Growing Local - Phase III

Progress 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, we have 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 farming, research questions have asked how the activities of local food system building are shaping the contours of the region’s food system and what impact specific kinds of strategies and actions are having.

Phase III is continuing to monitor changes in the region’s food and farming system and is doing additional research at farmers markets – implementing and testing specific interventions at markets designed to make market environments more welcoming, increase customer traffic and return customers, and expand their economic impact for farmers. A significant focus of Phase III is on the dissemination of research findings to key audiences. Dissemination activities will develop tools and resources that can be used directly by local food system stakeholders to support their efforts to farm, market, and/or organize. Findings will also be disseminated through peer reviewed manuscripts to contribute to the growing body of local food system and food movement literature.

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.
  • Finalize entrepreneur research – a series of interviews being conducted with local entrepreneurs whose businesses are linked closely 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.
  • Disseminate research findings to key audiences.


Materials and methods:

Finalized analysis of 2017 Census of Agriculture data. Previous analysis focused on primarily on tobacco farms and production (its continued decline). This analysis looked at the rest of the data including farm and farmer numbers, land in farms, and indicators relevant to local food system activities (e.g., fruit and vegetable production, direct markets, direct sales, etc).

Conducted a survey with farmers about the 2018 season. The survey instrument was structured to measure farmers’ perceptions of market conditions for local food and test findings from previous farmer interviews (key challenges, strategies farmers use to build relationships with customers, strategies they use to find new retail or wholesale buyers), and identify gaps. Survey results verify findings with a larger pool of farmers, help ASAP track local market conditions, identify farmer needs, and identify farmer training and resource needs. 

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 is providing support to farmers markets across the region with the goal of increasing customer retention and traffic and improving outcomes for farmer vendors. The methodology developed for this project will be used to evaluate these efforts and test their efficacy in rural low-resourced market environments.  

Conducted interviews with local food consumers (food democratization research). As part of ongoing research through SARE Large Systems, interviews were conducted with participants of local food and farm experiences to find out how these experiences are impacting their perceptions and practices. Through these experiences, are participants: becoming more knowledgeable about / learning farming and food?; becoming curious about farming and food?; developing a sense of interconnectivity/mutuality – a real sense that their actions have an impact on their communities?; being motivated to take actions that are in alignment with these things?

Research results and discussion:

Highlights from the Census of Agriculture analysis include: 

  • WNC lost farms. This mirrors trends at state and national levels but data show that in WNC farm loss was confined mainly to those growing Christmas trees and nursery crops, farms doing cow/calf, and growing hay and grain for feed. 
  • WNC retained farms growing food for local markets.  
  • Farms growing fruits/vegs, eggs, poultry are increasing in some counties and decreasing in others. E.g., Buncombe County saw increases.
  • The region lost farmland overall (1022 total acres). The majority of the loss was concentrated in the northern counties and is tied to loss of farms doing cow/calf and growing for feed. 
  • Some counties saw farmland increases including Buncombe and Henderson in the central mountains, which are at the center of local food campaign activities.  
  • Farmers in the region are getting older. Also mirroring state and national averages, the average age increased.  
  • Because of changes made to the way the Census of Agriculture is measuring certain indicators, trend data is no longer available for key variables including direct sales and number of principal farmer operators.


Findings from the research with consumers of local food: 

Analysis is ongoing. However, preliminary analysis is showing that place-based food and farm experiences are: 

  • Spaces where social interaction is occurring 
  • Spaces where people are learning more about food and agriculture
  • Sparking a curiosity/interest in knowing more about food and agriculture 
  • Getting participants to think more about the food they eat (who is producing it and how and what it takes to grow and sell food)
  • Facilitating the development of or strengthening a sense of community and interconnectivity 

These experiences are inspiring different sorts of actions:

  • Eating differently (e.g., seasonally, eating more fruits and vegetables) 
  • Getting their food differently  
  • Sharing their experiences and talking about why they seek out local food with people in their social networks to educate others and encourage others to have these experiences and support local  
  • For some, their political actions are informed by these experiences


Highlights from the 2018 Appalachian Grown farmer survey include:

  • Farmers feel market opportunities are stable or increasing in 2018 – 86% felt there were the same number of market outlets or more market outlets available to them compared to 2017
  • Overall sales in many market outlets increased in 2018 – farmers reported that sales at farmers markets, farm stands, to restaurants, and online all experienced 30% increases over last year.
  • Farmers expect to increase sales and expand into new market outlets in 2019 – the greatest number of farmers expect to increase sales in farmers markets (54%) followed by farm stores/farm stands (48%) and restaurants (42%).
  • Farmers face multiple challenges in selling to local markets – among the most frequently cited challenges are competition (with both local and non-local products), marketing, and inadequate consumer demand or, conversely, inadequate supply to meet demand.
  • A majority of farmers expanded into new markets in 2018. Farmers that expanded into new market outlets in 2018 indicated several key conditions. The top factor, improved relationships with buyers, is consistent with research that shows that the quality of relationships with buyers is key to developing a base of loyal customers. 

