Growing Local - Phase I

2013 Annual Report for LS11-239

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $296,645.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Charlie Jackson
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project

Growing Local - Phase I


In order to understand the current transformation of the food system, the research team from ASAP, UNC-Asheville, and UNC-Chapel Hill are analyzing the economic, environmental, and social changes of the developing local food system in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians. The methodology employed builds on existing research in the region and includes interviews with farmers, food industry buyers, and community decision-makers, surveys with consumers, analyses of USDA Census of Agriculture data, etc. To date, the project has developed a framework for theorizing how and why local food systems can be an engine of social change, identified opportunities and barriers to local food from the perspectives of stakeholders operating in different places in the food system, identified the strategies “successful” farmers use to mitigate risk in local markets and improve farm viability, and studied the implications of the food dollar for the economic impacts of localizing food systems.  

Objectives/Performance Targets

The objective of this project is to examine the impacts of food system localization on local economies, farm profitability, production practices, and health. Research questions ask: How are consumer values and behaviors impacting the characteristics of the local food system? How are changes in demand for local food affecting production practices, farm profitability, the distribution networks, and the health of local communities? What have been the impacts of the 2004 Tobacco Buyout in the region? What are the unintended consequences of localizing food production and consumption? Can consumer demand change the food system (increase sustainable production, change policy, decrease obesity and increase health, modify food distribution)?

Project and research activities will:

Formalize the methodology of the research project.

Develop a project logic model to articulate project activities, outputs/deliverables, and outcomes and a timeline to detail key benchmarks and completion dates.

Collate and assess all existing data on the food and farming economy of the region and identify missing baseline data. ASAP has collected data annually since 2002 from local farms and businesses.

Conduct an in depth analysis of the 2002 and 2007 Agricultural Census Data to assess the impact of the 2004 Tobacco Buyout on agriculture.

Conduct interviews with ‘panels’ of farmers, buyers, and decision makers during each year of the project to baseline and measure changes over time.

Conduct consumer surveys to measure consumer values and purchasing practices.

Synthesize and develop a report of findings. Develop a plan for the dissemination of research results through journals and conferences.



For the project reporting period – January 2013 through December 2013 – project personnel have accomplished the following:

  • Conducted interviews with decision makers

  • Conducted analyses of interviews with farmers and buyers

  • Developed the interview instrument for the second round of farmer interviews

  • Conducted second round farmer interviews

  • Began developing the survey instrument for the consumer survey (to be conducted in spring 2014)

  • Identified and contracted with a firm to conduct the 2014 consumer survey

  • Developed and submitted article and presentation abstracts on approaches in local food systems development.

    • One is an article abstract, which has been accepted and will be published in a book as part of the University of Akron and Law series on sustainable food systems.

    • The other is a presentation abstract submitted to the Vermont Food Systems Summit. If accepted the summit presentation will also be published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

  • Conducted literature reviews focused on social movement theory, the concern-action gap, sustainable consumption (as means of creating social change), social capital (as an important aspect of local food systems development), and transformational learning or experience (i.e., how real life experiences affect our perceptions and practices).

  • Conducted research at two farmers markets in the region to better understand the relationship between total market sales, credit card terminal transactions, and market attendance.

  • Developed a food system theory of change logic model, which outlines anticipated stages of change and their indicators.

  • Collaborated with project partners from UNC-Asheville and UNC-Chapel Hill around project methods. With UNC-Chapel Hill, we have been working with Dr. Alice Ammerman to  develop meaningful measures around the intersections between local food and health/health promotion. With UNC-Asheville, we have been working with Dr. Leah Matthews to develop a citizen/consumer methodology that will measure/get at the triggers or mechanisms that propel individuals into action – to become supporters of local farms and local food – and understand how to address the concern-action gap, i.e., the gap between the concerns individuals express about social and environmental issues and actions taken around them.

  • Prepared for analysis of the 2012 Census of Agriculture statistics released by the USDA.

  • Continued analysis on the food dollar and its implications for local food’s potential economic impact on communities.  Developed a concept for a paper (to propose for 2014 publication) that critically looks at what the local food movement is claiming in terms of economic impact and explores different ways to quantify and understand how localizing food systems economically impact communities.

  • Continued analysis of food hub viability and its implications for creating systemic change in the food system.



Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

ASAP’s Local Food Research Center (LFRC) has developed a theoretical framework to articulate and frame how and why local food systems can be an engine of social change. While this framework is constantly evolving, we use the idea of embedded economies to theorize the significance of local place-based economies for creating change. We use the notions of civic agriculture and resilience to theorize the qualities/characteristics possible in localized economies/food systems that promote triple bottom line sustainability and adapt to changing conditions, e.g., climate change. We use the models of social capital (as well as the related concepts of human, produced, and natural capitals) to theorize the importance of developing social relationships for collective action and the significance of utilizing local knowledge, skills, and resources for bottom-up development and the creation of feedback loops that create environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable food systems.

Our analysis of the way food dollars flow through local communities indicates that the estimated (immediate) economic impacts of localizing food systems are routinely over-estimated because they ignore or oversimplify many of the most fundamental aspects of the food dollar. To better understand the way food dollars move through communities, our research is exploring new ways to quantify and understand how local food economies impact communities, and the true value of local food production in our region – not just economically, but environmentally and socially too. The outcome of this research will be to document the multi-faceted impacts of local food economics to help guide communities in their food system development.

The results of our farmer research document the diversity of strategies that “successful” leader farmers use to mitigate risk and improve the viability of their operations; these findings have tremendous extension value for farms growing food for local customers. Findings show the significance of direct relationships with customers for the viability of their businesses, for their ability to educate consumers, brand their farms, and develop a repeat customer base, and for the development of feedback loops (i.e., customer feedback on products they desire and on production practices they desire). For these farmers, market diversity is a risk management strategy, particularly cross marketing between direct and non-direct market outlets. Furthermore the research shows that farmers idea of “success” goes beyond just earnings – farmers weigh economic considerations with extra financial considerations (e.g., with environmental stewardship and quality of life issues including the value of family).

The results of our research around food hubs (especially those operating as non-profits) shows most are dependent on outside funding and assistance – food hubs work to aggregate the product of many smaller farms in order to meet the volume requirements of larger scale markets but struggle and usually fail to sustainably meet larger volume markets’ price points. Accordingly, they come to rely on outside support to help pay for operating costs. Primary data on a national sampling of food hubs shows that the population is heavily skewed with a very small number of older and larger firms contributing disproportionately to the “positive” averages and attributes of food hubs as a whole. We will be using this analysis to provide communities with accurate and realistic information on food hubs: what is required to operate and sustain them, the advisability of considering food hubs given local conditions, and potential unintended consequences of food hub development.


Leah Mathews

[email protected]
Project Investigator
University of North Carolina - Asheville
CPO 2110
One University Heights
Asheville, NC 28804
Office Phone: 8282516551
Alice Ammerman

[email protected]
Project Investigator
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
Office Phone: 9199666082
Allison Perrett

[email protected]
Project Investigator
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
306 West Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Office Phone: 8282361282
Katie Descieux

[email protected]
Research Assistant
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project
306 West Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Office Phone: 8282361282