Strengthening Farmer-consumer Connections for Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Final report for LS21-359

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $213,954.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Furman University
Region: Southern
State: South Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Courtney Quinn
Furman University
Dr. Karen Allen
Furman University
Dr. John Quinn
Furman University
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Project Information


The connectedness between local farms and regional consumers continues to grow across the South. Farmers participating in local food systems are focused on creating a robust and viable food system that promotes holistic social, economic, and ecological values. Yet, our past research and conversations with farmers demonstrate one of the most pronounced challenges for producers is program evaluation to understand and influence consumer retention. The lack of understanding of what influences customers to support local food initiatives, and more importantly, what keeps them returning, makes planning difficult and increases the financial risks in experimenting with different methods of customer connection.

In addition to these challenges, local food opportunities have changed in the past decade. Some farmers discontinued CSAs when sunk time and monetary resources did not provide a clear return on investment.  CSA operations remaining often include multiple businesses in a single CSA, offering consumers optional “add-ons” such as cheese, wine, or prepared foods. Other farmers started their own restaurants adjacent to their farms or in nearby metropolitan areas. Some partnered exclusively with a single restaurant to supply produce or meat. 

Given the challenges and opportunities to local farmers (plus uncertainty post-pandemic), it is essential to help them capitalize on consumers’ interest in products and sustainable food systems. This proposed project is an outgrowth of our ongoing work and relationships with our farmer-partners and their expressed research needs. At its core, this project uniquely captures an opportunity to learn what characteristics of coupled farm and food systems (i.e., multi-business CSAs, vertically integrated farms and restaurants) and characteristics of repeat and new customers (i.e., consumer knowledge and values) lead to the greatest long-term economic success for farmers while maintaining the environmental and social sustainability values of local food. 

In this project, we analyzed local farm operations’ characteristics including; production methods and local biodiversity, networking with other businesses, and communication to customers of social and ecological value creation. We concurrently assessed customer preferences, perceptions, and knowledge of local food systems, their reason (e.g., experiences and values) for supporting a business, and how their COVID-19 experience influenced involvement with the food system. We supported each farmer in testing new strategies for economic value creation. Data was collected through farm assessment tools, qualitative and quantitative surveys including choice experiments, interviews, and social network analysis.

The information gained will allow local farmers to increase their competitiveness in the food system by retaining current customers, especially those who increased involvement as a result of COVID-19 concerns regarding the larger food system. Results have been shared broadly throughout the region including at conferences, in three workshops for farmers, in-personal conversations with our collaborating farmers and others, and academic journal articles.

Project Objectives:

We had four linked objectives in this project that cover social, ecological, economic, and educational goals.

Objective 1:  Our first objective was to assess farm and business characteristics of our five participating farms. We assessed the current mechanisms through which each farmer(s) is trying to create social, economic, and ecological value on their farms and how farmers understand and communicate such value to customers.

Objective 1A: We measured ecological health using the Healthy Farm Index (HFI) on each participating farm and on other small to medium farms in the Western Carolinas. To link the local data to landscape scales, we also modeled ecological health across the region as a function of land use change and climate change (Vickery et al. 2023).

Objective 1B: We modified the HFI to add social dimensions and shared this data with farmers

Objective 1C: Through interviews with our five farmer partners, and ten additional farmers, we assessed farmer perceptions of their production practices and ecological value creation along with their labor practices and social value creation. 

Objective 2: Our second objective was to test how local food operations engage with consumer preferences and values by comparing customer characteristics to current and future patronage (including monetary patronage and willingness to pay) as well as assessing consumer knowledge, understanding, and relational values for local food systems.  

Ob2A: We used a stated choice experiment (CE) to estimate willingness to pay (WTP) for elements of sustainable agriculture across consumers in the western Carolinas. We will survey both the patrons of the five farms and a sample of consumers from the general population 

Ob2B: Each of our five farmer partners created and tested targeted interventions, in years 2 and 3, for effect on sales and, ultimately, customer retention. 

Objective 3:  Our third objective was to assess the existing connections between farmers and consumers and farmers to each other to better understand how social networks influence the robustness of system embeddedness.

Ob3A: We conducted two social network analyses; 1) network of farmers and farm-associated businesses in the Western Carolinas and 2) local food network connections measured as the density of consumers currently patronizing at least one business associated with the local farming system. 

Ob3B: We tested the hypothesis that consumer embeddedness in local food systems, via network density of local food connections, creates a reinforcing feedback loop of more frequent and repeated engagement by consumers. 

