Growing Local - Phase III

Final report for LS17-285

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $300,000.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Charlie Jackson
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
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Project Information


Over the course of this research project, ASAP developed and tested a theory centered on the idea that substantive food system change relies on broader food system participation and a process that provides people with ways to engage with food and agriculture in meaningful ways. Within this theoretical framing, research questions asked how and why local food system building in particular could be a catalyst of positive food system change and what strategies and actions could facilitate that change. Findings of the research fall into two key areas. The first area describes impactful strategies used by leader farmers, successful food entrepreneurs, and advocates and organizers for place-based food systems. The second area focuses on the impacts of these strategies - tangible changes in the region’s farming and food system as well as in the underlying conditions that have supported them. 

Research dissemination was a significant focus of Phase III. Dissemination activities included developing reports of findings, presenting findings at academic and farmer conferences, and creating tools and resources for local food system stakeholders to use to support their efforts to farm, market, and/or organize.

Project Objectives:
  • Conduct farmers market research to implement and test specific interventions and develop best practices that communities can use to create vibrant farmers markets (including low-resourced markets) that support the economic viability of farms.
  • Conduct an analysis of the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture for the region.
  • Finalize entrepreneur research – a series of interviews conducted with local food entrepreneurs whose businesses are linked closely to the region’s developing local food system.
  • Conduct interviews with the attendees of local food and farm events.
  • Conduct broad surveys with farmers and food system buyers.
  • Finalize analyses and research findings. 
  • Develop research-informed tools and resources for farmers and food system buyers. 
  • Disseminate research findings to key audiences.


Materials and methods:
  • Conducted analysis of 2017 Census of Agriculture data. Previous analysis focused primarily on tobacco farms and production (its continued decline). The analysis in Phase III focused on data relevant to local food system activities (i.e., fruit and vegetable production, direct marketing, direct sales, etc).
  • Conducted surveys with farmers about the 2019 season. The survey instrument was structured to measure farmers’ perceptions of market conditions for local food and test findings from farmer interviews with a larger pool of farmers (key challenges, strategies farmers use to build relationships with customers, strategies they use to find new retail or wholesale buyers). As with previous annual farmer surveys, ASAP has used the findings to track changes in local market conditions, identify farmer needs, and identify farmer training and resource priorities. 
  • Conducted a survey with farmers about the 2020 season. Questions focused especially on the COVID-19 pandemic in order to understand the specific nature of farmers’ challenges, the strategies they used, and the lessons they learned, and to identify particular areas of farmer need. 
  • Conducted research at farmers markets. Conducted customer counts and brief surveys at Asheville City Market with a goal of quantifying shopper spending and understanding and improving shopper experiences.  ASAP is leveraging the research method developed in a project that provides support to farmers markets across the region with an overall goal of increasing customer retention and traffic and improving outcomes for farmer vendors. The methodology developed will be used to evaluate these efforts and test their efficacy in rural low-resourced market environments.  
  • Completed interviews with participants of local food and farm experiences. Final interviews were conducted with participants of local food and farm experiences, primarily farmers market shoppers and farm tour participants, to find out how these experiences had impacted their perceptions and practices around food and eating. Did participants become more knowledgeable about farming and food? Did they become more curious? Through their experiences, did they develop a sense of interconnectivity/mutuality – a real sense that their actions have an impact on their communities? Did their experiences motivate them to take actions in alignment with these things?
  • Finalized the analysis of data pertaining to the impact of local food and farm experiences. The final analysis included data from intercept surveys and from interviews. Content analysis of interviews identified key themes and patterns within an analytical framework developed around meaningful food system participation. 
  • Finalized the analysis of the interview data with local food entrepreneurs. Content analysis was conducted to identify key themes and patterns with a focus on business values, entrepreneur motivations for working with local farms and food, the challenges of working with local food, entrepreneurs’ key strategies for making incorporating local food into their businesses financially viable. 
  • Developed final reports of data findings. One report focused on Census of Agriculture findings and specifically looked at the relationship between the decline of tobacco production and the rise of food production for local markets. A second report focused on the findings from interviews with local food entrepreneurs. The third focused on the findings of surveys and interviews with participants of local food and farm experiences in the region. The fourth focused on the themes that emerged from ASAP’s Growing Local radio series.
Research results and discussion:

Census of Agriculture research: 

The analysis of 1997-2017 USDA Census of Agriculture data assessed changes to food and agriculture in Western North Carolina in relation to the federal tobacco buyout and to efforts to develop markets for locally grown food as a market for the region’s farms. Major findings include: 

