- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems
A study of innovation adaptation and development amongst 26 small-scale, resource limited and newer farms engaged in the creation of local food systems found investments in production, marketing, and network-based innovations. An inventory and analysis of 127 observed innovations demonstrated that the application of compost teas and slurries addressed the broadest number of production needs, an internet based farmers market facilitated numerous benefits within a rural region unique from traditional farmers markets, and a farmers network organization has increased the intensity of interaction amongst farmers with long-term benefits to the innovation capacity of the region.
The purpose of this project was to assess the role of locally developed innovations in the expansion of local food systems in two rural agricultural communities of North Georgia. In small-scale sustainable farming, innovation is a critical and necessary component to solving localized production and marketing challenges. Resource limited farmers often solve problems by substituting locally adapted innovations in place of more “capital intensive” solutions commonly utilized in conventional agriculture. Land grant universities and the Extension system, the traditional entities for the dissemination of innovation information, still lack capacity in addressing the rising needs of small-scale sustainable farmers. As a result, local food system communities have largely assumed the responsibility for developing innovative solutions to production and marketing challenges. However, little is known about the benefits and challenges encountered by local food system participants during the process of innovation development, implementation, adaptation and evaluation, or the role this process plays in strengthening emerging local food systems.
Historically the study of agricultural innovations has focused on single techniques, often technological in nature, intended to increase commodity yields and farm profitability (Padel 2001, Stephenson 2003, Rogers 2005). Many technological innovations have been criticized for being production focused, cost prohibitive to small farmers, inefficient in use of resources, indifferent to ecological, social and economic differences among regions, and cause rather than resolve economic inequalities (Francis et al 2003, Stephenson 2003).
Organic and sustainable agriculture practices, often regarded as a “suite of innovations,” look broadly at problems beyond production. Local food systems are being posited as a new organizing paradigm for addressing whole systems by examining relationships across all three spheres of environmental, economic and social challenges. A community of producers in Rabun and Habersham Counties in North Georgia is representative of an emerging local food system in a rural agricultural region.
The objectives of this research were to develop a better understanding of the types of innovations that local food system farmers are developing, the needs that lead to innovation, the process of innovation development (all at once or slow improvement of an initial idea), performance, benefits and replicability of innovations, and the context that shapes innovation (how economic climate and regional policy shape opportunities). Locally adapted innovations are anticipated to contribute to more cost effective solutions to problems, aid in the development of individual farm identities and strengthen community knowledge networks by building confidence and expertise in problem solving. Innovation is the primary tool utilized by individuals and broader society to adapt to changes in our environment. Innovations are developed to respond to needs currently unmet by other practices. In this regard, innovation can be viewed as providing a solution to problems. However the problems being addressed by sustainable agriculture and local food systems are significantly broader than those previously addressed by agricultural research. As a result, local food system communities have largely assumed the responsibility for developing innovative solutions to their concerns. Many of these concerns are uniquely community oriented and involve efforts to reengage agricultural production with processing and consumption through community processes as opposed to global economic processes (Lyson 2004).
These efforts are observed within the study region. Rabun and Habersham Counties, Georgia have a rich agricultural heritage of fruit and vegetable production, as well as rich food traditions such as seed saving, farm stands, canning, milling, and farmers markets. These components are coupled with a core of full-time sustainable farmers who serve as seeds to part-time, new and transitioning farmers. Community resources are quickly being assembled in the form of non-profit organizations, community gardens, web-based markets, and engagement of other resources (extension, NRCS, community canneries, national and regional NGOs, etc).
Resource limited farmers usually utilize more intensive versus more extensive systems by focusing on the optimal use and recycling of locally available resources (Altieri 1995). This management approach by small-scale sustainable producers to “make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources,” is both an ideological decision to consciously reduce impacts to the environment, and a geographic, economic and socio-cultural condition that shapes the form of technologies and innovations employed (Pugliese 2001). This research attempts to expand and revise current innovation development and adoption models to more accurately describe these processes.
Understanding the mechanisms that influence how individual farm and community networks solve food system challenges is a critical component in promoting the development of local food systems.
Objective 1 – Assess the types of innovations that local food system farmers are developing, (or adapting). We categorized all innovations observed in the food system according to the parts of the system they are designed to address (production, processing, marketing, networking, information exchange) and sub-categorized innovations within these systems (such as functional roles within the production system – ie. building soil organic matter, disease control, microbial priming, etc). This innovation typology assessed where individual farms and the local food system community are focusing their solutions towards problems. Types of innovations are also categorized according to origin (locally or externally derived).
Objective 2 – Identify needs that lead to locally adapted innovation. Particular practices receive specific attention from some farm systems based upon need. The needs of individual farms and the presence or absence of innovations to address those needs were recorded followed by analysis to determine which needs lead to the development of locally adapted innovations. Needs and innovations of the broader local food system and collaborative efforts were also identified.
Objective 3 – Outline the process of innovation development. Innovation is developed to meet needs currently unmet by other practices. What advantage do locally adapted innovations present above and beyond solutions offered through other sources? Innovation studies examine a community’s response to an innovation once it has been introduced, typically from some outside source. Less attention has been focused on the process of innovation development at the local level. How are innovations shaped by the slow improvement of an initial idea?
Objecitve 4 – Assess the performance, benefits and replicability of innovations. Farmers may assess performance of innovations in different ways influencing their perceptions of benefits and the ability for innovations to extend laterally to other farms. Do farmers perceive benefits from locally adapted innovations unique from the adoption of externally derived innovations? Innovation may also create additional farm benefits by creating a farm identity around innovative practices that differentiate one farm from another. Such benefits acknowledged within direct marketing studies are seldom linked with innovative practices (for example – Red Mule Grits ground by a mule powered mill is both an innovative practice and a form of marketing). Communication of performance and benefits of innovations (and the networks involved) are also one of the most significant factors influencing the spread of innovations.
Objective 5 – Define the context that shapes innovation. The regional economic climate and policy shapes opportunities for innovation development and the expansion of local food systems (Hinrichs et al. 2004). These and other socio-economic and cultural conditions contribute to the context within which innovation can occur.