Connections in Direct Markets: Assessing the feedback loop between consumer values and farmer’s marketing strategies

Progress report for LS23-382

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2023: $383,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2026
Grant Recipients: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP); Leah Matthews, PhD - Professor and Chair of Economics at University of North Carolina - Asheville ; Culture Value - Danaé Aicher; Cooperating Farmers
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Amy Marion
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
Sarah Hart
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
Molly Nicholie
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
David Smiley
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
Expand All

Project Information


Connections in Direct Markets: Assessing the feedback loop between consumer values and farmer’s marketing strategies is examining and improving communication and alignment between farmers and consumers in Western North Carolina (WNC). Improving this feedback loop will generate increased demand for local food, make local food more accessible, and strengthen relationships and community resilience. Over the past two decades, direct markets have played a critical role in sustaining viable farm businesses in Western NC. However, the market environment has changed dramatically over the last several years. Specifically, our communities and food system has weathered substantial changes as a result of COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. In our region, this includes the disruption and loss of restaurant sales in an economy highly dependent on tourism, as well as a significant drought followed by the catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm Fred in 2021. The pandemic also transformed the relationship many consumers have with food - whether through greater awareness of global food supply chains and the potential for disruptions, an increased interest in prioritizing healthy foods and foods grown in ways that support the planet, or through a changed financial state that made healthy food less obtainable. This is all layered with a broader understanding of inequities entrenched within our food system. Supporting farmers to understand consumer values, and in turn provide effective communication of their own farm values, is critical for direct market relationship building and ultimately small farm viability. 

As our farmers and community members face these new and evolving food system challenges, additional research is needed to better understand variations in barriers and values across consumers, variations in how consumers respond to educational and promotional materials, and variations in how farmers communicate to their customers. With this grant, ASAP is conducting a regionally grounded, and comprehensive study of these factors to update and expand upon ASAP’s theory of change, and in turn, help farmers understand opportunities for aligning their production practices and marketing messaging and branding with consumer values and behavior to expand engagement in the local food movement.

The ultimate impact of this research will be a larger, more diverse, informed, and committed consumer base for sustainably-grown local food in Western North Carolina. This will help inform future recommendations for how agricultural support agencies can provide resources to both farmers and consumers to reduce barriers and improve direct connections between them. It will also foster a food system that supports experiential learning and social interaction to improve quality of life, increase community health and social cohesion, build resilient economies, and support environmental sustainability for years to come.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1 - Assess drivers of consumer demand for local food: Consumers share priorities, barriers, and willingness to pay for local food. Analysis examines values driving purchasing decisions and differences across demographics, geography, and between consumers regularly engaging in local food and farm environments and those who are not. Consumers are engaged as active participants in shaping their local food system.

Objective 2 - Assess and test farmer’s direct marketing strategies: Farmers share direct marketing strategies, specifically how they communicate their story, values, climate-resilient production practices, culturally-specific products, and impacts of pandemic-related and climate-related disruptions to consumers. Analysis examines effectiveness of strategies for navigating price points and customer recruitment/retention. Findings are shared with farmers and they receive implementation support.

Objective 3 - Assess and adapt consumer education materials and create resources to share best practices: Existing consumer education/promotional resources are assessed and improved based on research findings. Analysis examines which resources are most effectively driving demand and connecting people directly with farmers. It identifies how diverse communities respond differently to resources, and how certain strategies, such as highlighting climate-resilient practices, influences consumer willingness to pay.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Shiloh Avery - Producer
  • Steven Beltram - Producer
  • Aaron Bradley - Producer
  • Salvador Moreno - Producer
  • Holly Whitesides - Producer


Materials and methods:

To achieve the project goal of improving the feedback loop between farmers and consumers, the project is centered around three objectives. The research is assessing current consumer values and how they engage with educational and promotional resources, how farmers communicate their own values and offerings and which strategies are most effective, and how agricultural support agencies can provide resources to both audiences to reduce barriers and improve direct connections between them. The research team, led by Principal Investigator Amy Marion, is working with University researcher Dr. Leah Matthews, university students, an equity consultant, collaborating farmers, and collaborating community members to achieve these objectives. The activities to meet these objectives will evolve over the course of the 3 year research project, but to date, the following activities have been completed or are underway.

