Emerging Local Food Systems – The Role of Locally Developed Innovation in Small-scale Sustainable Farming in Northeast Georgia

2011 Annual Report for GS09-080

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2009: $8,492.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: University of Georgia
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Carl Jordan
University of Georgia

Emerging Local Food Systems – The Role of Locally Developed Innovation in Small-scale Sustainable Farming in Northeast Georgia


Assessment of 24 farms and 6 farmer cooperatives in the Northeast Georgia region has identified over 60 individual practices defined as innovations (innovative solutions to farm and food system problems). Innovations identified tend to address individual farm level production challenges but increasingly bleed over to larger food system challenges which require “network innovations” to address. Network innovations such as market development, distribution collaboratives, purchasing co-operatives, food processing and labor assistance are developing at a rapid pace, and engage parties beyond food producers. Both production and network innovations are highly influenced by exposure to outside ideas, though network innovations are more dependent upon access to nearby working models.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Objective 1 - Assess the types of innovations that local food system farmers and other participants are developing or adapting

Objective 2 - Identify needs that lead to locally adapted innovation

Objective 3 – Outline the process of innovation development

Objective 4 - Assess the performance, benefits and replicability of innovations

Objective 5 - Define the context that shapes innovation


The focus during year two of this assessment of innovations within the farming communities of Northeast Georgia keyed in on 6 key innovations contributing to rapid development and shifts in the shape of the local food system. While all innovations observed had value to individual farms on which they were observed, these 6 key innovations are anticipated to have the most significant impact on the local food region in the short and long-term.

These key innovations are:
1. Soil Food Web priming techniques – This practice involves the significant and frequent application of compost teas and slurries as part of the fertility, pest control and plant vigor management systems on individual farms. While this technique is only being applied at 3 of the 24 farms in the study region, each of these 3 farms are either fairly large compared to other farms, play a significant role in influencing the characteristics of the broader food system, and/or have served to significantly re-orient the focus and the perceived success of the farms experimenting with the technique. This is also the first innovation studied that involves significant collaboration with individuals with specialized backgrounds, experience and equipment for creating and applying a compost designed to enhance microbial activity in the soil. These collaborators are non-farmers and could be characterized as non-traditional consultants. Fees have been very low averaging $200-$400 per acre per application. Results are measured via general crop performance (often including a control), and the brix method (testing sugar content as an indicator of plant health and quality), with reports of incredible differences in both. This slow build-up of positive experiences and related success stories has lead to investments in large scale compost sifters, hydroseeders to allow for the application of compost slurries to multiple acres, and business collaborations likely to lead to other farms experimenting with the technique. A relatively nearby manufacturer of worm castings is the basis of the applied material, a microbial feed such as molasses or sorghum syrup, a mixture of minerals (also considered microbial food), and a form of humic acid (such as menefee humates). Perceived benefits of the practices have been significant improvements in plant vigor, yields, brix levels, taste (as indicated by customer feedback), large gains in plant biomass (such as growth of new blueberries), resistance to late season frost (ex. tomato survival of May 8th, 2011 frost) and recovery of diseased plants (ex. in apples and tomatoes). Perception of the practice by the researcher is that the technique has particular appeal as a substitute for other more costly and more difficult soil organic matter management techniques such as extensive inputs of large volumes of compost to replace losses by tillage, additions of hay mulch or management of cover crops. The technique does not replace these techniques, and the researcher has some concerns that a microbial priming effect may demonstrate short term gains by mobilizing stored nutrients held in organic matter, but that overtime soil C levels and stored nutrients could be depleted by priming microbial decomposition of soil organic matter. This practice falls under the category of Production innovations.

