NC_old1198: Renewing an Agriculture of the Middle: Value Chain Design, Policy Approaches, Environmental and Social Impacts

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

NC_old1198: Renewing an Agriculture of the Middle: Value Chain Design, Policy Approaches, Environmental and Social Impacts

Duration: 10/01/2017 to 09/30/2022

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

 The NC1198 group and its predecessors evolved to address a troubling structural change in US agriculture: the decline of mid-scale farms capable of generating household income. We have referred to this phenomenon as the disappearing “Agriculture of the Middle (AOTM)” The decreasing numbers of mid-sized family farms as evidenced by the NASS Census of Agriculture data from 1997-2012 reflects a tren12)d that has been going on for decades (Stevenson et al. 2011). Across the US, only the very smallest farms (farms with < $10,000 in sales) and the very largest farms (farms with > $million in sales) have been increasing in number.  Interestingly the 2012 Census suggests a slight improvement in these numbers. USDA classifies farms with sales from $350,000-$999,999 as “Mid-sized Family Farms”. The 2012 Census data show that farms in the ranges of $250,000 - $499,999 and $500,000-$999,999 both slightly increased in number from 2007-2012 (Ahearn and Harris, 2014). While these signs are encouraging, it is important to note that there are still only about 118,000 mid-sized family farms nationally and the greatest number of farms in the US farms are considered Small Family Farms, with the greatest numbers of these classified as retirement and off-farm occupation farms. 

Income-generating small and mid-sized farms are vital to the overall well-being of US rural communities, the economy and the environment, as confirmed by numerous studies over the years (e.g., Kirschenmann, Stevenson, Buttel, Lyson, & Duffy, 2008). Research suggests that small and mid-scale farms spend a relatively higher amount of input dollars locally and have a higher multiplier effect than do larger farms (Jablonski & Schmit, 2015). The land in mid-sized family farms comprises about one-fifth of all agricultural land and compared to other potential uses (i.e., development, particularly paving) provides numerous ecosystems services.

Beyond a measure of farm size, the NC1198 team has expanded the concept of the Agriculture of the Middle (AOTM) as a “marketing middle” that designates a third tier of marketing that lies somewhere between direct marketing and commodity marketing.  The concept and the role of values-based food supply chains (VFSCs) and other forms of strategic partnerships that differentiate foods and their distribution systems based on particular sets of product and business attributes have been of particular interest for their ability to improve market access for small and mid-sized family farms (Stevenson et al 2011; Lev et al 2015). Many of these farms are too large or otherwise unsuited to direct market all of their products, yet too small to successfully compete in commodity markets. Partnerships are a logical choice for these farms. Borrowing from  the theory of the firm and transaction costs (Coase 1937), many of these farms have too large a volume to “make” their own marketing (selling through direct markets like some smaller farms do) yet too small a volume to survive in by “buying” marketing though anonymous commodity channels. Partnerships and the opportunity to aggregate products with other similar producers offer the potential to bring modest price premiums of differentiated products while selling larger volumes and access to mass markets. A recent AFRI project led by NC1198 members has identified and created a database of over 250 VFSCs in the US that distinguish themselves in the marketplace based on particular attributes related to food quality, environmental practices, distribution of economic benefits, or social relationships (Peterson et al 2016). 

Over the course of the NC1198 project, the team members have produced numerous case studies, peer reviewed publications, lesson plans, and presentations to professional meetings and received many extramural grants to support the work. Moreover, the group has congealed into vibrant community of scholars, collaborating of a variety of topics and developing deep expertise in the field of values based supply chains and strategic partnerships.  We request funds to continue the work. We anticipate the research falling into four main categories, distilled to the objectives below: economic performance of supply chain actors, contributions to community well-being, contributions to the environmental well-being; supply chain governance; policy implications. It is important this work be done as a multi-state project, given the diversity of the scholars and setting in which we work, and our ability to learn together and share lessons across contexts. The research is technically feasible: we will use well-established research methods with which our team has established expertise. Our objectives will lead to improved opportunity and viability for mid-sized farms and increased vibrancy of our food system and rural communities.

