Regional Food Transportation for Texas Farmers

Progress report for LS19-312

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $299,311.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
Grant Recipient: The University of Texas at Arlington
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Caroline Krejci
The University of Texas at Arlington
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project seeks to investigate the transportation challenges faced by Texas farmers and ranchers and to design, develop, and pilot a transportation management tool that will help these farmers begin to build efficient, collaborative regional food transportation networks. Regional food systems offer the potential to greatly improve agricultural sustainability. However, in the face of increasing competition, regional farmers must find ways of expanding their market reach to a larger number of buyers to ensure the survival of their farms. Larger markets are typically located in urban centers that are geographically distant from farmers, and most small and mid-sized farmers do not have the necessary transportation infrastructure in place to support efficient distribution.

If successful, this project will strengthen the Texas regional food system by increasing the market reach of farmers, thereby increasing farm incomes and long-term financial resilience.

This project will follow a systems engineering approach, in which we will elicit the transportation requirements of a broad and inclusive set of regional food system stakeholders and then translate these requirements into the design and development of a transportation management tool (i.e., an app). This tool will facilitate connections between farmers and transportation providers to increase the capabilities of the Texas regional food distribution system. We define this system broadly, to include large-scale food logistics providers, small-scale transportation, and non-traditional partners, allowing for the flexibility and creativity that are necessary when working with a budget-constrained supply network with participants that are widely dispersed across a very large geographic region.

 

Project Objectives:

To address these challenges, the objectives of this project are to:

  • Provide an increased understanding of the transportation capabilities and needs of Texas farmers;
  • Define and reach consensus on a set of regional food transportation system functions that are necessary to address existing shortcomings;
  • Design a transportation management tool that will enable farmers to connect with one another and with regional transportation providers;
  • Prototype and pilot the transportation management tool.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Mike Morris (Researcher)
  • Sue Beckwith (Educator and Researcher)
  • Juan Raygoza - Producer (Researcher)
  • Shakera Raygoza - Producer (Researcher)
  • Jeff Bednar - Producer (Researcher)
  • Robert Maggiani (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

This report describes ongoing activities and some preliminary results in support of Objectives 1 and 2:

Objective 1: Gain an increased understanding of the current transportation capabilities and needs of small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers in Texas who are either currently selling to local/regional markets or are interested in doing so.

  • Conducted preliminary interviews with 35 Texas farmers, ranchers, food hubs, and other regional food distributors to gain an understanding of their logistics operations, the challenges they faced with respect to logistics, and the approaches that they had implemented to overcome these challenges – prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in response to the challenges presented by the pandemic.  The data collected from these interviews was analyzed to gain an understanding of whether/how these participants had made changes to their logistics operations to adapt to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020.  From these interviews, six case studies were identified as demonstrating successful adaptations and were selected for further analysis.  The adaptations were mapped to logistics best practices (as defined by supply chain management researchers and practitioners), as well as United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to gain an understanding of what practices worked well and why, and what the case study results could mean for regional food system sustainability beyond the pandemic.
  • Prepared focus group protocol: Worked with cooperating members of the project team to develop a focus group protocol for a more in-depth investigation of farmers’ and ranchers’ transportation challenges, as well as their thoughts on using software to facilitate transportation collaboration. The protocol includes a series of open-ended questions, as well as a short animated video that was created to introduce the concept of community-crowdsourced transportation collaboration.  The protocol was recently approved by the UTA IRB; focus groups are planned to be administered throughout spring and summer 2021.

Objective 2: Define and reach consensus on a set of regional food transportation system functions that are necessary to fulfill stakeholder requirements.

  • Research on existing transportation tools (ongoing): Generated a list of existing digitally-mediated online platforms that connect senders and carriers for freight transport.  Each platform is being evaluated to determine key functions, in terms of 1) its operational functionality (e.g., whether it offers long-haul and/or last-mile transport; pricing schemes; temperature control options; packaging requirements) and 2) user affordances (e.g., whether sender-carrier matchmaking and pricing are automated, i.e., algorithmically-driven, or user-driven).
  • Investigate suitability of existing transportation tool functions for farmers (ongoing): Using the functions derived from research on existing transportation tools, we are developing decision support framework to determine which specific functions farmers prefer, and then mapping those decisions to the functions offered by existing transportation tools. We have begun the process of testing the decision support framework with the help of two of our cooperating farmers, with a focus on their outbound transportation requirements.  These farmers’ requirements are very different, making them ideal candidates for piloting the framework. One farmer is making last-mile home deliveries from his food hub to a large number of urban consumers; he is currently using his own trucks and employees and would like to outsource to increase delivery capacity, but attempts at outsourcing have failed thus far. The other farmer is currently using commercial LTL services, as well as customer backhauls, to make regular long-haul shipments of individual pallets from their food hub to retailer distribution centers.  The process of designing and piloting this framework with the farmers will be iterative; once we have a framework that is suitable for both farmers’ requirements, we will use it to generate  “solutions” for each farmer, i.e., it will suggest one or more existing transportation tools that best meet the farmers’ requirements.  We will then have the farmers to request a quote from these platforms, and finally, ask the farmers about their experience with the platforms to evaluate how well these services meet their requirements.  We hypothesize that existing tools will not meet farmers’ needs. 
Research results and discussion:

Objective 1: Gain an increased understanding of the current transportation capabilities and needs of small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers in Texas who are either currently selling to local/regional markets or are interested in doing so.

  • The successes experienced by the case study participants were determined to be a consequence of their willingness to adopt new distribution and logistics strategies, prompted by the rapid changes in distribution channels and restrictions that resulted from the pandemic.  Collaboration among regional food system actors was determined to be a particularly effective strategy, as well as the adoption of scale-appropriate information and communication technologies, which helped to facilitate collaboration.  In particular, these case studies demonstrated that collaboration can serve as a long-term investment that can potentially reduce or eliminate the costs and risks associated with trying out other new logistics strategies.  Further, the case study participants demonstrated how improving their logistics performance allowed them to contribute to the health and well-being of their communities in a time of need.  These case studies demonstrate the potential of regional food supply systems to support a resilient and socially-sustainable food system that communities can rely on, even in the face of a major disruption like COVID-19.  The adoption of logistics best practices helped these operations to develop new organizational strengths that will likely support sustainable development in their communities after the crisis ends.

 

 

Participation Summary
35 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Journal articles
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

50 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

We have published one journal article in the scholarly journal Agricultural Systems, describing case studies of the adaptations that small-scale farmers, ranchers, and distributors in Texas made to their logistics operations to address the challenges of COVID-19 in spring 2020.  We have presented preliminary work at two annual Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance conferences (one in-person, one virtual).  We have also generated and distributed one newsletter to our regional food systems network, which describes our progress in the first year of the project.

We are currently preparing another journal article that will describe our evaluation of existing online transportation platforms, in terms of functionality and usability, and the degree to which these platforms meet the needs of our cooperating farmers.  We plan to distribute a second newsletter in August 2021 to provide an update on our accomplishments over the summer.  Once we have focus group data collected and analyzed, the results will be disseminated via a variety of channels (TBD).

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.