Objective 4: (Education and Extension) Our last objective was to share our results with numerous stakeholder groups and utilize the educational opportunities to promote existing social networks and strengthen farmer-to-farmer social networks. 

Ob4A: We shared results with clearly defined audiences via multiple delivery methods; 1) annual workshops that convene farmers, other business owners, non-profit managers, and academics, 2) host round-table discussions, 3) presentations at regional farming conferences (e.g., CFSA), and 4) classroom education material for undergraduate students.  


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Katherine Belk - Producer
  • Roddy Pick - Producer
  • David Porras - Producer
  • Chris Sermons - Producer
  • Chris Miller - Producer


Materials and methods:

Our research questions required a systems-focus, team-based, mixed-methods approach. The combination of quantitative and qualitative data, including ecological, economic, and social measures, allowed for robust statistical analysis coupled with a deep understanding of experiences that made our results more useful to local farm-to-fork operations. Our combined areas of study; agricultural leadership and human dimensions, economic anthropology, and agroecology, combined in sustainability science, provided the ideal interdisciplinary framework. 

Objective 1A: We measured ecological and social health using the updated Healthy Farm Index (Quinn et al. 2013). We also extended the measures of biodiversity in the Healthy Farm Index to measure biodiversity as a function of farm management choices. We also scaled these assessments up to compare to larger scale patterns of farmland loss in the region. 

Objective 1B We conducted a semi-structured interview with each of our five farmer partners and ten other farmers regarding farmer perceptions of their ecological, economic, and social value creation. 

Objective 2A: We used a stated choice experiment (CE) to estimate willingness to pay (WTP) for elements of sustainable agriculture across consumers in the western Carolinas. 

Objective 2B:  We surveyed existing customers of each farm and business establishment regarding personal preferences, values, and perceptions of the local food system. Variables measured included customer perceptions, agricultural literacy (knowledge), current behaviors, and preferences for local food systems; valuation of food operation characteristics, perceived relationship(s) with farmer(s); and how their COVID-19 experience influenced their involvement with the local food system. 

Objective 2C: In Years 2 and 3, each farm operation identified interventions to employ and test for customer recruitment and retention. 

Objective 3A: We conducted social network analyses of 1) farmer and local food business owners and 2) consumers who patronize the local food system.  

Objective 3B: We used the SNA data to test the hypothesis that consumer embeddedness in local food systems, via network density of local food connections, creates a reinforcing feedback loop of more frequent and repeated engagement by consumers. Our customer survey gathered data about local food establishment patronage for all possible interactions from CSA membership to restaurant frequenting.

Objective 4: 

Our education component provided specific outreach programming for different audiences; producers and business owners, customers, and academic/educational organizations. Our multifaceted approach throughout the grant cycle allowed us to reach audiences from regional to national scale. Our most targeted education components included three hosted workshops. 

Research results and discussion:

Results and Discussion

Objective 1 

In 2021 and 2022 we collected ecological and social data from 15 farms. We found that local small-scale farmers emphasize the crucial importance of financial sustainability and diverse business strategies. Farmers prioritize diversifying income streams, such as incorporating various livestock alongside crop production, to enhance profitability and ensure farm viability. This is tied closely to sustainable practices, such as focusing on soil health, which respondents noted directly correlates with financial returns. Sustainability also extends to agriculture and biodiversity, with a strong emphasis on using native plants to support local ecosystems, benefiting soil health, pollinators, and wildlife. Furthermore, holistic farm management is common, where farmers integrate sustainable practices across all farm operations, including energy use (solar panels), waste management (composting and biodigesters), and crop choices (perennial plantings). This interconnected approach not only addresses financial and ecological sustainability but also enhances the overall health and diversity of the farming environment.

Farmers recognize that their customers highly value the personal relationships and sense of community that arise from direct interactions with those who grow their food. Many consumers initially drawn to local food for its health and freshness end up appreciating the social connections they develop with their farmers. This trend underscores the importance of social relationships in supporting farm businesses. Additionally, consumers are drawn to the health benefits of organic and fresh produce, which they associate with superior taste and nutritional value. There's also a significant appreciation for the resilience of local supply chains, particularly highlighted during disruptions like the COVID pandemic. Convenience is another critical value, with farmers adapting to deliver directly to consumers with busy lifestyles to maintain support. However, there is a gap in consumer understanding regarding the environmental impact of farming practices and the economic realities of producing sustainable food. Farmers wish that customers would better recognize the time, effort, and costs involved in sustainable farming, which are often not reflected in their willingness to pay higher prices for locally grown, organic products.

