Connections in Direct Markets: Assessing the feedback loop between consumer values and farmer’s marketing strategies

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2023: $383,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2026
Grant Recipients: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP); Leah Matthews, PhD - Professor and Chair of Economics at University of North Carolina - Asheville ; Culture Value - Danaé Aicher; Cooperating Farmers
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Amy Marion
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
Sarah Hart
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
Molly Nicholie
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)
David Smiley
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)


Not commodity specific


  • Farm Business Management: marketing management
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal abstract:

    Connections in Direct Markets: Assessing the feedback loop between consumer values and farmer’s marketing strategies will examine and improve communication and alignment between farmers and consumers in Western North Carolina. Improving this feedback loop will generate increased demand for local food, make local food more accessible, and strengthen relationships and community resilience. Over the past two decades, direct markets have played a critical role in sustaining viable farm businesses in Western NC. However, the market environment has changed dramatically over the last several years. Specifically, our communities and food system has weathered substantial changes as a result of COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. In our region, this includes the disruption and loss of restaurant sales in an economy highly dependent on tourism, as well as a significant drought followed by the catastrophic flooding from Tropical Storm Fred in 2021. The pandemic also transformed the relationship many consumers have with food - whether through greater awareness of global food supply chains and the potential for disruptions, an increased interest in prioritizing healthy foods and foods grown in ways that support the planet, or through a changed financial state that made healthy food less obtainable. This is all layered with a broader understanding of inequities entrenched within our food system. Supporting farmers to understand consumer values, and in turn provide effective communication of their own farm values, is critical for direct market relationship building and ultimately small farm viability. 

    As our farmers and community members face these new and evolving food system challenges, additional research is needed to better understand variations in barriers and values across consumers, variations in how consumers respond to educational and promotional materials, and variations in how farmers communicate to their customers. A current, region specific, and comprehensive view of these factors is needed to help update and expand upon ASAP’s theory of change, and in turn, help farmers understand opportunities for aligning their production practices and marketing messaging and branding with consumer values and behavior to expand engagement in the local food movement.

    The ultimate impact of this research will be a larger, more diverse, informed, and committed consumer base for sustainably-grown local food in Western North Carolina. This will help inform future recommendations for how agricultural support agencies can provide resources to both farmers and consumers to reduce barriers and improve direct connections between them. It will also foster a food system that supports experiential learning and social interaction to improve quality of life, increase community health and social cohesion, build resilient economies, and support environmental sustainability for years to come.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1 - Assess drivers of consumer demand for local food: Consumers share priorities, barriers, and willingness to pay for local food. Analysis examines values driving purchasing decisions and differences across demographics, geography, and between consumers regularly engaging in local food and farm environments and those who are not. Consumers are engaged as active participants in shaping their local food system.

    Objective 2 - Assess and test farmer’s direct marketing strategies: Farmers share direct marketing strategies, specifically how they communicate their story, values, climate-resilient production practices, culturally-specific products, and impacts of pandemic-related and climate-related disruptions to consumers. Analysis examines effectiveness of strategies for navigating price points and customer recruitment/retention. Findings are shared with farmers and they receive implementation support.

    Objective 3 - Assess and adapt consumer education materials and create resources to share best practices: Existing consumer education/promotional resources are assessed and improved based on research findings. Analysis examines which resources are most effectively driving demand and connecting people directly with farmers. It identifies how diverse communities respond differently to resources, and how certain strategies, such as highlighting climate-resilient practices, influences consumer willingness to pay.

    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.