Food Hubs and the Regional Food System: Refining Our Understanding of Best Practices from Foodsheds to Operations

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2013: $230,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2017
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Carrie Furman
University of Georgia Crop and Soil Sciences Department

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture, cooperatives, farm-to-institution, value added
  • Sustainable Communities: ethnic differences/cultural and demographic change, social capital, social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    The purpose of this project is to investigate whether and how different models for food hubs contribute to the expansion of sustainable food systems, rural development and farmers’ quality of life. The growth of sustainable agriculture is constrained by a lack of distribution systems for moving local foods into mainstream markets, the inability of direct markets to meet the rise in demand for local food, and time-constraints that direct marketing imposes on farmers (Martinez et al 2010). Food hubs offer an innovative solution for aggregating small- and mid-scale production and systematizing distribution, while maintaining the values of civic agriculture. They organize wholesale marketing in ways that achieve economies of scale while seeking fair prices, maintaining farmer autonomy, and fostering relationships between farmers, distributors, and consumers. Yet there is little systems research that critically examines food hubs; how well do they achieve their ends and further the economic, social and environmental goals of sustainable agriculture?

    The proposed project, designed with the direction of an Advisory Committee of farmers and food hub managers, combines IMPLAN modeling, interviews, and targeted ethnographic field research to develop decision-support tools and best practices guidelines for current and future food hubs. Analysis examines factors affecting the operation of food hubs and their interactions at three levels: regional, organizational and operational, and how the factors associated with each level affect the operation of the food hubs.

    Regional factors shaping food hubs include but are not limited to production capacity, production and distribution infrastructure, interactions with other markets in the foodshed, and characteristics of demand.  We will draw on a robust literature review and open-ended semi-structured interviews to identify additional regional factors, which may affect the operation of food hubs. Data gathered from interviews with food hub stakeholders and buyers will be used to customize existing IMPLAN data, in order to determine the economic impact of the food hubs at the regional level. IMPLAN (IMpact Analyses and PLANning) is a modeling system that describes an economy as a series of accounting transactions that occur within and between farmers and consumers (Otto & Varner, 2005).  

    Organizational factors shaping food hubs include the business structure, marketing plan, scale of operation, and values which motivate participants in the endeavor. We will compare and contrast three hubs, each with distinctive business structures, to examine both challenges to food hub success and the solutions each model affords.    

    As operational factors, we focus on the management style of each of the three food hubs, with attention to whether and how active management to match supply and demand of food hubs contribute to farmer quality of life. Research at the organizational and operational levels will gather detailed economic, performance, and practice data using semi-structured interviews with food hub stakeholders and summer season participant observation conducted through a field school. 

    This systems research will document lessons, innovations and solutions of extant food hubs, and generate guidelines and best practices for further food hub creation. Results will be shared with a wide audience through workshops, presentations, and publications.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This three-year research project investigates food hubs as a model for improving the social and economic sustainability of small- and mid-scale agricultural production and distribution. We use a mixed methods approach and incorporate a methods-based field school for graduate and undergraduate students. We have also designed an extensive outreach and evaluation plan to ensure that our data is relevant and shared with a wide range of stakeholder groups.

    Year 1

    • Hold bi-annual-year meetings with Advisory Committee
    • Refine research questions with Advisory Committee input
    • Recruit and train graduate assistant
    • Begin interviewing stakeholders in three food hubs
    • Collect data on food hub stakeholders’ economic decisions and financial activities
    • Begin IMPLAN analysis of economic impacts
    • Plan for Ethnographic Field School
    • Participate in Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SAWG) Food Hub Learning Network

    Year 2

    • Hold bi-annual Advisory Committee meetings
    • Continue interviews with food hub stakeholders
    • Educate field school students on mixed-method data gathering and analysis
    • Conduct ethnographic field school with the SW GA Project in Albany GA
    • Continue data collection on economic decisions and financial activities
    • Formulate and refine appropriate IMPLAN models
    • Conduct preliminary data analysis
    • Participate in SAWG Food Hub Learning Network
    • Analyze evaluation data
    • Disseminate preliminary results through newsletter, webpage and Facebook

    Year 3

    • Complete follow-up interviews.
    • Educate field school students on mixed-method data gathering and analysis
    • Conduct Field School with Turnip Truck and associated farmers and in Woodland, AL with Moore Farms and Friends food hubs
    • Complete data analysis
    • Participate in food hub workshop at SAWG
    • Analyze evaluation data
    • Prepare extension bulletin on successful food hubs
    • Prepare research articles for publication

    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.