Related, Current and Previous Work

The disappearing “Agriculture of the Middle” is now familiar to many food systems scholars and stakeholders. While aforementioned recent Census of Agriculture data suggest some favorable trends, this is only at the upper end of the size spectrum of moderate-scale, income-generating farms. Fostering a robust mid-sized farm sector remains important as it brings a wide array of benefits to the country, in diverse areas including: economic and social well-being, land use and the environment; and consumer choice (Kirschenmann et al., 2008). Research by members of this group and others have proposed and explored the nuances of mechanisms for improved market access and viability of mid-sized farms: partnerships based on shared values, transparency, trust and co-learning ( Stevenson & Pirog, n.d.; Stevenson & Pirog, 2008; Stevenson, 2009; Bloom & Hinrichs, 2010;  Conner et al., 2011; Conner et al., 2012; Feenstra et al., 2011). The term “values-based food supply chain” (VFSC) has arisen as a descriptive term for these partnerships (Stevenson et al. 2011; Lev et al 2015).

In 2003, a broad consortium including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Johnson Foundation, the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin organized a task force that focused on renewing an agriculture-of-the-middle (see the consortium website at During the lifetime of the current NC1198 project, the group’s members have been extremely productive, totaling 35 peer-reviewed journal articles, 24 funded grants, a new website (, and numerous presentations to professional and lay audiences. 

Mid-sized farms are a vital part of local and regional food systems.  As direct markets become saturated, fostering supply chains through which mid-sized farms can serve regional markets is necessary to build on past success and bring economic, social and environmental benefits to wider parts of the US and its communities (Low et al., 2015). The objectives of this proposed project (below) will examine the potential for these benefits.  We will understand and measure these impacts, and develop and articulate governance and policy recommendations to solidify and enhance these benefits. The sections below highlight key results and lessons on the economic performance, community goals and impacts, and environmental contributions of mid-scale food supply chains, as well as relevant governance questions and policy challenges. 

Economics. Several studies, beginning with the seminal case studies by Stevenson et al. (2013) have posited elements of successful partnerships: adding value through differentiation and source identification; regard for welfare of all participants; trust; price and cost transparency; shared governance; and co-learning (Lev & Stevenson, 2013). Subsequent studies have found that while these principles hold and are feasible in certain settings, they are not a panacea and are not always achievable. Price transparency remains an elusive goal (Bloom & Hinrichs, 2010; Conner et al., 2011; Conner et al., 2012). Another insight is the difference in how these principles play out in demand pull rather than supply push settings (Feenstra et al., 2011). Finally, recent research has focused on the role of hybrid models that link existing food system infrastructure, organization and actors with new enterprises and missions, while stressing the fragile nature of these relationships and the need to manage them actively (Bloom and Hinrichs, 2010; Clark & Inwood, 2016). Clearly, there is much work to be done to better understand economic performance and viability of mid-scale farms/ranches and their supply-chain partners. 

Community. The potentially positive community impacts of mid-scale VFSCs identified in the literature include five broad areas: (a) cultivating mutually beneficial, dense personal and business relationships among participants in a supply chain (Conner et al., 2008, 2011; Feenstra et al., 2011; Hardesty et al., 2014; Hoshide, 2007; Jarosz, 2000; Stevenson et al, 2011); (b) improving the social and economic vitality of the communities connected to the VFSCs and the participating farms (Block et al., 2008; Cohen and Derryck, 2011; Conner et al., 2011); (c) developing and communicating shared community values and identities related to a particular place among VFSC participants and consumers (Ostrom, 2006; 2015; Lerman et al., 2012); (d) building connections between community members and farmer/rancher suppliers through identify preservation and communication of farm information (Block et al., 2008; Conner et al., 2008; Diamond and Barham, 2011; Feenstra et al., 2011; Hoshide, 2007; Ostrom, 2006; Stevenson and Pirog, 2008); and (e) enhancing processing, distribution, and marketing infrastructure for regional development (Abatekassa and Peterson, 2011; Feenstra et al., 2011; Low et al., 2015; Stevenson and Pirog, 2008). Several of the case studies featured on the Agriculture of the Middle website detail the concerns of VFSC organizers with the health of the surrounding rural and urban communities (Stevenson et al., 2013). Further research is needed to document the full extent and benefits of these intended community impacts. 

Environment. Environmental benefits and ecosystem services are often stated as a goal or part of the value system for AOTM, however, there is little actual research beyond individual farm-scale studies. There is a strong need for research and development of metrics that create an increased understanding of the environmental impacts of small and midscale food supply chains and an additional need to explore the potential risk from extreme natural events that are caused by climate change. Most of the studies related to environmental impacts and impact of the environment on AOTM is drawn from studies on direct-to-consumer, organic, and local food literature (Low et al., 2015). The benefits often described include reduced transportation, less processing and packaging, increased diversity, and farmland preservation. Much of these assumptions lack any kind of scientific assessment. Small and mid-size farms may be less likely to sign up for federal conservation programs; less likely to become certified organic due to cost constraints; and have not been found to reduce greenhouse gas emissions via transportation (Avetisyan et al., 2013, Coley et al., 2009, Weber and Matthews, 2008). They do however, adopt conservation tillage practices, practice crop rotations, improve soil quality though the use of animal manure, express environmental goals, and often employ greater crop and livestock diversity (Low et al 2015; Ostrom and Jussaume, 2007). Finally, there is little understanding of the potential risk that small and mid-size food supply systems which are often local and regional, might face from extreme events due to climate change.  

