Fresh Tomatoes or Community Ties? What Drives Purchasing of Locally Grown Produce
John M Halstead1*, Steven C Deller2
1Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of New Hampshire, USA
2Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, USA 03861
*Corresponding author: John M Halstead, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA
Received: August 28, 2021 Accepted: September 08, 2021 Published: September 13, 2021
Citation: Halstead JM, Deller SC. Fresh Tomatoes or Community Ties? What Drives Purchasing of Locally Grown Produce. Int J. Agri Res Env Sci. 2021;2(2):37‒38. DOI:10.51626/ijares.2021.02.00012
After a large-scale shift of agricultural production to the midwestern and western U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, a strong movement arose to promote increased local food production in places like New England. Indeed, U.S. local food sales increased from $6.1 to $8.7 billion between 2012 – 2015, with consumers buying 35% of direct sales through farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and farm stores [1,2]. Support for local agriculture is opined from bumper stickers to farm-to-table laws. The most direct economic benefit is import substitution , though benefits include entrepreneurship, agritourism, and quality of life. Expansion of local agriculture in the east is hampered by labor shortage, capital, infrastructure, and taxes. Misinformation, lack of information, and lack of promotion also impede local buying.
Research shows that many consumers will pay a substantial premium for local produce, from 5-25% more for local vs. imported (though estimates vary) [4-6]. The question of course is if this is enough to offset generally higher production costs of growing locally. A much larger percentage of local buyers find local produce fresher, tastier, and more attractive compared to non-local produce buyers . If some consumers have shown a preference for locally produced foods, what is the “ceiling” for expanding local production? Some advocacy groups would like to see states in the northeast produce 50% of their own food. Is this physically and economically feasible? And if so, how can we make it happen? The most obvious barrier is seasonality, and the inability to grow products in adequate volume in northern climates. While clearly attributes like freshness are driving purchases of local produce, other factors may be even more important. Surveys have consistently noted the role of supporting local businesses in consumers’ purchasing decisions, even more so than other reasons . Consumers may be buying local as an avenue for supporting local farmers, even more than for freshness and taste of the product itself. This points to an important driver of local purchasing, which may change policy strategies: social capital.
The economic definition of capital expanded from financial to include manufactured capital via Adam Smith and others. Through the work of T.W. Schultz and Gary Becker, human capital was added to the valuable inputs into an economy. More recently, social capital has been studied in public and private sector settings in business, economics, health, political science, and sociology. Putnam in his seminal Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital  posited that people are isolating themselves, becoming apathetic regarding community engagement; social capital, “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (1995: 67) became a term of art.
Scholars have reintroduced systems thinking to community development using a Community Capitals framework . A dynamic community is dependent on natural, political, and cultural capital in addition to physical and human capital. This presents capital as a system where deficiencies in subsets of capitals limit a community’s ability to develop. We suggest that what is needed is an approach which includes all Community Capitals, viewing the community as a system wherein it is the limiting elements which constrain growth regardless of the quantities of other elements. There is no one “magic bullet” and narrow approaches will fall short. Thus, if we want to substantially promote economic development through increased local agricultural production, we need an approach that incorporates all these capitals [11-13].
We maintain, through our and others’ research, that the social capital aspect is important enough to be a major driver in demand for local produce. The community element of support for local farms may well be limited, and thus limit the upper bounds of how much agriculture the region can support. In other words, there is only so much of their food budget consumers will spend based on community motivations. Policies which consider building social capital and a stronger sense of community will probably contribute to vitality of the local agriculture sector.
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