Response Percent

Response Count

Improved relationships with buyers



Increased market opportunities



Increased production



Improved marketing



Met market requirements



I didn’t




  • Farmers indicated key strategies they use to find new buyers. Top strategies included: word of mouth from other buyers, meeting new buyers at farmers markets, connections made by ASAP staff, and attending other off-farm/local food and farm events. “Meeting new buyers” in particular confirms research conducted with buyers that identified the importance of farmers markets for finding sources of local food for their businesses. 

Word of mouth from other buyers


Meeting new buyers at farmers markets


Cold calls/drop ins


Using Wholesale Local Food Guide


Recommendations from ASAP staff


Attending Grower-Buyer Meetings


Hosting on-farm events (farm tours, weddings, etc.) 


  • Farmers use many strategies for building relationships with their customers –  the highest rated strategies were sharing their farm story, using social media, and labeling products as Appalachian Grown (AG). The response rates show that farmers are making use of key strategies identified in the research as well as the opportunity to expand their use through continued outreach and education.

Sharing your farm story


Using social media


Labeling your products as AG


Sampling your products


Attending off-farm events (food festivals, csa fair, educational events)


Offering on farm opportunities (u-pick, farm tours, lodging, events, etc.)


Sharing a newsletter


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

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Business of Farming Conference

Participation Summary:

200 Farmers
50 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

In the project year, direct outreach/educational activities included: 

  • A paper presentation at the 2019 Appalachian Studies Association Conference. The paper, Experience as Education: Teaching the Food System Through Place-Based Engagement with Food and Farms, identified ways food/farm experiences change people including: developing a sense of community/of interconnectedness; eating differently; shopping differently; wanting to know more; acting politically; influencing others with stories, encouragements, invitations. 
  • Developed a paper: From Tobacco to Local Food: The Transition of Agriculture in Western North Carolina between 1997 and 2012. The paper uses Census of Agriculture data to show how agriculture in Western North Carolina changed in the wake of the tobacco buyout and an effort to build markets for local food. 
  • Developed two research-based farmer resources. Both were designed as one-page factsheets with findings relevant to farmer practices.
    • “What Farmers Market Shoppers Want” provides direct market farmers with research-based best practices for their direct market business and provides evidence that direct market interactions can be a driver of wholesale business. 
    • “Appalachian Grown Producer Survey Highlights” provides key findings from 2018 farmer survey with information about who Appalachian Grown farmers are (age, location of farm, percentage that are women, percentage of that are new farmers), where Appalachian Grown farmers are selling their products, and the top ways farmers selling into local markets are building relationships with consumers and retail/wholesale buyers.  


In addition, research findings have informed programmatic work at ASAP that focuses on farmer and public outreach and education. Research findings and research-based content informed: 

  • A 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. 
  • ASAP’s Local Food Guide – ASAP’s flagship publication for connecting the public to local farms and food. Like the 2018 edition, the 2019 Local Food Guide was framed around farm stories. Research findings show the significance of farm stories for farmers focused on local food markets and providing community members with the deeper connection they are looking for with food and farming. 
  • Content and topics for the 2019 Business of Farming Conference – the conference is ASAP’s annual farming conference and provides training, resources, networking, and market connections to 200+ farmers annually. Research findings informed workshop topics offered and provided content for workshops focused on strategies for connecting to and building customer bases. The 2019 conference booklet received by all attendees included research-based food trends relevant to farmers growing for local markets. 
  • Radio outreach to the public through Growing Local, a 4-minute radio spot that airs Monday mornings on WNCW, a regional public radio station. Growing Local is directly informed by research that demonstrates the significance of story telling for engaging the public with food and farms, providing them with ways to act, and the means to act as change agents. All segments are transcribed and available on ASAP’s webpage (, and are archived on ASAP’s SoundCloud page ( 

Outreach activities currently in progress include: 

  • Finalize From Tobacco to Local Food: The Transition of Agriculture in Western North Carolina between 1997 and 2012
  • A report/paper detailing the research and findings of the democratization research – the role of place-based food and farm experiences for engaging people with the food system and food system issues
  • A report/paper detailing the research and findings with local food entrepreneurs 
  • New episodes of the Growing Local radio show, a key “output” of the SARE Large Systems research. Growing Local uses stories of local food and farms to engage the public with the region’s developing food system. 
  • Farmers market toolkit – a resource to help markets/farmers/managers make the case for the value of farmers market to communities, provide market research tools, provide customer engagement ideas and best practices
  • Local food fact sheets for farmers and entrepreneurs with relevant national and regional food system trend data 
  • Report with full analysis of 2017 census data 

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

Though research findings have informed and continue to inform programmatic work with farmers, this is a research project that does not include specific outcomes for farmer knowledge gains and/or farmer adoption of new practices. Outcomes do include two multi-year grants received that build upon the research findings from this project – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Farmers Market Promotion Program. In keeping with findings from the research, both grant projects focus on expanding direct market opportunities for farmers in the project region through training, technical assistance, and promotional work. Both projects formalize a collaboration with North Carolina Cooperative Extension (focused in the western part of the state) to provide farmers with training and one-on-one support and to reach a broad constituency of farmers in the region (new and beginning, aspiring, multi-generational). 


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.