We also found that these farms provided important conservation value for shrubland birds where if the farmers added 5% shrub cover to their farm as hedgerows, field edges, or similar woody vegetation, it increased occupancy  probability. Specifically eight of the focal species showed a 60-80% increase in occupancy probability with the presence of only 5% shrub land cover within 1,000 meters of a point location. These findings suggest the importance of small patches of managed natural or semi-natural shrub-scrub on working farms. A manuscript on this data is out for review. We modeled the loss of farmland in the region showing that developed open space was revealed to significantly impact rural spaces, pasture, and evergreen forest most frequently (Albright et al. 2023). Lastly we showed the impacts of this change on ecosystem function (Vickery et al. 2023). This last effort aligned the local measures of the HFI collected on each farm with regional scale patterns in the Upstate region.

Objective 2A:

The coefficients for the attribute variables of the RPL are shown in Table 1. All coefficients are significant at the 95% confidence interval except for the variable associated with increasing the buffer size around crops (Buffer) to prevent erosion and water contamination. Accordingly, Buffer has the lowest associated WTP, at only $0.87 for every additional 5% of land dedicated to buffers (Table X). Animal welfare is ranked as the most important attribute to survey respondents in an independent question, and shows up as the largest coefficient in the model and the highest WTP for Certified Humane Standards over conventional standards. As the highest WTP value, interaction with income significantly constrains the value, allowing for a more conservative estimate for the broader population of $34.57 per week. This is followed by the Pest attribute, where respondents expressed a WTP of $19.62 for produce resulting from Integrated Pest Management practices that minimize chemical inputs. Soil quality and animal Habitat have similar WTP estimates. Of particular note, the positive coefficient associated with Habitat indicates a preference for pollinator habitat protection over bird habitat.  

Table 1. Coefficients for random parameter model of attributes in choice experiment, including interactions of demographic variables for respondents over 40 and income bracket divided by number of people in the household.

























Middle Age * ASC



Income * Animal


















Log Likelihood



Pseudo R2



Perhaps surprisingly, the ASC coefficient is negative in the final model, which indicates a resistance to choosing the status quo option. A negative preference for the ASC is a fairly unusual finding as respondents often are resistant to choice scenarios and hence “opt out” as a protest response  (Allen and Moore 2016). We suspect that this result comes from two aspects of the design and model estimate. One, middle-aged and older respondents were more likely to choose the status quo alternative, as indicated by the significant positive value of interacting the ASC with the Midage variable. We believe this also is an outcome of the sampling method, as market attendees opted into participation, and online respondents were paid by a third-party vendor. To the extent that status quo responses reflect protesting the survey itself as opposed to actual WTP for sustainable land management, this was minimized by our design. 

Throughout the project, our farmers showcased remarkable creativity by implementing a variety of interventions aimed at enhancing communication and customer retention. Key initiatives included redesigning their websites to make them more user-friendly and engaging, and hosting celebratory events that highlight nature and farming. Farmers also experimented with new CSA models by offering various share sizes and types to cater to different customer needs. Additionally, new farm stands and customer surveys were introduced to gather direct feedback on preferences, enhancing the overall customer experience. Embracing agritourism, they planned activities that draw visitors directly to their farms and enhanced menus to highlight the use of local produce. Social media outreach was amplified through new messaging strategies and short, informative videos that engage consumers. The diversity of crops was also expanded to tap into alternative markets. These efforts were complemented by hosting additional on-farm events and conducting surveys in restaurants to further understand and meet consumer demands. These interventions collectively reflect the innovative approaches our farmers are taking to sustain and grow their customer base.

Objective 3

Farmers in our studies communicated that the lack of a social network created challenges for their farming knowledge and practice. The quick turnover of farmers, coupled with using the internet instead of personal connections for information, has left farmers feeling alone in their work. Although they respect each other, the view of a competitive marketplace also further alienates farmers from each other. This brings both human and ecological challenges including loneliness, confusion about market changes, slower adoption of new sustainable farming techniques, and less political and social power for farmers as a whole in South Carolina. In fact, during this grant period, two of our five participating partners lost or changed businesses. One restaurant closed and one farmer split from his business partner and changed business models. We are currently working with one of our farmers on a grant that would seek to improve social-cohesion among framers in the region. 

