Farmer perspectives of Farm to Institution in Michigan: 2012 survey results of vegetable farmers

Colleen Matts, David S. Conner, Caitlin Fisher, Shakara Tyler, Michael W. Hamm
April 8, 2018

Local food purchasing programs at institutions such as K-12 schools, colleges and hospitals offer benefits including supporting farms and local economies, encouraging more healthful eating habits of patrons and fostering closer connections between farmers and consumers. Increasing in number and expanding in breadth, Farm to Institution (FTI) markets are promising outlets that may fulfill social and economic motivations for farmers. However, significant challenges and barriers have kept many from participating; farmers interested in this market will incur transaction costs, with high negotiation costs in particular due to product differentiation (in this case, by provenance) and less established markets and terms. Researchers have just begun to study farmers' perspectives on FTI and, to date, have primarily done so through convenience sampling. By utilizing a representative farmer sample, this study provides a major contribution to FTI research. This survey study was designed to better understand Michigan vegetable farmers' interest and willingness to participate in institutional markets and to identify perceived barriers and opportunities. Michigan is an ideal location for this research as it boasts one of the most diverse sets of agricultural crops in the US, has an economy highly reliant on the food and agriculture industry and has thriving FTI activity with extensive, ongoing outreach, education and research. Results of this survey study showed that half (50%) of the respondents (n = 311) reported interest in selling to at least one institution type (of K-12 schools, colleges and hospitals), but only a small percentage (7%) had yet sold produce to institutions. The most frequently reported motivators to sell to institutions were supplying healthy foods to customers (77%), fair, steady prices (77%) and supplying local food to consumers (76%), indicating that farmers' motivations are largely based in social values. Smaller scale farmers (less than 25 acres) were significantly less likely to rate economic factors and help in meeting logistical challenges as important, which suggests that they see more potential social value in FTI markets while larger farmers will seek to minimize their transaction costs related to this market. This research can inform the development of scale-appropriate farmer education to foster this market opportunity and its contribution to regional food system development. As demand for local food increases, it is critical to further examine the viability of FTI markets and continue to understand the opportunities and challenges to farmers of different types and scales to participate.

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