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A Government Guide on Building Local Food Economies

This guide focuses primarily on North Carolina examples of local and regional governments working with communities to create innovative local food economies. It serves as a tool to connect planners, economic developers, small business developers, and other local government professionals with resources to help them expand, strengthen, and maintain their regional food economies.

The guide has been designed for ease of navigation. Each main section header will link readers to an active sub-section, making access to specific information (such as a particular land use regulation, planning strategy, or economic development tool) simple and fast. The guide is provided in three sections:

  • Planning & Land Use for Local Food Economies: planning, land use, and zoning issues that directly impact farms, food businesses, and other contributors to the local food economy;
  • Economic & Community Development for Local Food Economies: strategies for the retention, creation, expansion, and recruitment of farm and food businesses; and
  • Collaborating for Growth: recommendations for non-traditional partnerships and inclusive planning that brings together disparate elements of local food economies.

The guide was prepared by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and the NC Growing Together Project, as part of an effort to create supportive business environments for farmers and food businesses across North Carolina.

Please contact Emily Edmonds for specific questions about the local government guide and toolkit.

Download the PDF version of this guide here.
This guide can be spiral-bound in full color for an estimated cost of $30.00 at most commercial printing outlets.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Planning & Land Use

A. Uniting Planners & Communities through Local Food Systems
B. Calculating Economic Impact
C. Common Topics

  • Community Gardens
  • Urban Agriculture
  • Roadside Stands & Mobile Markets

D. Comprehensive and Strategic Plans
E. Farmland Protection Planning & Tools

  • Farmland Protection Plans & Funding
  • Present-Use Value Programs
  • Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VAD)
  • Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural Districts (EVAD)
  • City/County Memorandum of Understanding for VADs and EVADs
  • Conservation Easements

F. Land Use & Zoning Ordinances

  • Municipal and County Regulations of Land Uses
  • Municipalities and Agriculture
  • Municipal and County Zoning Ordinances
  • Bona Fide Farm Exemptions
  • General Ordinances

G. Emerging Strategies

  • Conservation Development & Agrihoods
  • Support for Food Trucks & Niche Food Businesses
  • Military Food Systems Planning Initiatives

3. Economic & Community Development

A. Incorporating Local Food Systems into Economic & Community Development Strategies

  • Innovation in Planning & Economic Development
  • Calculating Economic Impact
  • Expanding local food supply chain infrastructure
  • Analyzing local food supply chain infrastructure
  • Creating agricultural economic development programs and positions
  • Local government and local food procurement

B. Local food economies as a business recruitment tool

  • Community & business culture

C. Local food economies as a business retention & expansion tool

  • Wholesale Markets for Local Foods
  • Local Foods in Groceries, Convenience Stores, and Corner Markets
  • Local Foods in Institutions
  • Vacant Land for Food Systems
  • Agritourism

D. Local food economies as a business creation tool

  • Small business & entrepreneurship development
  • Microlending & access to capital

4. Collaborating for Growth

5. Summary & Further Resources

6. Footnotes

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1. Introduction

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Local Food Economies in North Carolina

Developing a local food economy – the system within which food is produced, distributed, and purchased within the same region – has been recognized as a way to revitalize traditional agricultural communities and energize urban, peri-urban, and rural landscapes alike. Support for these systems includes the creation, retention, expansion, and recruitment of farms and food-related businesses in a town, county, or region, with a resulting positive impact on a variety of industries, including production, processing, storage, transportation, distribution, and wholesale and retail sale.

Developing local food economies is an important tool for protecting farmland and natural resources, and maximizing the environmental, social, and economic health of a community.1 The range in sizes and types of businesses in a local food system diversifies the economic base, a characteristic of a resilient economy—one that can prevent, withstand, and quickly recover from major disruptions.2 Local food economies are also self-regenerating, with businesses linked along the supply chain, purchasing local inputs and selling to local consumers.

AG in NC graphic
For the purposes of this document, local is defined as food that is grown, raised, caught, and consumed within North Carolina; local agencies may adopt a narrower definition which meets their requirements and interests.

Local governments have a unique opportunity to work with the many experts within the food system – including Cooperative Extension agents, Soil & Water Conservation District staff & boards, planners, economic developers, and community groups – to promote a sustainable food system within their city, county, or region. There are multiple options for flexible local ordinances and incentives; citizen-led food councils; and small business development programs that rely on local governments’ existing partners. As local governments begin to involve themselves in the work of developing local food economies, the process can create stronger partnerships with existing agencies and new non-traditional partnerships that help ensure the health and economic vitality of both rural and urban areas.