Objective 4: 

Over three years, we hosted a series of workshops aimed at enhancing the knowledge and networking capabilities of farmers. In 2021, we conducted an online workshop attended by farmer participants and researchers to share initial research findings and to increase social ties among producers and business entities. This included presentations by undergraduate researchers on customer survey data and an interactive session on a forthcoming Willingness-to-Pay survey. The following year, the workshop was held in-person at the Feed & Seed facility, a local food hub. This session focused on deepening discussions on local food systems and customer involvement, coupled with a facility tour and a brainstorming session for farmers to plan future interventions. In the third year, the workshop took place at Top Soil, a restaurant that sources directly from our farmers. This event focused on sharing the outcomes of the farmers' interventions and featured a networking session, enhancing interactions among the farmers and students, who also presented their findings from participating in the SARE program. Each workshop was structured to build on the previous year's efforts, fostering a growing community of practice among local farmers and researchers.


Participation Summary
25 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

We actively collaborated with our farmer partners to translate and disseminate research findings to a diverse audience. Our processes included discussions in various settings, including working groups and professional meetings. Additionally, our students presented the results at multiple academic and professional conferences, such as the Association of Southeastern Biologists, the Integrated Conservation Conference, and the North American International Association of Landscape Ecology. To further broaden our impact, we conducted a half-day session with The Sustainability Leadership Initiative, which included discussions on the sustainability of agriculture with Climate Smart Agriculture grant facilitators, attended by 24 business executives and conservation leaders. This event was part of our broader efforts that also included hosting educational and networking days for farmers. We have committed to ongoing sharing of our findings with educators across the southeast, local farming organizations, and farm-to-table providers. Furthermore, we have integrated our research processes and outcomes into our academic curricula, enriching courses like Agroecology, Principles of Sustainability Science, and Sustainability Leadership with practical, research-based insights.

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Workshop Year One  The focus of this workshop was to 1) share initial findings that can be generalized to a broad producer and business audience and 2) to increase the social ties between producers and related businesses. We chose to transition this workshop to an online format due COVID.  Participating farmers joined in two research presentations from the previous summer's work.  Two exceptional undergraduate researchers took part in the presentations.  First, data from our customer survey was presented.  With over 200 responses, this dataset allows us to evaluate values, attitudes, knowledge, and behavior of existing customers.  In addition, farmers were able to participate in providing feedback on our upcoming Willingness-to-Pay survey for Upstate food shoppers.  Farmers provided valuable feedback on the initial chosen variables.

Workshop Year Two The focus of this workshop was for our farmer participants and researchers to have deeper discussions of the state of local food systems and customer involvement. A brainstorming session was also held to help farmer participants consider their interventions for the following year. The event was held at Feed & Seed, a local food hub that supports low income families and provides outlets for farmers to sell produce as well as utilize kitchen space and technology to create value-added products. We also received a tour of the facility by the owner and a Furman alumni employee.

Workshop Year Three The focus of this workshop was for farmers to share the results of their chosen interventions and for students to share the results of their participation in the SARE work. We held this workshop at Top Soil, a restaurant located in Travelers Rest, SC, that purchases food frequently from our farmer participants. 15 farmers attended and 9 students attended. First, the Shiny app was presented and farmers individually and then collectively used the site to look at data and ask questions of students and researchers. After farmers shared their interventions, a networking activity was conducted so that all farmers could meet each other. 

A Shiny app was created and shared with farmers for them see and use the data

Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • customer engagement and communication

  • information exchange

  • conservation practices and outcomes at different scales

Project Outcomes

10 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
12 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Economic benefits for farmers: The project significantly enhanced the economic resilience of local farmers by providing them with tools and strategies to better connect with consumers and capitalize on market opportunities. Through the implementation of diverse interventions, such as redesigned CSA models, new farm stands, and agritourism planning, farmers were able to attract a broader customer base and retain customers. Additionally, the development of a Shiny app allowed farmers to access data on consumer preferences and behaviors, further enabling them to tailor their offerings to meet market demands effectively. These initiatives collectively resulted in diversified revenue streams and reduced financial risks associated with experimenting with new market approaches.

Environmental benefits for farmers: Our project promoted environmental sustainability on farms by integrating ecological health assessments using the Healthy Farm Index (HFI) modified to include social indicators. This assessment tool empowered farmers to monitor and enhance their ecological practices, fostering biodiversity and improving soil and water quality. The project's focus on sustainable agriculture practices, such as diversifying crop rotations and implementing small biodiversity-friendly practices, contributed to enhanced ecological resilience. Lastly, we published a paper that documented the treat to farmland in the region (Albright et al. 2023). 