2. Development and growth of an Internet based farmers market – Rural food systems face specific challenges in developing local markets, such as a more disperse customer base, smaller overall populations, and lower incomes. In 2010 a new internet based farmers market, based on the model of the Athens Locally Grown market, was begun and is now entering it’s third season. The market is experiencing significant growth as has expanded the number of farms and farm products that could be marketed across a fairly large region by making them available via two pick-up sites 30 miles apart. This dual pick up site style market increases the accessibility of the market to farmers and customers (average travel time of less than 30 minutes one way). These markets also create several advantages for farmers such as: less time spent at market (essentially the time it takes to drive and unload), less risk of waste and spoilage (products are pre-sold so you only harvest and deliver items that you know have sold), reaches customers in a broader region, drop offs create opportunities for networking and knowledge exchange. Disdvantages of this type of market are: lower overall sales compared to live markets due to no impulse sales and more risk by the customer in unknown products, less customer interaction may lead to less correction re: concerns with quality, greater time spent in packaging products (due to labels that indicate customer information). Overall this market has created greater opportunities for many farms, and is a good gateway market for newer farms trying to determine products and pricing. This innovation falls under the category of Marketing innovations.

3. Greenhouse Construction and Shifts in USDA Funding – Greenhouse construction increased rapidly in the study region during the last two years with 9 new houses being completed at 9 different farms. Of the 9 only 3 were funded with NRCS high tunnel grant funding. The value of season extension structures is commonly known by many farmers, and the types of structures that have been built are highly variable, including two homemade PVC style structures. Knowledge on greenhouse growing techniques has been slow due to a lack of regional expertise, and a tour to an experienced greenhouse farm outside the region was well attended by 17 individuals. High tunnel grants, irrigation grants, and fertility enhancement grants have aided many farms that have successfully applied for funding. However, other individuals were highly discouraged by interactions with local NRCS staff and as a result did not apply or seek further information on the programs. Training and additional resources for high tunnel or greenhouse growing would not only enhance the use of existing greenhouses, but improve the design and utility of new houses that will certainly be built in the region in the near future. This innovation falls under categories of Production and Governmental Policy innovations.

4. Development of a Farmers Network – Until recently most farmer networking was casual and usually between a handful of individuals, or was related to interactions at farmers markets. In 2011 the non-profit Certified Naturally Grown awarded a small grant to help with the formation of a farmer-centered network. Its participants determine the characteristics of the network, but a Network organizer from within the group and paid by Certified Naturally Grown also participates in monthly conference calls with other organizers throughout the Southeast to exchange ideas. Called the Georgia Mountains Farmers Network, the local group has hosted two farm tours, a potluck and a discussion meeting during which eight network priorities were established. These priorities include: coordinating bulk ordering (already completed), cooperative marketing efforts, sharing contact lists, hosting farm tours, acquiring and sharing co-op equipment, obtaining or producing organic feed, organization of crop mobs (or other labor assistance projects), creating a forum for regular communication (a blog website was created), holding technical workshops and hosting public events. In addition to bi-monthly farm tours and meetings, the group will host a Georgia Mountain Farm Tour open to the public that will feature area farms, and help to raise money for the network. A venue for knowledge exchange and organized collaboration has met with strong enthusiasm and may be one of the best vehicles for speeding up adoption of many small innovations and problem solving strategies. This innovation falls under the category of Networking innovations.

5. Changes in Food Regulations / Rising Role of Non-Profits– Last year saw some major shifts in the interpretation of some key food regulations by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Both sustainable local food markets in the region (Simply Homegrown in Clayton and the Locally Grown internet market) were inspected by the Georgia Department of Agriculture for the first time. One of the principal results of these inspections was an explanation that the exemption to non-profits for the sale of baked goods and jams and jellies not processed in a certified kitchen was now extended to any farmers market organized by a 501(c) 3 organization. One of these markets was already organized by a 501 (c) 3, and the other quickly began working with a closely aligned non-profit to fall under their activities. Perhaps more important than the ability of these markets to now legally sell baked goods and jams and jellies, is the influence and increasing role of non-profits in the development of local food activities. Immediately after reorganizing, the Simply Homegrown market began to establish detailed operational guidelines, fee structures, and marketing plans. The two largest markets in the region as well as the two sustainable community gardens in the region are both managed by non-profits, and non-profits are increasingly providing the organizational structure and resources to aid in development of local food activities. This innovation falls under the categories of Governmental policy, Marketing, and Networking innovations.