This guide focuses primarily on North Carolina examples of local and regional governments and community food advocates creating innovative local food economies. It serves as a tool to connect planners, economic developers, and other local government officials and administrators with resources for increasing the development of local food economies. The guide has three sections:

  • Planning & Land Use for Local Food Economies: planning, land use, and zoning issues that directly impact farms, food businesses, and other contributors to the local food economy;
  • Economic & Community Development for Local Food Economies: strategies for the retention, creation, expansion, and recruitment of farm and food businesses; and
  • Collaborating for Growth: recommendations for non-traditional partnerships and inclusive planning that brings together disparate elements of local food economies.

Agriculture is the top industry in North Carolina, bringing in over $84 billion each year to the state’s economy.5 These revenues provide for more than 1/6 of the state’s labor and income, and make the state 8th in the nation for agricultural receipts.

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Agricultural Economic Development in North Carolina

Agricultural economic development (AED) addresses the creation, retention, expansion, and recruitment of agricultural and food-related businesses in a town, county, or region. AED projects are planned and implemented in conjunction with farmland preservation planning, strategic planning, and traditional economic development.4

Agricultural economic development can provide important institutional support for local food systems, and can help connect farmers and food entrepreneurs to resources at the local level. Communities are using a number of different strategies to incorporate the goals of AED into their strategic and comprehensive plans, and taking steps to create policies that support innovative AED programs:

  • Create a Farmland Protection Plan and its associated advisory board;
  • Include an agriculture or food system goal in the Comprehensive or Strategic Plan and assign resources;
  • Adopt a specific policy statement through planning, such as inclusion of specific regulations in the UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) or individual ordinances;
  • Establish a department or division with this focus and allotted budget funds;
  • Incorporate AED into the economic development strategy or plan; and/or
  • Establish cross-sector partnerships, such as public-private partnerships or nonprofits, focused on this work – typically through an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with other partners.

Currently, there are three Agricultural Economic Developers in the state, funded and authorized in different ways, reflecting the many factors that inform decisions about establishing AED. There are at least ten counties or cities that are researching how to establish and fund AED at the local and regional government level.

  1. Mark Williams, Henderson County | Focus: Apple Industry | www.agrihc.org
    2020 Plan: Download PDFThis position was created as part of the comprehensive planning process, which emphasized the importance of the apple industry in Henderson County, and was county-funded. Mr. Williams directed the recruitment of Bold Rock Hard Cider company to Henderson County as a new market for the apple industry.
  2. Dawn Jordan, Polk County | Focus: Markets and Mill Spring Ag Center | www.polkcountyfarms.org
    Polk County: ( External Link ).Ms. Jordan works in the first county to have an AED, a position created in 2011 in response to a land use planning process to balance preservation of farmland and natural resources with second-home and tourism development. The position works closely with small and mid-scale farmers, market gardens, and community advocates of local food systems.
  3. Mike Ortosky, Orange County | Focus: Regional Markets & Processing | www.growinorangenc.com
    Piedmont Food & Agriculture Processing Center: ( External Link ).Orange County created this position as a response to the impending loss of a university research farm and the need for county-level control of a community certified kitchen incubator. Mr. Ortosky focuses on creating new markets for farmers to encourage their continued farmland use, and on preservation and recruitment of additional food businesses.

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Brief Research Overview on Local Foods

A growing body of research links local food systems to a variety of positive economic and health-related outcomes. Studies have found that supply chains linking local production to local consumption generate greater revenues for producers, with net income ranging from equal to more than seven times the revenue gained from conventional national or global supply chains.5 Local food systems can also reduce farmland loss by creating opportunities for the next generation of farm owners. The economic benefits extend to the broader community, with numerous studies finding that food produced and consumed locally creates more economic activity in an area than does comparable food produced and imported from a non-local source.6 The greater impact of local food systems on farm and community businesses (through increased revenues and employment) is due both to the transactions that occur between local consumers and local farms and to the impact of keeping local dollars in the community to be re-spent at other businesses. The economic impact is further enhanced when inputs to the farm are sourced locally and the farm outputs are used by food entrepreneurs for value-added products. Recent research on local food systems uses the tools of economic development professionals, including IMPLAN, to estimate economic impacts. USDA’s Toolkit for Calculating the Economic Impact of Local Foods (accessed at https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/local-food-economies/) is the first national analysis tool for examining how local food businesses and projects contribute to economic impact.