Social benefits for farmers: The project fostered significant social benefits by strengthening the social networks among farmers and between farmers and consumers. Through social network analyses and various educational workshops, farmers were able to build stronger relationships with peers, non-profit organizations, and local businesses which facilitated knowledge exchange and collaborative opportunities. These efforts increased community support for local farms and highlighted the critical role of farmers in sustaining the social fabric of the region.


Quinn, Allen, Quinn Anderson, Razo (in prep) Seeing Clearly? A Comparison of Farmers and Consumer Value Perspectives in Local Food Networks. Target journal: Renewable Ag and Food Systems, submission May 2024

Quinn and Brown. (in prep) Agricultural Literacy and Behaviors of Local Food Customers: Implications for Sustainable Food Systems. Target journal: Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, submission May 2024

Quinn, Quinn, Allen. Understanding and Measuring Multifunctionality in Agriculture, book chapter to be published in the Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene. 

DelaCourt, B, Irsik, K; Gerardi, J; Quinn. (In review). Conservation of shrubland birds in working landscapes requires less than 5% of the landscape. 

Albright, M.G., C. Vickery, R. Bower, Quinn, J.E. Patterns of land use change, land governance, and the supply of ecosystem services in a multifunctional landscape: A case study from Upstate SC, USA. Journal of Land Use Science.18(1): 

Vickery, C, and Quinn, J.E. Climate-altered Precipitation is more Important than Land Use when Modeling Ecosystem Services Associated with Surficial Processes. Environmental Management. 72(6):1216-1227


Andersen, S. and Allen, K. 2023. Capital Asset Valuation by Smallholders: Connections Between Land Manager Values and Landscape Multifunctionality. AndersenAllen_POSTER

Razo, A., Allen, K., Quinn, C., Quinn, J.E. 2023. Consumer Willingness to Pay for Sustainable Agricultural Practices in Upstate South Carolina. Furman Engaged.  Furman Engaged 2023 Razo

Delacourt, B., J. E. Quinn 2023 Shrub-scrub Habitat Thresholds for Birds in Working Landscapes. Presented at 2023 Association of Southeastern Biology meeting.

Irsak, K. J. E. Quinn 2023 A multifactor assessment for determining impacts of anthrophonic noise across rural landscapes in Upstate South Carolina. Presented at 2023 Association of Southeastern Biology meeting.

Delacourt, B., J. E. Quinn 2023. Shrub-scrub Habitat Thresholds for Birds in Working Landscapes. Presented at the 2023 NA IALE meeting

Quinn, C., K. Allen. J.E. Quinn. 2022. Fractured Farmers: Human and Ecological Implications of Absent Social Networks. Poster presented at the 2023 British Ecological Society meeting. BES 2021 poster

Vickery. C. and J.E. Quinn. 2022. Climate change is more important than land use change when modeling ecosystem services associated with surficial processes. IALE – North America Annual Meeting 

Gerardi, J. Jones, A. Quinn, J.E. 2022. Patterns of on avian abundance in Upstate SC multifunctional landscapes. Association of Southeastern Biologists annual meeting

Vickery, C. Quinn. J.E. 2022 Elucidating the effects of land-use versus climate change on modeled ecosystem services in the Upstate of South Carolina. Integrative Conservation Conference

Bartel, G., Quinn, C., Quinn, J.E. 2022. Social network analysis of upstate SC farms. Integrative Conservation Conference

Harris, M., Quinn. J.E. 2022. Natural capital variations across farms in the upstate of South Carolina. Integrative Conservation Conference

Gerardi, J. Jones, A. Quinn, J.E. 2022. Assessing impacts of landscape elements and management type on avian abundance in Upstate SC. Integrative Conservation Conference

Markowitz, J. Allen, K. Quinn, J.E.. 2022. More than Farms: Measuring Global Landscape Multifunctionality. Integrative Conservation Conference

Quinn, J.E. 2021. Can acoustic sampling help assess and monitor the conservation benefits of regenerative agriculture. IALE – North America Annual Meeting


New Working Collaborations:

Roddy Pick from King Bird Pastures is now working with the Carolina Bee Company

Growing Green Family Farm is now partnering with Michelin on on-site sustainable farming 

Furman faculty and students now have connections with 10 new farmers we did not have previously

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.