Objective 1 - Assess drivers of consumer demand for local food:

  • The research team has drafted a consumer survey in Survey Monkey that will be disseminated across Western North Carolina beginning in mid April 2024. This survey is intended to collect data to help us understand what consumers value most when purchasing food, and what factors motivate or discourage them from purchasing locally grown food. We developed a survey dissemination plan with the goal of broad representation across WNC, with additional focus on the five subregions represented by collaborating farmers. We aim to reach consumers who are active in the food system, those who have just begun engaging on some level, and those who are not engaging in order to disaggregate and examine the data by cross sections of the community. Our initial dissemination will follow a convenience sampling methodology, but may shift to quota sampling in order to ensure adequate representation across geographies and demographics, particularly across racial/ethnic groups and socioeconomic brackets. Dissemination will occur through multiple points of access, including digitally through ASAP’s listservs and newsletters, social media, farmer mailing lists, with paper mailers, and with QR codes available in grocery stores, restaurants, farm stands, and farmers markets. To account for the challenge of limited internet access across our rural region, we will bring paper copies to community events and we will be available to fill out the survey for folks over the phone.  A student research fellow from University of North Carolina Asheville will support with dissemination and data entry. Additionally, surveys will be shared through community partners in order to diversify the populations reached. The survey will remain open until October 31, 2024 and we anticipate collecting 500-1,000 responses. The survey instrument builds off and substantially updates the consumer behavior research ASAP conducted in 2014, which reached 700 consumers.
  • After closing the survey, data analysis will examine differences based on demographics, geography, and past experiences with local food environments. 
  • The survey will also capture contact information for participants interested in participating further, whether through 1:1 interviews or consumer focus groups. These interviews and/or focus groups will be conducted to capture richer, qualitative data to better understand values, messaging and marketing that resonate most, and drivers to action, and barriers to enable participants to guide the direction of subsequent research. These groups will serve as collaborative advisory committees to ensure the community voices are directly involved in decision-making. They will be composed of a cross section of community demographics and identities and offered compensation for their time. 
  • Throughout the project, staff will participate in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training with project cooperator Culture Value. An equity consultant will support staff and advise on research plans to ensure research methods are not harmful to underserved communities, but instead build relationships and trust.

Objective 2 - Assess and test farmer’s direct marketing strategies: 

  • In November, 2023, a digital survey was shared with 886 farmers in ASAP’s Appalachian Grown Farmer Network - approximately 570 of which are located in WNC. 169 farmers responded, 130 of which are in WNC. A version of this survey has been sent annually to farmers since 2010. This survey captures data on farmers' direct marketing strategies, including how they communicate their story, values, climate-resilient production practices, culturally-specific products, price points, and impacts of pandemic-related and climate-related disruptions to consumers. Additionally, the survey collects information on farm characteristics, market mix, sales, and more.
  • Over the winter, we updated ASAP’s Local Food Guide, a directory of farms, farmers markets and partner businesses to collect data on farmer demographics and identities, acreage, and climate-resilient production practices.
  • Five diverse cooperating farmers from different subregions of WNC were identified as having special knowledge and/or interest in analyzing their marketing strategies. This includes Holly Whitesides, Salvador Moreno Jr., Steven Beltram, Aaron Bradley, and Shiloh Avery. We hosted a kickoff meeting in December 2023 and they will be convened regularly as a working group throughout the project. In April, we will begin 1:1 interviews with each farm in order to develop detailed case studies of their operations, values, and direct marketing strategies. They will work with ASAP to conduct consumer surveys to assess the impact of their marketing strategies. Their stories will reflect variations between small market farms growing fruits and vegetables, or producing regenerative meats for direct markets such as farmers markets, CSAs, and farm stands as well as a wholesale vegetable farm. 
  • These case studies will be shared with other farmers through ASAP’s website, in ASAP’s farmer toolkit, and in workshops at ASAP’s Annual Business of Farming Conference, which regularly hosts over 200 farmers and agricultural service providers. This education, validated through farmers’ lived experiences, builds upon what farmers have learned, what is working and what is not, and identifies emergent strategies and approaches to create best practices based on real-world conditions. ASAP’s approach depends on listening to farmers and responding with the training and services needed for farmers to be nimble and diversified no matter the nature of the challenges they face. Following trainings, farmers will be encouraged to implement best practices with support from ASAP staff.