  • Burley tobacco production is mostly gone from this once tobacco-dependent region. By 2017, the region mostly lost tobacco production with less than two percent of burley-producing farms remaining. 
  • Alongside the loss of tobacco production, significant farm loss occurred in the region. As agricultural economists predicted, with the loss of tobacco, the region experienced a dramatic loss of farms with loss rates exceeding state and national levels. The data show the decline in total farms generally paralleled decline in farms producing tobacco. 
  • Production of food crops, specifically fruits and vegetables, increased in the region. The increase in vegetable and fruit production marks the transition away from the non-food production of tobacco. In relation to local food campaign activities, growth in the production of vegetables and fruits is especially meaningful, because fresh produce is the mainstay of local food markets in the region. Data also show that a preponderance of vegetable and fruit production is occurring on small acreage, a scale especially suited to production for direct-to-consumer markets.
  • Production of food for local markets increased. Alongside the decline of tobacco production and the rise in vegetable and fruit production, direct-to-consumer marketing activities increased among farmers in the region. In relation to the rest of the state and the nation as a whole, the data show that higher levels of local food activity have occurred in the region with significantly more farms engaged in direct-to-consumer sales as well as in the production of the fresh vegetables and fruits. Because the local food campaign in Western North Carolina was one of the first in the country and because it predated any comparable campaign at the state level and growth in the market for local food nationally, these comparisons are meaningful and also point to the impact of campaign activities on the region’s farming base.
  • Markets for local food are in flux. Overall, findings show that the region’s farming base has and continues to be shaped by the end of tobacco as well as the effort to build local food markets. The data show clearly that the destabilizing loss of tobacco has continued to impact overall farm loss at the same time that the focal point of farming has shifted toward the production of food for local markets. 


Research on the impact of local food and farm experiences: 

Overall the research demonstrates that direct experiences with local food and farms are a powerful way to cultivate interest in food and food production, instill a concrete sense of being in community, and activate engagement with the food system. Farmers markets and on-farm events are highly social spaces where participants can interact and learn about farming and food production. Findings show the impact of these experiences on participants: 

  • Increased curiosity about local farms and food production
  • Increased knowledge in relation to food, farming, and food production 
  • A stronger sense of being in community particularly among those who participate in local food and farm events with some regularity
  • Belief in the power of their actions and in collective action -  Participants see the impacts of their actions (i.e., spending their money on local food directly supports local farmers and farmers’ abilities to continue producing food) and their actions in combination with the actions of others to support the region’s local food system and impact their communities in positive ways 

Inspired by their experiences, individuals made changes to their lifestyles to prioritize supporting local farmers and food production. Moreover, they became vocal advocates for farmers markets, farms, locally grown foods, and local food production more broadly with friends, family, neighbors, and other people in their social spheres. Regular farmer market shoppers especially became promoters for “their” farmers market and farmers. Actions inspired by experiences with local food & farms included: 

  • Shopping differently - buying more locally grown food and purchasing directly from farmers at farmers markets and at farms 
  • Eating differently - with the seasons, more healthfully, more fruits & vegetables, cooking more, trying new foods
  • Asking grocers to source food from local farms
  • Patronizing restaurants that source local food 
  • Encouraging friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc to shop at farmers markets, to visit farms, to buy locally grown foods
  • Supporting local political candidates who support local agriculture
  • Reaching out to elected representatives to express views on issues affecting local agriculture


2019 Appalachian Grown farmer survey:

  • Farmers felt market opportunities were stable or increasing in 2019 - 89% felt there were the same number of market outlets or more market outlets available to them compared to 2018.
  • Farmers reported increases in several market outlets in 2019 - The greatest number of farmers reported increased sales in CSAs (59%), online (55%), farm stores (53%), agritourism (52%), and farmers markets (50%).
  • Farmers expected to increase sales and expand into new market outlets in 2020- the greatest number of farmers expected to expand into or increase sales in farmers markets (47%), restaurants (42%), and farm stands (36%).
  • Farmers faced multiple challenges in selling to local markets - among the most frequently cited challenges were production challenges, marketing, and competition (with both local and non-local products).
  • Farmers used specific strategies for building relationships with their customers -  building relationships with customers is vital for farmers growing food for local markets. In keeping with findings from interviews with leader farmers, the highest rated strategies were sampling their products (84%), using social media (79%), and sharing their farm story (78%).
  • Farmers used specific strategies to find new buyers. Top strategies included meeting new buyers at farmers markets, word of mouth from other farmers, connections made by ASAP staff, and hosting on-farm events. The biggest strategy, meeting buyers at farmers markets confirms findings from research with local food entrepreneurs, who noted the importance of farmers markets for finding farms and sourcing local food for their businesses.

  • Farmers entering new market outlets were influenced by a number of factors - the top factors identified were increased market opportunities, increased production, and improved relationships with buyers. The latter, improved relationships with buyers, is consistent with the research that shows that the quality of relationships between farmers and buyers is key to farmer success.


