The best stops for food have lots more to offer

So you set up a roadside stand on a well-travelled highway. You have produce that rivals anyone else’s for quality and variety. You have excellent signage.

And still, you get very little traffic.

Why is that?

A new study that surfaced this week shows it might have more to do with your community’s vibe than your zucchini and tomatoes.

Researchers from Cornell University, the University of Colorado and the University of Missouri say direct farm marketing efforts like roadside stands and farmers markets succeed better in communities that offer a wide array of community resources to support consumers and farmers.

The researchers arrived at this finding as they worked to create a nationwide database of assets to help municipalities create community-specific development plans.

Their motivation was the rise in direct-to-consumer marketing. It’s been practiced in our area for ages, and we tend to take it for granted.

But that familiarity is not uniform across the continent. Direct marketing is becoming increasingly and widely popular among farmers seeking to diversify their income sources and capitalize on the local food movement.

It’s particularly relevant to better understand – and support –direct marketing, following the COVID-19 pandemic which saw consumers look inwards for food sources rather than outwards (i.e. exports).

And with the pent-up desire to travel, people are looking for new destinations and new opportunities to spend money that all communities need to help them recover.

Local food helps build sustainable communities. The researchers broke down community resources into six capital assets: built, cultural, financial, human, natural and social. Then they set about gathering data on dozens of factors, such as the number of manufacturing establishments, the number of owner-occupied housing units without a mortgage and acreage of farmland.

They found, as expected, high levels of what they call “natural capital,” especially farmland, correlated positively with direct-to-consumer farm marketing.

But there was much more. They also found a positive association with so-called cultural capital, such as non-profit organizations, social enterprises and creative industries. They say in some way, these capital assets all help farmers prosper in direct marketing.

“Art-centric businesses, museums, theaters, symphonies, architecture firms – there was a very complementary effect,” said researcher Todd Schmit. “Maybe farmers’ markets are hosting musicians or art vendors and that’s making the farmers’ market a bigger draw for consumers? Or maybe because people are coming to communities to visit an art gallery or go to a museum, they’re saying, ‘Well, let’s head over to the farmers’ market, too, and make a day of it.’”

Added researcher Becca Jablonski: “Often policymakers set strategies to support community economic development at the federal level, without full consideration of the fact that different types of programs and initiatives will have different impacts in different places based on the comparative advantage of a particular place – what they do better than other places.”

Other parts of this country – and the U.S. too – could take a page from the cooperation and business savvy shown in this region to capitalize on farmers’ ability to grow a cornucopia of food. It’s no coincidence that Food Day Canada, coming up next weekend, got its start here from the vision of local food pioneer, the late Anita Stewart.

Farmers need support from the community. And they also must show support for the community. They bristle when local people go elsewhere to buy something they could have bought from their neighbours. But do they do the same thing? It’s human nature to look for a deal, but it’s not helping build a community when support is a one-way street.

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