Objective 3 - Assess and adapt consumer education materials and create resources to share best practices:

  • The consumer surveys named above will also assess existing educational and promotional resources produced by ASAP and others. These include resources aimed at informing and motivating consumers to buy local products, and those instructing consumers on where and how to buy local products. These resources include ASAP’s annually updated Local Food Guide (print and online), infographics, ASAP’s website, rack cards, recipe cards, direct mailers, signage, farmer profiles, and more. Analysis will examine which resources are most effective at driving demand and making connections. Variances between different communities will also be assessed.
  • Research will be conducted on ASAP’s online Local Food Guide, a searchable database with over 1,300 farm, farmers market, and partner business listings. Analysis will include assessing data analytics (what consumers search for, what key words they use, how searches) as well focus groups of consumers around content and search functionality.  
  • Recommendations will be made on how resources could be improved to better reach diverse audiences and have a greater impact across the community. These will be regionally relevant and can serve as models for other communities.  
  • Educational and promotional materials named above will be redesigned to reflect research findings in order to improve ASAP’s regional promotional campaign to build demand for local food.
Research results and discussion:

To date, we have only collected data relating to Objective 2. The consumer survey, which will capture data on Objectives 1 and 3, will be released in mid April 2024. The goal of Objective 2 is to assess and test farmer’s direct marketing strategies. In this first year, we began with collecting data on the farms in ASAP’s Appalachian Grown Network, what marketing strategies they are using to communicate with their customers, how they are building connections, and what challenges they are facing. A survey sent in November 2023 collected responses from 130 farmers in 23 Western North Carolina counties. These farms represent a subset of 570 WNC farms that are part of ASAP’s Appalachian Grown farmer network listed in the Local Food Guide. These farms are small and diversified, with an average size of 61 acres. Nearly half meet the USDA definition of limited resource and just over half have been farming for fewer than ten years. They report selling through an average of 3 different market outlets, which includes a mix of direct (farmers markets, CSAs, etc), intermediary (restaurants, online), and wholesale (grocery stores, distributors, etc). 

These farmers report a number of strategies for finding and building relationships with customers. The most useful strategies include selling through direct market outlets, using a farm website and/or social media, sampling their products, and sharing their farm story. When asked what they promote to their customers, 83% reported sharing information about their growing practices (i.e. organic, no-till, regenerative, grass fed, hydroponic, etc.), 42% reported sharing information about their farm identity (i.e. woman-owned, BIPOC-owned, veteran-owned, etc.), and 41% reported sharing information about their specific community connections (i.e. proceeds go to a special cause, products found at certain restaurants, etc.). These promotions are more broadly connected to their farm identity or farm story, but farmers also report connecting with their audience in smaller ways that educate consumers about local food and farming. About three quarters of respondents reported sharing regular updates with consumers around what is available or in season, and what is being planted or raised. Sixty percent share tips for cooking or preserving their products, and about 40% share information about on-farm events where their consumers can engage in experiential learning around local food and farms. Over a third also reported being transparent with customers about changes to their growing practices and about some of the vulnerabilities of farming, such as when natural disasters or other events impact their farm. 

Many farmers report similar challenges in selling to local markets. In addition to the logistics and time associated with direct markets, the most common challenges farmers reported were related to consumer demand and education. These responses ranged from frustrations that the public didn’t know their farm or their farmers market existed to highlighting challenges around communicating the rationale for their price points or informing consumers about the various incentive programs that can improve access and affordability of local food for many communities. Another commonly reported challenge was the competition between farmers selling similar products and the marketing required to differentiate themselves and build a loyal customer base. 

When asked about success stories and what gives farmers hope to continue farming, many talked about their connections with customers. One shared, “We saw many new faces and sales at the North Asheville Tailgate Market and Weaverville Tailgate market in 2023. We attribute the new customers to ASAP’s Farm Fresh Bucks [incentive programs] and the diverse families and individuals the program supports. We love the program for so many reasons- more shoppers at our already established sales venues means we have less waste on our farm, selling to a diverse population gives our work meaning, and increased sales means that we can pay our staff and ourselves more of a livable wage. These are all difficult things to achieve in farming, and we are so grateful that ASAP’s Double Snap and Prescription Programs have so effectively done it.” Many others shared about the dedicated customers that have a real interest in their success, and more and more customers wanting to know where their food is grown and providing positive feedback.