2020 Appalachian Grown farmer survey:

Findings from the 2020 survey show the highly adaptable nature of the region’s smaller scale farms and equally the presence of a supportive community, which gave farmers options and enabled them to transition to different market outlets in the midst of a disruptive pandemic. 

  • Fifty-three percent of farmers reported fewer local market outlets to sell their product to in 2020. This was a significant change from the 11 percent reported in 2019, demonstrating the impact of the pandemic. For many, the loss of restaurant sales was the biggest disruption—74 percent of farmers reported decreased restaurant sales due to restaurant closures and reductions. 
  • Because of the adaptable nature of the region’s small and diversified farms, most were able to pivot to new market outlets and establish relationships with new buyers. In addition to farmers markets, many farms opened or ramped up sales through farm stands, online stores, and CSAs, with a significant number turning to these outlets for the first time in 2020.
  • Farmers experienced production challenges as a result of the pandemic. Sixty-three percent reported challenges in sourcing supplies and equipment like seeds, feed, inputs, packaging, tools, and machinery. Fifty-five percent reported challenges in processing their animals due to closed or delayed meat processing facilities. Thirty-nine percent reported challenges in finding and hiring workers or apprentices.
  • Despite the challenges, many farmers reported customers’ increased interest in and dedication to buying local food. Nearly half of all farmers surveyed reported higher sales in 2020 than in 2019—though this is a drop from the nearly 60 percent who reported higher sales at the end of 2019. 
  • With the pandemic continuing, nearly 80 percent of farmers reported planning to adjust their farm/business plans again in 2021, including increasing or diversifying production, expanding online sales platforms, and altering marketing strategies. 
  • Eighty-five percent of farmers reported that their farm business would remain viable even if restrictions continued in 2021. 


Local food entrepreneur research: 

This research investigated the experiences of local food entrepreneurs - individuals who operate a food related business with a focus on local food - to understand their motivations for working with local food, the challenges they experience, and the strategies they use to make local food financially viable. The findings of this research reveal that local food entrepreneurs have a significant and unique role to play in supporting the vitality of the region’s local food economy. 

  • Local food entrepreneurs link “quality” to the capacity to develop personal market relationships with farmers. Personal market relationships are central to local food entrepreneurs’ decisions to link their businesses to local farms and other local food enterprises. They are key to cultivating quality, which entrepreneurs conceptualize broadly to include tangible attributes (like freshness and flavor) as well intangible non-market values tied to transparency, trust, and community and environmental wellbeing. Sourcing food from local farmers and other purveyors of local food is a means to not only procure exceptional products, it is a means to support the development of a different kind of food system, one that provides an alternative to industrialized food production. 
  • Local food entrepreneurs use different strategies to navigate tensions between local food and market realities. Local food entrepreneurs have a vital role to play in local food system building efforts precisely because they are working in the spaces where local food intersects with the realities of the dominant marketplace. In this context, they have employed strategies to both shift societal food norms and industry standards as well as accommodate them. 
  • Local food entrepreneurs support the creation of a regional culture that values local farms and food. Entrepreneurs see the impacts of their efforts - in influencing the diversification of locally produced foods, in creating an environment that supports more local food entrepreneurs, and in engaging the public with food in meaningful ways and changing the way they eat. Through their strategies to create more space for local food and make it financially viable for their businesses, local food entrepreneurs are strengthening the importance of non-market values and helping to create a regional culture that values and supports local food production.  


Farmers market research: 

This research assessed the effectiveness of various resources and support for farmers markets. This led to content developed for market promotions, workshops, market leadership summits, and promotional activity kits for markets. Farmers Markets, especially rural, low resourced markets have limited staff time, so the most effective forms of support were those that reduced cost and made the most of limited staff and resources, but provided the structure that allowed individual markets flexibility to customize. This includes multimarket events, and turn-key promotional kits, such as a “love your market” social media contest or a newly created dot survey kit to engage customers, and health and wellness fairs to expand outreach. Options for at-market interactive promotional resources and display materials were limited by COVID related “touch free” restrictions for customer engagement. Instead, welcome to the Market videos for virtual market promotion and customer engagement, allowed managers to give virtual walk throughs to increase customer familiarity with market customs.

Participation Summary
200 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

Though project findings have implications for and inform farmer education, this is a research-based project.

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
7 Other educational activities: Business of Farming Conference

Participation Summary:

200 Farmers participated
50 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Since the last annual report, three research papers have been developed: 

  • Experiencing Local: The role of place-based food and farm experiences in a local food system building effort in Western North Carolina (2021). This paper discusses the findings of research that investigated the impact of place-based food and farm experiences on participants in the project region and describes the implications of the findings for food system organizers, farmers, and farmers market leaders. 

