Meeting the Demand for Local Food in West Virginia: Results and implications from an analysis of producer market participation and expansion decisions

This post was contributed by Mary Oldham and Cheryl Brown.

Our last blog from West Virginia (WV) reported that the state had the land to expand fresh food production but pointed out that new farmers would be needed and/or current fruit and vegetable growers would need to expand production. For her master’s thesis, Mary Oldham (former AFP graduate student) surveyed WV farmers and gardeners and analyzed their responses in order to understand their potential to contribute to growth in local food markets and to identify potential strategies to enhance this growth.

The survey was conducted during 2012-2013 among WV gardeners and farmers identified by local field professionals. The survey assessed producer goals, attitudes, motivation, limitations to expansion, marketing goals, and reasons for selling and not selling, among other aspects that could affect their level of production and supply of products to potential marketing outlets.  Data were gathered using an online and paper questionnaire. Of the total of 1705 questionnaires that were sent out, 1511 were delivered successfully and a total of 574 were returned complete and usable for analysis. Through summary statistics generated from survey data and statistical econometric analysis, the study identified factors that statistically influence the likelihood that producers will sell their product or want to expand production.  Several farm-level and motivational factors may limit producers’ decisions to begin to sell their products or to expand commercial production.  (We use the term “commercial” producer for those already selling in direct or indirect markets and “non-commercial” for those who indicated they were not currently selling any products but would consider doing so within the next two years.)

Here are some key findings and implications, along with potential strategies to address those limitations in order to encourage growth of expanding and new commercial producers.

  • Impact on the local food supply from new commercial producers is most likely to be seen in farmers markets, with a lesser impact in farm-to-school markets, and road-side stands.
  • Distance to market may limit non-commercial producers from acting on their interest in selling their products. Efforts to develop alternative marketing options such as consignment sales, cooperative sales, and food hubs may facilitate entry of producers limited by distance.
  • Concern about products making people sick (food safety) and complicated regulations may limit non-commercial producers from beginning to sell their products. Training intended to empower producers to address food safety concerns on the farm and to understand regulations and liability may help grow new commercial producers.
  • Complex attitudes towards farming as a business exist. Furthermore, skepticism about the profitability of selling their products may limit non-commercial producers from beginning to sell their products. Efforts to show revenue potential through data collection and enterprise budgeting could encourage producers to consider commercial production.
  • Producers that plan to pass the farm on to a successor are more likely to expand their production.  Efforts to assist producers to successfully transitionfarms between generations and owners will likely lead to expanded production and revenue, as well as to greater farm sustainability.
  • Female producers and producers with access to irrigation water are more likely to expand production.  Programs that seek to support female agri-preneurs and to provide access to key resources such as water could help catalyze income generation and expand the supply of local food.

 

This study was funded by a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NESARE) Graduate Student Research Grant (Award Number GNE 12-041). For the full study, access the graduate thesis or visit www.SARE.org.  For further information, contact Mary Oldham at oldhamrm@gmail.com.

Mary Oldham graduated from West Virginia University in December of 2014 with a Master’s of Science in Agricultural and Resource Economics. She now works for the Value Chain Cluster Initiative (VC2). She also operates Mountain Harvest Farm LLC in Morgantown, WV with her husband Chico Ramirez.

Cheryl Brown is Associate Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at West Virginia University and Co-Project Director and West Virginia State Lead for the Appalachian Foodshed Project.