Building Assets for the Rural Future

Connect Smaller Farms to Large Institutions, Urban Markets, and Food Systems

Connect Smaller Farms to Large Institutions, Urban Markets, and Food Systems

The Opportunity

Small farms account for the majority of farms in the United States and in North Carolina, but they represent less than one-quarter of all agricultural production nationwide and typically operate on low profit margins.[1] Small farms will continue to be squeezed as food production in the United States becomes increasingly centralized, making it more difficult for small farmers to sell their products to local residents, retailers, or institutions.[2]

However, a countervailing trend has begun to emerge that may benefit small, local farms.[3] Specifically, farms that employ organic or environmentally-friendly farming methods and farms that cater to local food markets can sell their produce for higher prices than commodity products.[4] This emerging trend presents an opportunity for the state’s small farms.

To study these trends and recommend favorable state policy in North Carolina, the legislature established the North Carolina Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council in 2009.[5] More locally, rural communities throughout North Carolina are beginning to build local and regional food systems as part of their community and economic development efforts.  Although evidence of the economic impact of community food systems is limited, proponents are pushing ahead to stabilize and support local farmers, particularly those with small farms and limited resources. 

How the Tactic Is Applied

  • Connect small farms to local institutions
  • Link small farms with nearby urban markets
  • Plug into emerging local food systems

Connect Small Farms to Local Schools and Hospitals

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (North Carolina)

In Western North Carolina, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) has been supporting and developing local food markets since 1995. In addition to running an ongoing local foods campaign, ASAP runs a six-county farm-to-school program called Growing Minds. The program hopes to link area farmers with reliable institutional demand from local public schools, and in doing so, aims to contribute to the economic stability of local farmers. Additional goals include increasing healthy food offerings in schools and educating children about food. ASAP brings together farmers, school officials, and cooperative extension agents at workshops and conferences to learn how to bring local produce into the schools, to discuss the challenges of implementation, and to develop solutions to identified barriers.[6]

In 2009, ASAP expanded its scope to include another group of major institutional food purchasers: hospitals. Currently, ASAP is working with ten area hospitals that have agreed to purchase local foods, host farmers’ markets, and provide educational opportunities for patients and staff.[7]

Link Small Farms with Nearby Urban Markets

Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center (North Carolina)

In Rutherford County, the Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center uses the Internet to link the region’s small farms with the growing Charlotte food market.[8] Since 2006, Foothills Connect has operated a “virtual farmers’ market” online and links farmers, chefs, and individual buyers in seven counties.[9] Ninety farmers offered produce through the online market in 2009—up from six the first year—selling a variety of products such as meats, dairy, fruits, vegetables, jams and jellies, grains, and herbs.[10] When an order is placed, the farmer delivers the order to Foothills Connect, which then arranges for shipment to the customer, usually within 24 hours. The program has encouraged farmers to diversify into specialty crops that are profitable in the Charlotte market. Other virtual farmers’ markets—one out of Rockingham County and another in Rowan County—are being established and modeled after the Foothills Connect program.[11]

Recently, Foothills Connect has initiated a training program at a local high school to ensure that the next generation of farmers is ready to step into the shoes of its current produce suppliers. The training program focuses on small-farm sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on the business aspects of farming.[12]

Plug into Emerging Local Food Systems

Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Project (North Carolina)

The Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Project (SENCFS) has been working since 2006 in an eight-county region suffering from persistent poverty and significant losses of manufacturing jobs.[13] SENCFS assists “limited-resource farmers”[14] by facilitating business development and training for them and by connecting them with large institutional and urban markets in the region. SENCFS also conducts education programs for area residents on the advantages of buying local foods. To coordinate its activities, SENCFS enrolled more than seventy farmers to serve with extension agents, local government leaders, business leaders, and other citizens on several working committees.[15] The committees focus on different components of an integrated regional food system, such as farmers’ markets, workforce development, institutional buying, and processing and distribution.[16]

Two recent initiatives highlight the program’s role. First, SENCFS is establishing a food processing and distribution center at a local community college. The center will enable local farmers to process and package their produce in compliance with the purchasing guidelines of large local institutions, such as schools, hospitals, universities and colleges, and area military bases.[17] Additionally, SENCFS is helping farmers gain access to urban markets by hosting farmer-chef networking events and by working with urban local governments to establish farmers’ markets.[18]

Learn More

Leslie Hossfeld
Executive Director
Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Project
Wilmington, NC

On the Internet

Center for Environmental Farming Systems

Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center – Farmers Fresh Market

[1] Robert A. Hoppe, et al., Small Farms in the United States: Persistence Under Pressure 6, 17-18 (2010)

[2] Barbara C. Bellows, et al., Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions 1 (2003), available at http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/farmtoschool.pdf.

[3] John E. Ikerd, The Need for a Systems Approach to Sustainable Agriculture, 46 Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 146, 148-151 (1993). 

[4] Catherine Greene, et al., Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry 3-8, 18019 (2009), available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/155923/eib55_1_.pdf (discussing growth in organic production, even greater growth in demand for organic foods, and higher price premiums for organic products).

[5] N.C. Gen. Stat. [hereinafter N.C.G.S.] §§ 106-830 to 106-833. (2009).

[6] See Anupama Joshi, Marion Kalb & Moira Beery, Going Local: Paths to Success for Farm to School Programs 20-22 (2006), available at http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/cfj/publications/goinglocal.pdf.

[7] Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Farm to Hospital Participants

[8] Broadband internet is viewed as essential to the success of the program. See Construct Next-Generation Infrastructure.

[9] The seven counties are Rutherford, Polk, Cleveland, McDowell, Gaston, Buncombe, and Mecklenburg.

[10] Bruce Henderson, He’s Helping NC County Rebuild its Farming Roots, Charlotte Observer, Oct. 26, 2009,

[11] Ibid.  See also Karissa Minn, Creating a Virtual Farmers Market, Salisbury Post, Mar. 31, 2010; Morgan Josey Glover, Farmers Market will Debut Online from Rockingham, News & Record, Feb. 23, 2010, 

[12] Ibid.

[13] The counties SENCFS serves are Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Duplin, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender, and Robeson.

[14] A limited resource farmer, according to SENCFS, is one who makes less than $100,000 in annual sales.

[15] Interview with Leslie Hossfeld, Director, Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Project (Feb. 25, 2010).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.