What Makes a Local Food System Resilient? Lessons from Small and Midsize Farms during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,654.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Massachusetts Amherst
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Elizabeth Brabec
University of Massachusetts Amherst


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, focus group
  • Farm Business Management: business planning, farm-to-institution, farm-to-restaurant, farmers' markets/farm stands, financial management, labor/employment, marketing management, new enterprise development, risk management, whole farm planning
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, community development, community planning, local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships, public policy, quality of life, sustainability measures, values-based supply chains

    Proposal abstract:

    Scholars and practitioners have documented the importance of resilience for the future of our food system. Yet, there remain major gaps in understanding how local food actors make decisions during crises and how those decisions relate to building a resilient food system. Examining the experiences of small and midsize farm operators in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts during the COVID19 pandemic, this project investigates disruptions in production, supply chains, markets, labor, and food safety requirements. Using qualitative research methods (in-depth interviews and focus group) this research aims to deepen our understanding of 1) what strategies small and midsize farm operators used in response to COVID19 2) how farm operators made decisions during and after the crisis 3) what challenges and opportunities farm operators faced in making adaptations  4) how small and midsize farm businesses were changed by the COVID19 pandemic. Through collaboration with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), findings from this research will be shared directly with farmers and food business owners, local food practitioners, and community members, in order to build knowledge around how the local food system can respond, adapt, and transform in the face of crisis and disaster. In addition, findings will contribute to resilience planning literature through publication in an academic journal. Building on existing demands for a resilient food system, this project will support farmers in the Northeast to build diversified, financially viable, and resilient farm businesses which nourish our communities into the future.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. To understand what strategies small and midsize farm operators used in response to the COVID19 pandemic

    • How did business plans and models change?
    • How did mission, vision, or goals change?
    • How did production plans and practices change? 
    • How did food safety plans and practices change?
    • How did marketing practices and plans change?
    • How did hiring and labor practices change?
    • How did operational budgets and financing change?
    • How did division of labor change?

    2. To understand how small and mid-size farm operators made decisions during and after the COVID19 crisis

    • What factors influenced proactive vs. reactive approaches?
    • What factors influenced decisions to adapt vs. other options (i.e. to close temporarily or permanently)
    • What barriers did farm operators face in enacting decisions?
    • What other factors influenced decision-making?

    3. To understand what challenges and opportunities small and midsize farm operators faced in making adaptations during the COVID19 crisis

    • What were the primary challenges/barriers farm operators faced in making adaptations?
    • How did farm operators overcome barriers?
    • What barriers could not be overcome?
    • What factors contributed to successful adaptation?

    4. To understand how small and midsize farm businesses were changed by the COVID19 crisis

    • How is the farm business different after the crisis?
    • What adaptations remain after the crisis subsided? Why?

    Deepening our understanding of how small farm operators respond, adapt, and transform amidst crisis will contribute to both ensuring that small and midsize farm businesses remain viable and stabilize the local economy during and in the wake of disaster, and assure food security during times of crisis.

    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.