Local food systems can also improve the health of community members. Epidemiological studies have found correlations between higher levels of direct-to-consumer farm sales and lower levels of mortality, obesity, and diabetes.7 These findings supplement qualitative studies that have linked more direct connections to food (via direct contact with the farmers who produce the food, such as through a farmers market or a Consumer Supported Agriculture buying program, via participation in a community garden, or living in the household of a community gardener) to improvements in eating behaviors8 and enhanced social activity and civic engagement.9

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The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) (http://www.cefs.ncsu.edu/) develops and promotes food and farming systems that protect the environment, strengthen local communities, and provide economic opportunities in North Carolina and beyond. It was established in 1994 by North Carolina State University (NCSU) and North Carolina Agricultural & Technological State University (N.C. A&T) along with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). These founding partners work together and with state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, farmers, and residents.

CEFS’ key focus is the establishment of sustainable local food systems, and helped lead North Carolina to its first major statewide multiagency action through implementation of its statewide guide, From Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina’s Sustainable Local Food Economy. In addition to a strong and diverse field research program on its 2,000-acre facility in Goldsboro, N.C., CEFS manages core programs including youth and student food activism and advocacy; student-led research and real-world experience; procurement, outreach, and education efforts; and programs that increase the market opportunities for small- and mid-scale farms, fisheries, and producers across the state.

These and other integrated initiatives create infrastructure, organizational systems, and policies that support the development of strong, economically viable food systems, deliver equitable access and benefits to vulnerable populations, improve health, and provide a replicable, sustainable model for system-wide change and long-term impact.

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2. Planning & Land Use

Section Table of Contents

A. Uniting Planners & Communities through Local Food Systems
B. Calculating Economic Impact
C. Common Topics

  • Community Gardens
  • Urban Agriculture
  • Roadside Stands & Mobile Markets
  • Farmers’ Markets

D. Comprehensive and Strategic Plans
E. Farmland Protection Planning & Tools

  • Farmland Protection Plans & Funding
  • Present-Use Value Programs
  • Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VAD)
  • Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural Districts (EVAD)
  • City/County Memorandum of Understanding for VADs and EVADs
  • Conservation Easements

F. Land Use & Zoning Ordinances

  • Municipal and County Regulations of Land Uses
  • Municipalities and Agriculture
  • Municipal and County Zoning Ordinances
  • Bona Fide Farm Exemptions
  • General Ordinances

G. Emerging Strategies

  • Conservation Development & Agrihoods
  • Support for Food Trucks & Niche Food Businesses
  • Military Food Systems Planning Initiatives

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A. Uniting Planners & Communities through Local Food Systems

For the past several decades, traditional planning approaches rarely accounted for food systems. As the American Planning Association (APA) has noted1, a number of factors affected this decision, including the perceived gap between the built environment and food systems; a general feeling that the food system was working without interference; and a perception that planning’s emphasis on public goods and infrastructure didn’t include food production or consumption.

In recent years, however, planners have become more interested in food systems at the local, regional, and national level. A number of factors have heightened interest in food system planning, including the need for emergency planning for crisis situations, health and wellness initiatives directed at obesity, increases in food insecurity and hunger, consumer and community interest in knowing the origin of their food, as well as the growing influence of food policy councils across the country.

Planners are uniquely positioned to support initiatives to increase access to healthy and local foods while supporting farmers and food businesses. While food policy councils are effective community advocates, and agricultural advisory boards of all kinds can provide specific resources to local governments, planners have the capacity and skills needed to help communities address long-term, big-picture food system goals. As the APA acknowledges, planners are trained in “the analysis of the land use and spatial dimensions of communities, externalities and hidden costs of potential policy decisions, interdisciplinary perspectives on community systems like the food system, and ways to link new goals like community food systems into sustainable and healthy community goals.” 2

These are valuable skills for those working on local food initiatives, which often led by farmers, community members, urban gardeners, and others whose experience in government is limited. Working with such groups provides planners an opportunity to utilize their skills at a systems-planning level while also connecting one-on-one with citizens across a broad range of interests.