As we begin surveying consumers next month, these survey responses ground us in the farmer experience of selling through direct markets in WNC. They will also guide the future collaborative and 1:1 meetings with our five collaborating farmers and give us a platform to build our case studies and conduct more targeted research with the collaborating farmers’ specific customer bases.

Participation Summary
130 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

In year one, we are still in the data collection phase and have not yet begun any formal educational activities for either farmers or consumers. As we collect and analyze data in year two, we will disseminate those findings through ASAP’s promotional materials, farmer toolkit, and through an Annual Business of Farming conference. ASAP has held this conference for nearly two decades and it regularly attracts 200-300 farmers. Workshops are led by farmers and other agricultural support agencies on a variety of rotating topics related to farm marketing strategies. The February 2025 conference will provide a platform for the five cooperating farmers and the research team to share with other farmers the results of the consumer survey, as well as highlight the case studies created of each cooperating farmer. These case studies will represent farms operating at a variety of scales, in different subregions, with different product mixes and using different marketing tactics. The intent is to show that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for direct marketing and offer an array of examples for other farmers to learn from and implement for their own farm businesses.

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Consultations

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

The bulk of our education and outreach will occur later in the research project as we collect and analyze data and are ready to disseminate findings. ASAP has strong ties to the farming community, an extensive farmer contact base, and a reputation among farmers for providing timely farmer training and resources. Additionally, over 100,000 consumers regularly engage with ASAP through annual and weekly events, the Local Food Guide (annually printed and available as a searchable online database), and social media. This research will expand beyond these consumers already in ASAP’s network in order to learn from and invite more community members to be active participants in shaping their local food system. 

Outreach to consumers will occur through many mediums. Consumer surveys will be conducted broadly across Western North Carolina starting in April 2024 and will be disseminated in all the ways described in a previous section. Farmers will both be active participants in shaping the research, and recipients of training showcasing research findings. The five collaborating farmers will be deeply involved in the research, beginning with our first meeting (indicated above) where four of our five collaborating farmers attended. This meeting outlined expectations for engaging in this research and began to generate ideas that will inform our research question. Lessons learned from this group of collaborating farmers will be shared with over 500 other WNC farmers throughout the year through outreach, training, farmer-to-farmer learning sessions, and individual farmer consultations. This will fluctuate seasonally with heavy support in the winter season while production is minimal and farmers are more engaged in planning. Working groups and 1:1 consultations will be ongoing, by phone or on-farm when possible, but the bulk of the farmer training will occur at ASAP’s annual Business of Farming Conference. This is a one-day conference held in Asheville, NC (the population center of the region) that regularly hosts more than 200 farmers. Each year, nine direct marketing workshops provide training on marketing strategies (current trends, messaging, targeting customers), branding (naming, mission, logo development, sharing personal identity, values, farm story, highlighting climate-resilient production practices and culturally specific products/practices), customer engagement strategies (through social media and direct market venues) and direct marketing models to help farmers understand market opportunities and assess which market mix is best for their operation. Workshop topics are determined by farmer input and led by farmers. Farmers will also meet individually with marketing experts during sidewalk sessions at the conference.

Learning Outcomes

Key changes:
  • N/A

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The topics covered by this research project directly respond to farmer-stated needs, and will build on successful programs, tools, and resources to help farmers succeed. It will help farmers develop and implement new direct marketing strategies to better connect with their customers and increase their sales. These consumer connections are the basis for strengthening the viability and stability of their farm businesses and will result in keeping over 35,000 acres of farmland in sustainable agricultural production. 

In addition to training and support for farmers, the outcomes of this research will allow ASAP and other agricultural providers to address the need for expanding regional promotions to connect with changing consumer values around food and increased market opportunities. The research will assess and adapt consumer education materials and create resources identifying best practices. Additionally, messaging in news and social media as well as other print promotions, such as rack cards, stickers, direct mailers, signage, customer promotions for partner business, and more will be adapted based on research findings. These resources will help consumers to be more actively engaged in shaping their local food system. By connecting them with local farmers, providing education, and making it easier to purchase a larger portion of their food from local farmers, this research will support consumers to improve not only their individual health but also community resilience. 


ASAP is still in the beginning stages of this research and does not have recommendations at this time.

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.