The environmental impacts of VFSCs comprise another avenue of needed research. A case study (Cantrell 2010) of Sysco described a pilot project by the foodservice distributor to become a key player in VFSCs in Michigan and how it was able to offer food produced in an environmentally responsible manner by area farms, but with no details regarding the specific environmental practices. Case studies have noted that rancher members of Country Natural Beef were certified under Food Alliance environmental and social standards (Stevenson and Lev, 2013), while Organic Valley Cooperative (Stevenson and Lev, 2013) and the Full Circle Farm-to-Table delivery service (Ostrom and Stevenson, 2013) require producers to be certified as organic. In addition to organic certification, Full Circle Farm and many of the northwest Organic Valley farms are certified “Salmon Safe.” Farmers of Shepherd’s Grain strictly adhere to a direct seeding farming system to promote soil retention and regeneration and to create significant carbon sequestration from reduced tillage and soil disturbance (Stevenson and Lev, 2013). Finally, Ostrom has noted the significance of ecological constructions of “place” in the formation of alternative food supply chains and concepts of food quality (2006). While environmental values play a central role in differentiating many VBSCs in the marketplace and their certifications indicate that environmentally-based practices are being implemented on the land, further research is needed to document the extent of environmental and/or educational outcomes from VFSC participation. 

Governance. A growing area of AOTM research examines alternative food supply chain governance.  While governing refers to processes of steering, controlling and managing, governance references the more complex patterns of such governing activities and how they may be distributed, shared and negotiated across relevant private, public and civil society participants (DuPuis 2006).  Scholars from Europe, the UK and North America have highlighted the role of coordination, as well as sometimes contestation and mediation, among horizontally and vertically linked food supply chain actors, including farms, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators, NGOs and educators (Marsden et al., 2000; Renting et al., 2003; DuPuis 2006; Sonnino & Marsden, 2006; Mount, 2012; Blay-Palmer et al. 2013;  Blay-Palmer, Sonnino, & Custot, 2015; Clark & Inwood, 2016). Such governance dynamics have been cited as critical for understanding the outcomes of efforts to scale up local and regional food systems (Mount, 2012). Supply chain governance includes the negotiation and implementation of hybrid “conventional-alternative” relationships (Bloom and Hinrichs, 2011; Clark & Inwood, 2016) and partnership development, management and communication more generally (Dunning, Bloom and Creamer, 2015).  The roles of adaptation, learning and knowledge management, both intra- and inter-firm or organization, are other important facets of supply chain governance (Peterson, 2002, 2008). Recent studies emphasize the roles of social entrepreneurs and their participation in knowledge-sharing networks which can develop, replicate and scale up successful models (Sonnino & Griggs-Trevarthen, 2012; Franklin & Marsden, 2014; Sage, 2014), as well as the importance of robust social infrastructure to ensure social innovation (Connelly and Beckie, 2016).  Clancy (2014) underscores the need to examine the role of flexibility and adaptability in sustainable, regional supply chain structure and processes. These studies present important points of departure for continued work on VFSC governance. 

Policy. Engagement with policy issues has been on the agenda of the Agriculture of the Middle research group since the beginning of the collaboration several decades ago. In 2010 a research agenda for agriculture of the middle was developed and included a number of policy issues (Clancy & Leher, 2010). In the most recent case studies of AOTM businesses a specific set of policy questions was pursued with all the respondents and a separate paper written on the results (Clancy, 2013). But as described in the 2016 NC 1198 Final Report, most AOTM researchers have not included policy questions in their research because of a lack of knowledge of how to engage further after the issues are identified. The group has identified some specific issues such as food safety, procurement, land use, capital access, utilization of conservation programs, and others that deserve attention. There is a need to build capacity among those researchers who are interested in addressing food system policy issues from early in the proposal stage to policy write ups and briefings after all the research is completed. 

The work of this group builds on and complements that of several noteworthy multi-state research groups, both active and terminated, including: 

  • NC1196: Food systems, health, and well-being: understanding complex relationships and dynamics of change; 10/01/2016 - 09/30/2021; Active.