Experiencing Local Report

  • Added Value in the Local Food System: The role of food entrepreneurs in a local food system building effort in the Southern Appalachians (2021). This paper discusses the findings of research conducted with entrepreneurs of local food in the project region. The research investigated the experiences of local food entrepreneurs to understand their motivations for working with local food, the challenges they experience, and the strategies they use to make local food financially viable. 

Added Value in the Food System - Report

  • Tobacco to Local Food: The transition of agriculture in Western North Carolina between 1997 and 2017 (2021). This paper presents findings from an analysis of USDA Census of Agriculture data (1997-2017) that assessed changes to food and agriculture in Western North Carolina in relation to the federal tobacco buyout and to efforts to develop markets for locally grown food as an alternative market for the region’s farms. 

Research-informed farmer resources created include: 

  • Business of Farming Conference resource notebooks
  • CSA Toolkit: An updated compilation of best practices for farmers with CSAs reflecting recent consumer trends and new market opportunities. 

CSA Toolkit

  • Resource toolkit for farmers: the toolkit includes tips and strategies for farmers selling direct. The research shows the significance of direct markets for farmer businesses and for local food system development more broadly. 

Resource Toolkit for Farmers

Farmers-market resources were also created in keeping with findings that point to their significant role in local food system building efforts: 

  • Appalachian Grown Farmers Market Managers Network: An active forum to ask questions, share experiences, and learn from fellow market managers. Designed to help managers/farmer-managers strengthen the appeal and success of their farmers markets. 
  • Appalachian Grown Farmers Market Toolkit: A collection of strategies, resources, and best practices drawn from the expertise of experienced farmers market managers and leaders. The guide is designed to help market managers increase sales from existing customers, improve customer retention, and expand customer traffic.

Farmers Market Toolkit

  • Farmers Market Summit: A convening of market managers and leaders held annually from farmers markets across the region to share information, provide mutual support, and brainstorm solutions to common challenges.
  • Promotional Activity Kits (“Pick-a-PAK”): An ASAP lending program that provides Appalachian Grown certified farmers markets with the equipment and supplies for activities designed to engage and educate shoppers. 

Research findings have also been integrated into existing ASAP programmatic work  focused on outreach and education for farmers as well the public:

  • ASAP’s Local Food Guide: Informed by findings that show more and more people want to know the story behind the food they are eating, the Guide has been re-framed to tell the stories of local farms and food in the region, e.g., specific stories about farmers, local food entrepreneurs, farmer-entrepreneur relationships, community members that took actions to make changes in the food system in their communities. 
  • Content and topics of the Business of Farming Conference (2020 and 2021): Research findings have informed ASAP’s annual Business of Farming Conference as well as individualized farmer consultations. New and updated content has focused especially on market diversification and direct marketing strategies - diversifying as a means of risk management, building and establishing a farm brand, building relationships with customers, engaging customers (e.g, telling the story of the farm, using social media to create farm-centered experiences, hosting farm visitors, etc). 
  • Growing Local Radio: Informed directly by the theoretical framework, Growing Local Radio was developed to engage the listening audience more deeply into the workings of local farms and local food system development. A weekly 4-minute radio spot that aired Monday mornings (2017-2021) on regional public radio station WNCW, the program told listeners the stories of specific farmers, entrepreneurs and other business owners focusing on local food, and community members taking actions to change the food system where they live. All segments have been transcribed and are available on ASAP’s webpage and they are archived on ASAP’s SoundCloud page.

Project Outcomes

6 Grants received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:

Growing Local has significant implications for the work of food movements, and the research confirms the importance of increasing participation in the food system in order to change it. Specifically, findings point to the vital role of direct experiences with farms and food for engaging individual community members and developing support for a food system in the Western NC region that is progressively rooted in the land, local farmers, local relationships, and communities. The research identified vital strategies to the work of organizers and to the livelihoods of farmers and other local food system stakeholders.

In relation to local food campaign activities, findings paint a picture of a region that has come to appreciate local farms, embrace local food production, and value the ability to prioritize supporting their local food economy. The economy that has grown up around local farms and food has created a resilience in farming that was not present when tobacco production for impersonal, national markets dominated.

Throughout the project, findings identified key points of intervention for furthering local food system building efforts, informing the strategies and actions of ASAP. The research has been used to secure key multi-year funding from the Farmers Market Promotion Program, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Dogwood Health Trust, and other grant programs. These projects have focused on expanding direct market opportunities for farmers in the region through training, technical assistance, and promotional work. 

This unique funding opportunity provided both for a long-term perspective and the ability to keep a research team together for an extended period. The greater impact of this is documented in a report that describes this 10-year research effort and summarizes the findings and overall conclusions. Available upon request.

Information Products

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.