Planning for agriculture at the local and regional level can have positive impacts across a broad range of planning goals:

  • Meeting community requests for food access and farmer support;
  • Revitalizing downtown areas with farmers markets and food businesses;
  • Providing new uses for vacant land;
  • Increasing community health through access to food;
  • Protecting farmland and managing increased demands for development;
  • Improving pollution & water quality through working lands protection;
  • Capitalizing on economic benefits through increased markets for local and regional products;
  • Building infrastructure, such as water and sewer and broadband, and infrastructure business opportunities, such as cold storage or distribution; and
  • Other natural, built, and human resource development associated with long-term strategies for community success.3, 4

Innovation in Planning & Economic Development: Integrating food systems and planning provides innovative opportunities at the leading edge of the planning sector, especially in regionalism, multi-disciplinary planning, and applied technology. Regionalism, an economic development and planning approach that considers needs across a defined geographic area which includes multiple units of local government, allows for long-term market-based partnerships as well as coordinated strategies for development.5 By its nature, agriculture is a regional enterprise, and offers communities a way to work together on important development issues. Food systems also bring together a diverse group of stakeholders from multiple industries and motivations (see the Collaborating for Success section of this document). This allows planners to utilize multiple approaches, particularly from economic development, health, and design partners, to solve complex problems that affect every population within a community. Food systems planning and development is at the leading edge of innovation in public service, offering multiple ways for unique solutions to be implemented. Technological solutions, from cloud-based farm data management to app-based food ordering to gleaning matches between farms and food banks, provide capacity and capability for real-world solutions.

This section discusses approaches that planners can use to outline long-term goals for food systems within a community, as well as specific policy tools such as those related to farmland preservation and zoning. Additional resources can be found through the American Planning Association and through the SUNY Buffalo Growing Food Connections Project, which brings together urban and regional planning resources with local food systems research and implementation projects.

*Authors’ Note: Pending final decision, this guide has been prepared without accounting for the proposed changes to planning & development regulation in the North Carolina General Assembly Local Government Regulatory Reform Bill( Download PDF ). House Bill 548 has been under discussion and review since 2015, but has been referred to committee at the end of the June 2016 session (see here for the UNC School of Government analysis of the bill’s various changes to regulatory authority). Planners and developers should monitor changes created by this bill, as they will impact many of the regulatory and enforcement capacities of local governments. Many of these changes could impact how agriculture and food systems are integrated into ordinances and planning strategies.

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B. Calculating Economic Impact

Central to the argument that investment in a local food system will generate economic dividends for the local economy is the idea that food dollars spent locally will experience a multiplier effect as the local farmers, in turn, purchase intermediate inputs, labor, and capital from within the localized economy (O’Hara, 2013)6. Though this theory is fundamental to the ongoing conversation among economic developers and local food advocates, available findings are difficult to generalize across a diverse set of communities and economies.

Studies that find positive economic impacts of local food systems planning and improvement are place-specific and operate on the basis of layered assumptions within a very specific input-output model or REMI analysis (Ahearn, Brown, Goetz, & Liang, 2014; Conner, 2008; O’Hara, 2013)7. As O’Hara asserted in a previous review of the types of studies conducted on economic impacts of local food systems, the existing body of work offers insight but requires further development of data collection tools, research over expanded geographies, and quantification of local food systems economic indicators that extend beyond simplistic measurement of jobs (O’Hara, 2013).

In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a toolkit designed to help states and regions examine the economic impact of local food systems projects.8 The toolkit provides calculation tools for judging economic impact on a potential or completed project. It requires refinement of large datasets, such as those available through IMPLAN, for a region or state’s industry data. One such example was recently performed for four counties in California. The study found that the regional output multiplier for farms selling product direct-to-consumers was 1.86, compared to 1.42 for the region’s producers who were not involved in direct marketing. This means that the direct marketers generate $0.44 additional output within the Sacramento Region for every dollar of production, when compared with producers not engaged in direct marketing. The greater economic impact of direct market producers is primarily attributable to the much larger percentage of their inputs being purchased within the region (89 percent versus 45 percent).9

Calculating economic impact is complicated by the fact that the terms “local food” and “local food systems” do not have standard definitions. As evidenced by the food cluster work in Vermont (Rosenfeld, 2010), the evaluation of an existing food system must first overcome the challenge of a classification system that does not fully capture food system work.10 For example, value-added production, agritourism, food in arts and culture, and agricultural operations linked to clothing and energy all required creative accommodation by the Vermont researchers when they were developing industry profiles.

The toolkit is useful for strategic and long-term evaluation of projects, but requires an investment in data tools and the resources needed to refine that data. On the website, you’ll find dozens of tools and resources on the topic. It is recommended that local and regional governments consider partnering with university researchers who can assist in the data collection and analysis (and may already own licenses for the large datasets and computation tools needed to successfully utilize the toolkit).