  • S1067. Specialty Crops and Food Systems: Exploring Markets, Supply Chains and Policy Dimensions. 10/01/2015 to 09/30/2020; Active.

  • NC213. Marketing and Delivery of Quality Grains and BioProcess Coproducts. 10/01/2013 to 09/30/2018. Active.

  • S1051: Sustainable Practices, Economic Contributions, Consumer Behavior, and Labor Management in the U.S. Environmental Horticulture Industry. 10/01/2010-9/30/2015; Terminated.

  • NE1029: Rural Change: Markets, Governance and Quality of Life; 10/1/2007- 09/302012; Terminated.

  • NCCC065: Indicators of Social Change in the Marketplace: Producers, Retailers, and Consumers; 10/1/2016- 09/30/2021; Active.


  1. Investigate key factors that influence economic performance and viability of mid-scale farms/ranches and their supply-chain partners.
  2. Identify and assess the possibilities of mid-scale supply chains to contribute to community goals and needs.
  3. Identify and assess the environmental and natural resource contributions of mid-scale supply chains.
  4. Examine and assess governance structures and mechanisms of mid-scale supply chains and their role in mediating, communicating, and implementing values around food quality, economic performance, social equity, and environmental sustainability.
  5. Build the capacity of project members to investigate, address, and communicate policy issues surrounding mid-scale supply chains.


A notable strength of NC-1198 work to date has been its commitment to an interdisciplinary approach to research and its use of mixed methods. The group includes diverse academic disciplines (e.g., economists, sociologists, ecologists, systems scientists) which offer a versatile toolbox of methods that can provide triangulation of results and innovative and rigorous insights on complex issues. Members can employ qualitative methods and case studies to explore new issues and provide greater depth regarding patterns of context, motivations and consequences, as well as quantitative methods to measure and correlate critical variables within larger, representative populations. The group has a track record of adapting wide-ranging social science methods to specific empirical problems in the area of agriculture of the middle and mid-scale food value chains. 

  1. Methods for Objective #1 will include an array of methods such as secondary data analysis, case studies, interviews and surveys of farms ranches and supply chain actors to identify common factors for success. The unit of analysis will be the individual firm/supply chain actor. Anticipated categories of factors and covariates include but are not limited to: firmographics; geography; product mix; marketing, production, branding and distribution strategies; partnerships; information management; governance. Qualitative methods will be used to understand major themes while quantitative methods will measure frequency of and correlations among important factors in larger populations. Case studies will present deep descriptions of ongoing efforts and highlight key strategies and challenges. Roundtable discussions and presentations will vet results implications with stakeholders. Results will be disseminated though professional meetings, scholarly journals, webinars, lesson plans, decision cases and outreach publications. 
  1. Methods for Objective #2 will include working with universities and partners (e.g., farm or food businesses, nonprofits, etc.) in selected communities to identify current needs and goals and design assessment tools for measuring progress on impacts of mid-scale supply chains. In some cases, it will be useful to set up advisory committees made up of community partners and those impacted by the research in order to be sure researchers are hearing stakeholder concerns and are incorporating relevant questions into protocols. Types of data will include: specific measurable quantitative data (economic, environmental, social) that assesses conditions of mid-scale supply chains and community impacts; and qualitative data about successes, challenges, lessons learned, best practices and future plans. Data will be gathered in a variety of ways including: telephone and in-person interviews, focus groups, surveys, and case studies. Data will be analyzed and/or evaluated in ways that draw connections between mid-scale supply chains and community impacts, such as economic/community development, labor practices, and community health.  Results will be shared first and foremost with community partners and advisors, regional or state organizations and across teams from this multistate project, other NIMSS projects and through professional academic or practice groups. 
  1. Methods for Objective #3 will include surveys and interviews of participants in successful VFSCs to assess their identification of key environmental issues and goals, their identification with a particular place or region, and the ability to operationalize and incentivize environmental values throughout the chain. Focus groups will be utilized to identify individual and community environmental practices and goals and awareness of ecosystem services and concerns as important to the future, both at the landscape-level and with respect to a place or region. Participants will be asked to identify management activities to support environmental goals which will be incorporated into a database to support future development of Life Cycle Assessments to assess environmental outcomes. Lastly, in order to explore risks for producers and regional supply chain partners due to increases in frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events, we will develop a database of locations of natural events across the US that impact agricultural areas, including droughts, floods, and heat waves. We will then consider how mid-scale supply chains and linked, diversified food production within a region could provide assets for mitigating the risk to supply chains.


