What Do We Know About Small Farms & Local Food Systems? Recent Research in Brief

Publish Date: Summer 2015

Two recent studies conducted by OSU graduate students shed new light on farmers’ market ownership and the ways small farms define success.

Recognizing the Strengths and Limitations of Farmers Market Ownership Structure Alternatives
By Snehalatha Gantla, MPP, Oregon State University (advised by Larry Lev)

Farmers markets are widely recognized for their important roles in developing local food systems, supporting small farms, increasing local economic activity, help address issues around food access and security, and providing community building opportunities. Markets typically were organized and operated by farmers themselves; over the last fifteen years, however, other groups have organized and operated most new markets. This study examines how market ownership influences market operations and identifies strengths and weaknesses of different ownership alternatives.

Gantla interviewed the managers of 25 farmers markets in Oregon – vendor-led, community-led, and subentities of other organizations – to learn about general characteristics of the markets, management and decision-making processes, market mission and goals, and resources available to the markets. She used the interviews to analyze how markets with different ownership structures operate differently.

Gantla found that markets are becoming more diverse in the interests they serve and the roles they play in communities. New markets are more frequently developing as community-led and subentity structures, rather than vendor led. Other findings include:

• Vendor-led markets highlight the critical importance of local agriculture to all markets regardless of ownership structure.

• Managers of vendor-led markets must also take on additional community-oriented functions to build partnerships, access additional resources, and ensure community embeddedness.

• Some form of community ownership has become the new standard in order to relieve farmers of this burden. This strengthens the “localness” of markets but sometimes reduces their agricultural links.

• The involvement of diverse community members allows markets to tap additional resources, ensure community buy-in, and increase overall impact.

• New markets require considerable human and financial resources, and starting out as a subentity to a well-established community organization can be very helpful.

The full study is available as a Small Farms Technical Report (https://extension.oregonstate.edu/business-economics/management/recogniz...) and will soon be published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

Farmer Perspectives on Success and Challenges: A Study of Small Farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley
By Kristin Pool, MS, Oregon State University (advised by Garry Stephenson)

How do small farmers define success? Kristin Pool’s qualitative, participatory study investigated success and challenges for small farmers operating direct marketing farm businesses in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Small farms are important players in local food systems, and ensuring their success is an important part of expanding and sustaining local food systems.

Based on interviews with farmers, Pool developed a framework describing four dimensions of small farm success: social, operational, quality of life, and financial. The farmers she spoke with see financial success as a vital component of overall success, but acknowledge that financial success is not enough if achieved to the exclusion of other dimensions of success.

Pool also developed four models for how small farmers perceive financial success: financial success as the baseline of overall success, equal dimensions of success, interdependent dimensions of success, and financial success as a gauge of overall success. Impeding small farm success are internal and external challenges that small farmers must navigate through the negotiation of the farm system and scale. Beginning and experienced farmers face the same challenges, but beginning farmers report internal challenges, land access, and access to capital at greater rates than experienced farmers. Experienced farmers speak more frequently about policy and regulations, and labor as challenges.

Pool hopes that her study will improve understanding of these innovative businesses, with implications for research, education, and small farm planning—allowing farmers to incorporate past farmers’ perspectives on success and challenges into their future businesses.

The study, just completed as Pool’s master’s thesis, will be published soon as a Small Farms technical report and separate journal article.