepreneurs navigating increasing consumer demand for local food as well as increasing consumer skepticism of retailer claims.

Project Objectives:
  • Conduct research with farmers and food buyers/entrepreneurs to document ways they are navigating and creating the food system’s emerging and shifting terrain – the opportunities and challenges they encounter, the decisions and innovations they employ in the context of shifting opportunities and constraints.
  • Conduct a full analysis of the 2012 Census of Agriculture data for Western North Carolina (in comparison to 1997, 2002, and 2007 data) – focus on indicators related to tobacco production and sales, fruit and vegetable production, and direct to consumer sales
  • Conduct research with shoppers at farmers markets and with attendees of other local food- and farm-related events to determine the impacts of these experiences on participants. Are these experiences promoting a democratization of the food system by increasing awareness and knowledge of food and agriculture, facilitating interaction and dialogue between participants about food and agriculture, building participants’ capacities to take actions that will affect change in the food system, and building an orientation among participants toward the public good? And what kinds of actions are movement participants taking?  
  • Collate and analyze data from ASAP’s Growing Minds farm to school work, which uses place-based food and farm education and experience to create environments in schools that model healthy eating behaviors to kids, teachers, and staff.  
  • Conduct reviews of emerging literature relevant to local food system development. Focus key areas of literature review on social movement theory (e.g., stages of development, coalescence, collapse, lessons from other social movements), the sociology and psychology of changing individuals’ perceptions and practices, the true “cost” of food, social capital measures, and the concern-action gap.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Allison Perrett (Researcher)
  • Katie Descieux (Researcher)
  • Carlye Gates (Researcher)
  • Caroline Douglas (Researcher)


Materials and methods:
  • Developed a theoretical framework to guide the research process and methodology. The framework developed situates local food system building within a social movements context drawing on the social movements literature and key theoretical concepts (food democracy, place and place-making, social capital).
  • Identified key indicators to evaluate the significance/effectiveness of specific movement strategies. Indicators have been used to test the foundational theory; evaluate organizer, farmer, and buyer strategies; monitor strategy/action impacts and changes in conditions for farmers buyers, and consumers; and refine strategies and actions.
  • Used the framework and indicators to develop research instruments to use with farmers (interviews and surveys), food entrepreneurs and buyers (interviews), and local food and farm event participants (surveys and interviews) and to interpret existing data from the USDA Census of Agriculture and ASAP’s farm/farmer database.
  • Conducted in-depth interviews with leader farmers to monitor changes in conditions in the region and to identify strategies key to the success of farmers growing food for local markets.
  • Conducted in-depth interviews with food buyers and other entrepreneurs in retail and institutional settings to monitor shifts in the region’s local food market, to identify the ways buyers in specific market settings are navigating the emerging localized food and farm system (key strategies), to determine current gaps and needs, and to identify next intervention points.
  • Conducted annual surveys with a base of 600+ farmers currently selling to local markets to evaluate and refine farmer interview findings.
  • Conducted surveys with participants of local food movement activities and events (farmers markets, farm tours, etc) to look at the impacts of place-based experiences on individuals’ perceptions and attitudes and (ultimately) on food and farming-related actions.
  • Finalized analyses of USDA Census of Agriculture data to understand changes in WNC’s farming landscape in relation to the decline of tobacco production and to the emergence and growth of the region’s local food system.
  • Collated and conducted analyses of 10 years of data gathered from farmers in the region to understand trends in the local food market.


Research results and discussion:
  • Over the past 20 years, farming in Western North Carolina has been influence by two key developments – the end of tobacco and the emergence of a movement to localize the region’s food system. Data from the Census reflect this transition, showing a sharp decline in tobacco production and increasing local food activity.
  • Research with farmers, consumers, and other local food/farm supporters has identified key strategies for farmers to use to build their customer bases and for food business owners and entrepreneurs to use to source local and meet demand for local. Key strategies include:
    • Establishing authenticity: Authenticity builds trust and customer loyalty in a climate of increasing consumer skepticism of food marketing claims.
    • Building relationships (with end and/or intermediate customers): In contrast to national and global markets, local markets are predominantly relationship-based, and building relationships is crucial to establishing authenticity.
    • Diversifying markets: For farmers, a market mix that includes direct and non-direct markets can be important to farm success. The relationships and visibility farmers establish in direct markets build demand for their products in non-direct outlets.
    • Diversifying product mixes: A diversified product base helps farmers mitigate extreme and unpredictable weather events and patterns. Additionally, when farmers introduce new and diverse varieties of produce, meat, and other products, they impact customers’ preferences, palates, and demand for local food.
    • Promoting the farm and the farm’s products: In the marketplace, products from local farms need to be distinguished with clear information about the farm. The research shows that farm name and location build trustworthiness; generic store-made local labels do not.
    • Communicating the uniqueness of the farm and its products: Consumers want to know the story behind the food they are eating – where it came from, who grew it and how, etc. They are looking for something “real.”  Farmers and retailers have to demonstrate that and build trust.
  • Local food entrepreneurs in the region (restaurateurs, retailers, wholesalers/distributors, food processors) use key strategies (diversification, product quality, customer education, cooperation/collaboration) to navigate challenges and make local food work in their businesses.
  • Local food and farm linked experiences are important to the strategies and goals of efforts to localize the region’s food system.
    • Local food/farm events provide the opportunity for people to socialize and share information and ideas and opinions.
    • Many people that participate are inspired to talk about/share their experiences with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors. This sharing is a key (ongoing) outcome and vital means of reaching across social networks and expanding interest in and support for local food and farms.
    • Because of experiences they have had, most participants want to know more about food and farms and the food that they are eating. They are seeking additional information.
    • Local food and farms experiences inspire additional action in support of local farms and food, e.g., eating differently (seasonally, more fruits and vegetables, trying new foods), making a stronger commitment to local farms and food, sharing experiences and beliefs with others to inspire others’ support, taking political action, etc.
Participation Summary
600 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:


Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
120 Other educational activities: As described below, ASAP has produced 2+ years of Growing Local, a radio program that airs weekly on a local NPR station. Growing Local shares stories of local farms and food in the project region; the stories and the way they are framed are directly informed by the research.

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
  • Conference papers
    • “Agents of Change and the Local Food Movement,” paper presented at the Southern Anthropological Society, Huntington, WV, April 7-9, 2016.
    • “Reflections from the Field on the Future of the Local Food Movement,” juried paper presented at the University of Vermont Food Systems Summit, Burlington, Vermont, June17-18, 2014.
    • “Change Agents in the Local Food Movement,” paper presented at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings, Albuquerque, NM, March 17-22, 2014.
  • Articles, research blogs, reports:
  • Radio: ASAP has produced a little more than two years of Growing Local, a radio spot that airs Monday mornings at 8:45 on WNCW, a regional public radio station. Growing Local is informed by ASAP’s theory of change and food system democratization framework. Radio spots are designed to increase the public’s knowledge of local food and farms in the region and provide them with ways to act to support the continued development of the local food system. Series audio and transcriptions are accessible on ASAP’s website: radio-broadcasts/

Learning Outcomes

Key changes:
  • N/A

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:


Findings of the research are directly informing ASAP’s programmatic/extension activities with the region’s farmers, food industry buyers, and public as well as with communities outside the region looking for support in developing their own local food and farm initiatives. Overall, our research with farmers and food entrepreneurs have identified innovative ways they are successfully navigating (as well as creating) the region’s emerging local food system. Our research with farmers market shoppers and with the attendees of other local food and farm events has identified the impact of different local food/farm experiences on participants’ views and actions.

Of direct relevance to farmers and local food entrepreneurs, the data show how important place-based food and farm experiences are for building trust with a public that is looking for transparency, authenticity, and for food that is being produced in ways that align with their values. The research identified a specific set of strategies vital for farmers growing for local markets and for business owners and entrepreneurs that want to make local a focus of their enterprises. Through these strategies, farmers and other entrepreneurs are not just tapping into interest and demand, they are expanding it and creating the groundwork for new opportunities to emerge.  

The research shows that among participants local food and farm focused events are promoting knowledge gain, information sharing, and social interaction – all foundations of increasing participation in the food system. The “democratization” research – the theory behind the significance of increasing food system participation for changing the food system, the indicators and measures for measuring the capacity of movement strategies and actions to facilitate food system democratization, the unique position of local food initiatives to promote this process – has significant implications for the strategies of local food system building efforts. Place-based food and farm experiences people are motivating people to take a range of actions – making a stronger commitment to supporting local (taking the time/making the effort to buy from local farmers), eating differently – seasonally and more healthfully, talking about why local farms and food are important to them with individuals in their social and professional networks, taking a civic action to support initiatives and/or political candidates that support local agriculture.

An analysis of data collected through ASAP’s Growing Minds farm to school work also provided insight into the significance of local food and farm based educational experiences for changing students’ (and their families) and staffs’ eating preferences and behaviors. Findings of an analysis of data on Growing Minds@University (farm to school principles and practices that have been integrated into university education and nutrition curricula) show that the professional and personal practices of teachers- and dieticians-in-training are impacted. Education and nutrition students have integrated farm to school activities in their teaching and dietetic internships; students also noted how the Growing Minds@University program had impacted their personal diets (trying new foods) and shopping habits (purchasing more local foods) as well as increased their skills in educating children. The results validate and inform ASAP’s ongoing work with teachers, students, cafeteria staffs, School Nutrition Directors, colleges and universities, and farmers (that serve schools or host school groups) and have relevance to farm to school efforts nationally.



One of the findings of the research suggests that place-based experiences with food and farms has an impact on the way people eat. People that shop at farmers markets, for example, report that their experiences have affected their relationship with food and the way that they eat. They are eating more seasonally, trying to new foods, choosing to eat more fruits and vegetables. Future research will look more specifically at the health implications of place-based experiences with food and farms.

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.