- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems
A food system is ultimately a connected network of people and organizations. In order to understand how the system or network impacts sustainable agriculture and how producers use the system to support sustainable agriculture, we must understand what resources and needs they still seek in order to better develop their farming practices and markets for their products. It is also important to understand how well-connected producers are to the network to access such resources. Needs assessment for a group is often accomplished with focus groups, as the discussion among participants often reveals deeper insights and more information than one-on-one interviews. Focus groups can also identify barriers to adoption of existing practices related to sustainable agriculture and identify central nodes in a network for social network analysis. Therefore, we conducted focus groups with two regional subsets of North Central Florida food system producers to assess needs, barriers, and nodes in their network. We used social network analysis of the entire system to determine which producers are most well-connected to the network and which producers or groups may need to be brought in more closely. Results from these two types of data collection directed an outreach event for the network that explained the research results, shared educational materials, and began a structure for ongoing network collaboration with Extension support.
People often refer to local and regional food systems without a strong understanding of the actors in that system or a real ability to define the scope of the network that makes it up. Through this proposed research, we will be able to access the network that makes up the local food system in North Central Florida and define how sustainable agricultural producers are linked to this system. With this information, we can also identify the strengths and the gaps in the network. Finally, we will use this information to do targeted outreach with both producers and service providers in order to help them better connect to the system and to leverage the existing network and fill in the gaps to strengthen the overall food system in North Central Florida.
This work is of particular importance to our agricultural and rural communities as they seek to diversify their production and have a growing interest in local food and direct market channels. In our region, a majority of producers still sell through brokers and are focused on national and multi-national markets. By understanding the local food system networks that surround them, which are often in the urban or sub-urban areas, and how they might connect to these networks, we can better support them in their effort to engage. This work will also help us identify the specific needs that the North Central Food System needs in order to serve sustainable agriculture that do not already exist. Finally, as we define the system and the demand for sustainable agricultural practices becomes clearer, we can help producers understand the value in adopting or enhancing these practices.
- Identify current needs for and barriers to adoption of sustainable agricultural practices among producers in the North Central Florida food system.
- Characterize the network of the North Central Florida food system by identifying central nodes, well-connected producers, and producers who need to be more highly-connected to the network.
- Identify ways that the North Central Florida food system currently meets and does not meet producer needs for sustainable agricultural practice resources.
- Share results from Objective 3 with food system members to highlight North Central Florida food system resources.
- Share results of the research with producers in the system, particularly those who need to be more highly-connected in the network, including highlighting existing and newly-developed resources to meet identified needs and overcome barriers found in Objective 1 and address network weaknesses identified in Objective 2.