  1. Methods for Objective #4 will include such research activities as organizational case studies, focus groups, surveys and modified social network analyses. These activities will be designed, sequenced and integrated based on collaboration between the researchers and specific values-based food supply chains, with attention both to the aims of this objective and data and information needs articulated by participants in the VFSC s leaders. Types of data gathered include: discrete quantitative measures of information and resource exchanges between participants in selected VFSCs at different points in time, and qualitative data regarding motivations, roles, functions and network relations of the participants within specific VFSCs.  Social analysis software will be utilized to construct visual maps that represent the unique structures of these social networks.  Data analysis will further focus on understanding organizational, decision-making and communication processes within VFSCs and with relevant external actors and how these processes influence the values that characterize particular VFSCs.


  1. Methods for Objective #5 are designed to support NC1198 members and scholars in translating and extending their policy-related research findings to people, organizations, and agencies who will find them helpful. The actual training activities include providing in-person workshops and webinar-based trainings on how to write policy briefs and engage policy within federal and university guidelines; reviewing grant proposals and publications to suggest possible policy objectives for the research; and providing information and guidance to navigate emergent policy issues. We will also facilitate connections with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to enhance that organization’s connections with academic researchers. In addition, we will continue to track and report the policy-related work of NC1198 members.


Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Peer reviewed scholarly articles in both disciplinary and transdisciplinary journals
  • Presentations at scholarly meetings
  • Outreach and extension publications for extension educators and other technical service providers
  • Webinars and other web-based content for scholars and service providers
  • Policy briefs and testimony to decision-makers on the local, state and federal level

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Improved understanding of factors that improve mid-sized farm viability and performance of VFSCs, which will guide management decisions of farms, ranches, distributors and buyers
  • Documentation of community and social benefits of mid-sized farms and values based food supply chains
  • Documentation of environmental benefits and adaptability of mid-sized farms and VFSCs.
  • Improved understanding of effective governance practices for values based food supply chains
  • Increased capacity to articulate implications and inform public policy around issues affecting mid-sized farms and VFSCs.


(2018):Some work is underway already through existing funded projects germane to this area. Members will present, publish and develop outreach materials for key findings of these projects. To continue work of these and other objectives, we will inventory current and past projects to identify critical areas of effort and form teams to identify appropriate funding opportunities and submit grant proposals.

(2019):Members will continue and complete work on existing projects. Work will begin on newly funded projects; early results will be shared and vetted to identify ongoing gaps.

(2020):Members will attend annual meeting of the multistate project to share and vet data analysis approaches and results. Members will continue and complete work on existing projects. Data collection and analysis will continue on newly funded projects. Members will present early findings at professional meetings. Members will revise unfunded projects to address reviewer comments and resubmit.

(2021):Members will attend annual meeting of the multistate project to share and vet data analysis approaches and results. Cross cutting issues for future work will be identified and teams formed to address. Members will continue and complete work on existing projects. Data collection and analysis will be completed and results submitted to peer reviewed journals. Outreach activities will be planned and implemented. Work will begin in on revised projects.

(2022):Members will attend annual meeting of the multistate project to share data analysis approaches and results. Data collection and analysis will continue or be completed (depending on funding cycles) and results will be prepared to be submitted to peer reviewed journals. Outreach activities will be planned and implemented. Project closure and renewal options will be resolved.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Most efforts coordinated under this multistate project are "integrated projects" so outreach (and education) activities are directly linked with research. In addition to the outreach products described above under Outputs, this multistate research effort will collaborate closely with the diverse organizations working on similar topics:  USDA, state departments of agriculture, The Association for Family Farms, The Wallace Center, regional working groups, Farm to Institution New England. Many members have extension appointments and all have close ties to extension educators in their state and region. The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin will continue to support the Agriculture of the Middle website and make background readings, publications, case studies, lesson plans and other materials available.


This multi-state research/education committee will be organized nationally with opportunities for working groups to emerge along both content and geographic lines. Research areas will be defined and scientists will self-select into clusters of interest. One of the major objectives of these smaller groups will be to obtain additional funding. Outreach will be conducted on state, regional, and national levels. The committee will meet annually and between-meeting communication will be achieved through email list-serves and teleconferences. Clusters may seek to meet in conjunction with other professional meetings/conferences which most members attend (notably discipline-specific societies (e.g., applied economics, rural sociology) and trans-disciplinary food systems societies (e.g. agriculture, food, and human values). The national committee will be facilitated by a chair, vice-chair, and secretary elected for up to three year terms. The administrative advisor for the proposed multi-state committee will be Joe Coletti from Iowa State University.

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