Strengthening Farmer-consumer Connections for Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $213,954.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Furman University
Region: Southern
State: South Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Courtney Quinn
Furman University
Dr. Karen Allen
Furman University
Dr. John Quinn
Furman University


Not commodity specific


  • Farm Business Management: business planning, community-supported agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, public participation, social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    The connectedness between local farms and regional consumers continues to grow across the South. Farmers participating in local food systems are focused on creating a robust and viable food system that promotes holistic social, economic, and ecological values. Yet, our past research and conversations with farmers demonstrate one of the most pronounced challenges for producers is program evaluation to understand and influence consumer retention. The lack of understanding of what influences customers to support local food initiatives, and more importantly, what keeps them returning, makes planning difficult and increases the financial risks in experimenting with different methods of customer connection.

    In addition to these challenges, local food opportunities have changed in the past decade. Some farmers discontinued CSAs when sunk time and monetary resources did not provide a clear return on investment.  CSA operations remaining often include multiple businesses in a single CSA, offering consumers optional “add-ons” such as cheese, wine, or prepared foods. Other farmers started their own restaurants adjacent to their farms or in nearby metropolitan areas. Some partnered exclusively with a single restaurant to supply produce or meat. 

    Given the challenges and opportunities to local farmers (plus uncertainty post-pandemic), it is essential to help them capitalize on consumers’ interest in products and sustainable food systems. This proposed project is an outgrowth of our ongoing work and relationships with our farmer-partners and their expressed research needs. At its core, this project uniquely captures an opportunity to learn what characteristics of coupled farm and food systems (i.e., multi-business CSAs, vertically integrated farms and restaurants) and characteristics of repeat and new customers (i.e., consumer knowledge and values) lead to the greatest long-term economic success for farmers while maintaining the environmental and social sustainability values of local food. 

    In this project, we will annually analyze local farm operations’ characteristics including; production methods and local biodiversity, networking with other businesses, and communication to customers of social and ecological value creation. We will concurrently assess customer preferences, perceptions, and knowledge of local food systems, their reason (e.g., experiences and values) for supporting a business, and how their COVID-19 experience influenced involvement with the food system. We will support each farmer in testing new strategies for economic value creation. Finally, we will assess how and if these farms, farmers, and consumer characteristics predict customers’ intention to continue to support local food. Data will be collected through farm assessment tools, qualitative and quantitative surveys including choice experiments, interviews, and social network analysis.

    The information gained will allow local farmers to increase their competitiveness in the food system by retaining current customers, especially those who increased involvement as a result of COVID-19 concerns regarding the larger food system. Results will be shared broadly throughout the region including at farming conferences (e.g. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association), in three workshops for farmers across the southeast, in-personal conversations with our collaborating farmers and others, a new web-based media platform, and academic journal articles.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    We have four linked objectives in this project that cover social, ecological, economic, and educational goals.

    Objective 1: (Farm and Farmer Characteristics) Our first objective is to assess farm and business characteristics of our five participating farms each year of the grant and twenty-five additional farms over the course of the grant time period. We will assess the current mechanisms through which each farmer(s) is trying to create social, economic, and ecological value on their farms and how farmers understand and communicate such value to customers.

    Objective 1A: Measure ecological health of using the Healthy Farm Index (HFI) on each participating farm and on twenty-five other small to medium farms in the Western Carolinas.

    Objective 1B: Modify the HFI to add social dimensions (access to and health insurance, labor practices such as diversity at the restaurant level, front of house back of the house, in-field and off-field, evaluation of labor practices that address inequalities).

    Objective 1C: Through interviews with our five farmer partners, we will compare the results of the Healthy Farm Index with farmer perceptions of their production practices and ecological value creation along with their labor practices and social value creation. 

    Objective 2: (Consumer Characteristics and Preferences) Our second objective is to test how local food operations engage with consumer preferences and values by comparing customer characteristics to current and future patronage (including monetary patronage and willingness to pay) as well as assessing consumer knowledge, understanding, and relational values for local food systems.  

    Ob2A: We will use a stated choice experiment (CE) to estimate willingness to pay (WTP) for elements of sustainable agriculture across consumers in the western Carolinas. We will survey both the patrons of the five farms and a sample of consumers from the general population 

    Ob2B: Each of our five farmer partners will create and test targeted interventions, in years 2 and 3, for effect on sales and, ultimately, customer retention. 

    Objective 3: (Social Network Analysis) Our third objective is to assess, at a systems level, the existing connections between farmers and consumers and farmers to each other to better understand how social networks influence the robustness of system embeddedness.

    Ob3A: We will conduct two social network analyses; 1) network of farmers and farm-associated businesses in the Western Carolinas and 2) local food network connections measured as the density of consumers currently patronizing at least one business associated with the local farming system. 

    Ob3B: Test the hypothesis that consumer embeddedness in local food systems, via network density of local food connections, creates a reinforcing feedback loop of more frequent and repeated engagement by consumers. 

    Objective 4: (Education and Extension) Our last objective is to share our results with numerous stakeholder groups and utilize the educational opportunities to promote existing social networks and strengthen farmer-to-farmer social networks. 

    Ob4A: Share results with clearly defined audiences via multiple delivery methods; 1) annual workshops that convene farmers, other business owners, non-profit managers, and academics, 2) host round-table discussions, 3) presentations at regional farming conferences (e.g., CFSA), and 4) classroom education material for undergraduate students.  

    Ob4B: Create a local food website and social media presence that promotes social network creation by highlighting successful partnerships between a wide variety of producers and business owners. Promote developed stories to local and regional news outlets and sustainable agriculture governmental organizations and nonprofits.

    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.