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Furman research helps farm-to-table movement be more sustainable

Marchant Harris '22 pets a pig at Rambling Rosa Farm.

Consumers generally know about the “farm-to-table” movement, but do they know about regenerative and permaculture farming the restaurants are often practicing, and are they willing to pay a little more for them?

Furman faculty and students are working with five Upstate South Carolina farms – Oak Hill Café and Farm, Greenbrier Farms/Fork and Plow, Horseshoe Farms, Bioway Farm and Wild Hope Farm – to help answer that question, thanks to a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program of the US Department of Agriculture.

The three-year, $213,000 grant will fund several student researchers during the summers and will help farmers identify ways to diversify their revenue, a practice called pathway diversity, and connect with consumers. They’ll also create a network among the farmers so they can learn from each other, according to Courtney Quinn, a visiting research associate in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences.

“Farms provide more than just food,” Quinn said. “They can be a livelihood as well as habitat for biodiversity, soil sequestration, agritourism and a community hub.”

Photo of a pot belly pig with a dirty snout.
Pigs enjoy life at Rambling Rosa Farm.

Quinn; Karen Allen, assistant professor of earth, environmental and sustainability sciences and anthropology; and John Quinn, associate professor of biology; are the principal investigators. They are members of the Coupled Human and Ecological Sustainability Solutions (CHESS) lab, which fosters faculty interdisciplinary research. Students working on the project are Marchant Harris ’22, Gracie Bartel ’22, Holly Brown ’23 and Ashley Razo ’24.

This past summer the group used a tool created by John Quinn called the healthy farm index to measure the farms’ diversity and sustainability, ecologically and economically. They interviewed farmers, those in the research group and others (including politics and international affairs assistant professor Brittany Arsiniega, who co-owns Rambling Rosa Farm), about developing models for diversifying their businesses to become more sustainable. They also looked at the farmers’ relationships with each other, as well as with related non-profit organizations and businesses, and they prepared a consumer survey for existing farm customers. Small farmers who aren’t part of the study cohort were also interviewed, and will get to share in the results.

“We want to understand the relationships between farmers and consumers to better equip farmers to take advantage of pathway diversity opportunities in order to create a more resilient local food system,” Quinn said.

In coming years, the data will be used to test methods for how farmers with the five-farm cohort connect with customers and communicate lesser known practices of promoting biodiversity and habitat preservation, and they’ll survey the general public about their willingness to pay for those practices, Quinn said.

The folks at Oak Hill Café and Farm are excited about working with the researchers.

‘We think it’s a very important topic to branch out the links between farms and customers,” said David Porras, a co-owner and chef at Oak Hill Café and Farm. “Out of this research we can get information we can use to attract more people to healthy eating, and minimal mileage or zero emissions” for either food or diners to travel.

Haley Disinger ’20, a farm manager at Oak Hill, says one of her goals for the research is to find out if consumers value regenerative farming. She talks with customers about their practices, but says there are many people she doesn’t get to reach. She wants to make the farm an educational space.

Lori Nelsen, a co-owner of Oak Hill, hopes the research leads to a farmer’s coalition in which they can share growing methods and other helpful information. She also hopes the information will help consumers realize that spending a little more on healthful food can mean spending less on health care. “It’s preventative,” she said.

“We’re excited to see what’s going to happen in three years,” Porras said.

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