Visit https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/local-food-economies/ for more information on the USDA toolkit and contact their project team for additional information and advice.

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C. Common Topics

Community Gardens

Community gardens are defined as any public or private facility used for the cultivation of edible and ornamental plants by more than one person.11 Careful planning is important to locate community gardens outside environmentally sensitive areas and within walking distance of local residents. Advocates also need to consider many issues including zoning, land ownership for long-term availability of the garden site, business licenses required for selling of produce, and emerging federal health and safety laws on agricultural products. Community gardens in low-income areas can be especially valuable, as they provide lower-cost fresh and healthy food to residents who may not have access to a grocery store, cannot afford high prices for fresh produce, and have difficulty accessing a farmers market.

In North Carolina, many citizen groups, non-profit organizations, and state agencies have collaborated to promote and establish community gardens. Community gardens often benefit from state agencies and from the experience of leaders and staff in county and municipal parks and recreation offices, Cooperative Extension offices, health departments, community organizations, and local schools. Local garden clubs can provide key volunteers and expertise to community garden efforts, and often take the lead on implementing these projects.

For example, North Carolina Community Garden Partners began with a partnership between the NC Division of Public Health, the NC Cooperative Extension Service, and community garden advocates across the state. Together the partners have created a website, social media site, gardening primer, and community garden listserv, and the group hosts regular meetings and workgroups to foster its mission of increasing the number of successful and sustainable community gardens in North Carolina.

Another promising initiative was started in 2011, when the North Carolina Recreation and Parks Association partnered with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina to establish Nourishing NC, an initiative with the objective of establishing a community garden in every county in North Carolina by 2013. As of 2016, only 7 counties do not have a reported community garden on the list. This initiative was one of the “game changer” ideas resulting from the 2010 CEFS Farm to Fork initiative (https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/archive/farm-to-fork-statewide-initiative/).

Resources for Community Gardens

  • A 2011 Raleigh, N.C. report providing guidance and suggested zoning ordinance changes to allow community gardens across the city: Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens in the City of Raleigh Download PDF
  • The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity created a set of model land use policies to help communities create gardens: Download PDF
  • The 2015 APA guide to community food system assessments( External Link ).
  • The American Community Gardening Association’s website offers comprehensive information on community gardens( External Link ).
  • The NC Community Garden Partners( External Link ) website and the community gardens website hosted by the NC Cooperative Extension Service provide resources on community gardens and links to gardens throughout North Carolina.( External Link ).
  • The NC Division of Public Health Physical Activity & Nutrition Branch and the NC Cooperative Extension Service created an online community garden primer ( External Link ). Additional resources are available at East Smart Move More NC ( External Link ).
  • Also see: Cultivating Community Gardens: The Role of Local Governments in Creating Healthy, Livable Neighborhoods, from the Local Government Commission. ( External Link ).
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Urban Agriculture

Urban farms within cities can be small in acreage, and the food can either be shared or sold. Some farms set up a formal sales operation to distribute wholesale to restaurants, while others sell through direct-to-consumer channels such as farmers markets (often on site) or through a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) system. Urban farms provide more than just working green space for city dwellers: they can also be employment and value-added entrepreneurial activities for residents and a municipal revenue source based on the sales tax levied on farm products sold there.12 Will Allen’s Growing Power model (growingpower.org), combining urban farming with training and technical assistance to community members to learn sustainable practices for growing, processing, marketing, and distributing food, has been adopted in a number of urban centers and continues to spread.13

Urban farms offer many benefits such as access to local fresh food, jobs, and educational opportunities. A study conducted in 2008 highlighted the benefits of middle- to large-scale urban agriculture and provided urban planners with six existing models of urban farms across the country.14 Bio-intensive production methods, often used in land-scarce urban settings, offer a range of benefits, including a more than 50-percent reduction in water usage and purchased fertilizers, a 100 percent increase in soil fertility, and production of two to six times more food compared to conventional methods.15 Some farm products sold in their original state by producers may be exempt from sales tax, depending on the state and the size of the farm. In North Carolina, this exemption was repealed and amended in 2014, and farmers must meet particular requirements to be exempt from sales tax (N.C.G.S. 105-164.13).16

In the past few years, the issue of urban chickens has been brought up in many town meetings, with advocates noting the benefits of fresh eggs, free natural fertilizer, and natural pest control.17 As of 2016, at least 31 N.C. municipalities and counties allowed “backyard chickens.” In some cities, groups host events to promote backyard chickens as agritourism, such as Raleigh’s annual “Tour d’ Coop.