6. Movement towards Food Processing and Food Distribution Capacities –The last two years have seen a wave of interest in increasing regional food processing capacity with links to food distribution or food hub creation. There are currently three independent but overlapping efforts by: a non-profit, the Sustainable Mountain Living Communities to construct a community kitchen / cannery at the city of Clayton’s municipal center, by the North Georgia Food Bank to develop a shared use processing kitchen in conjunction with a new permanent facility, and efforts by the Habersham County Board of Education to rebuild a community cannery that would also allow for value added processing for resale. While very few farms are currently involved in value added processing of fresh farm products, many have expressed an interest, but it is unknown exactly how these efforts will impact local growers. This innovation falls under the categories of Government policy and Capital improvement innovations.

Remaining tasks for this study include final analysis of innovation classes, and replicability of specific innovations, and completion of case studies of principal innovations shaping the food system.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

This study supports the view that sustainable agriculture farmers apply extensive problem solving and creative capacities towards production, marketing and other farm and local food system related challenges using a combination of adopted, adapted and original innovations. Production innovations applied at the individual farm/producer level are highly influenced by producers’ backgrounds, skills, and information sources and less often by participation in localized knowledge exchange networks. This community is currently beginning a period of rapid growth in network development amongst sustainable agriculture producers. Innovations in marketing collaborations and partnerships have contributed to a greater expansion of a local food system presence throughout the region than innovations at the production level. Increased marketing collaborations, particularly the internet based market has also led to new individuals becoming food producers, due to the ease in entering the marketplace.

Other Findings and Contributions during this project include:

• Production Innovations arise from the slow accumulation of perfected practices discovered through experimentation, mistakes or happenstance – it’s not surprising that the more experienced farms had the most refined practices that would be described as innovative. The practices observed were quite broad in scope, yet always addressed very specific activities at a specific farm. The following examples are from one farm: removal of chewing insects from the garden using a bagged mower, the use of hydrogen peroxide treatments, deep digging to turn over an existing crop and immediately plant into it, artificially inducing flowering in order to harvest numerous smaller fruits, taking advantage of indoor heat in the winter to grow micro-greens. Many of these discoveries were based on particular circumstances, and while their direct applicability to other farms may be narrow, the discovery itself often has implications in other contexts.
• Innovation is a standard activity for many farms – the most innovative farms are purposefully looking for new ideas to trial. It’s a way to stay engaged and expand one’s understanding. The farms that demonstrated the most innovation were seeking practices where they didn’t know or expect a certain outcome.
• There is no innovation center for sustainable agriculture – Virtually no two farms in this study utilized the same principal information source. Rather than characterize farms by information sources, it was easier to identify a farms one or two central focuses, which tended to direct a farm towards similar types of information. Examples of such central focuses are: biodynamics, compost teas, micro products, wild crafted products, alternative heat in greenhouses, homemade greenhouses, aquaponics, impact grazing, heirloom tomatoes, open bottom honey house. For farms that had one or two central focuses, they either had a small handful of primary information sources for those topics, or they had delved so deeply into the topic that they had become a primary information source (meaning their experience gave them authority on the topic). The internet had become a principal information source for nearly all farmers.
• Confirming / Disconfirming an Innovations Effects and Replicability– Confirmation of results of a given innovation are a challenge, and for this study the researcher had to rely on the accounts given by farmers. The Brix method is emerging as a useful quantitative measure that may correlate with general plant vigor. Outside of the rapid construction of greenhouses, and a general rise in interest in compost teas there did not appear to be any dominant production innovations being widely adopted by numerous farmers in the study region. There appear to be two closely related reasons for this. Most farms at this time attempt to differentiate themselves from other farms in their general growing practices and crop selections and farmers do not tend to announce their latest breakthroughs in innovation. Information seeps out slowly, and received delicately as farmers are wary to immediately implement a novel idea freely shared by a fellow farmer. However, as knowledge exchange through interaction at both markets and networks increases, many ideas will be naturally incorporated into general practices.