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Study shows small farm success linked to networks

  • Tuesday, June 9, 2020

    A four-year study of small-scale and minority specialty-crop farmers in Maryland, Delaware and Tennessee shows those who play a prominent role in their social networks realize greater profits. 

    Supported by a half-million dollar USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant, the research can help farming groups and agricultural support organizations leverage networks to enhance farmers' success.  It aligns with NIFA's global food security challenge area, especially pertinent during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    “Small farmers and rural small businesses face no greater challenge or opportunity than that of achieving cost-effective access to consumers in urban and other markets,” said Dr. Stephan Tubene, associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and one of the co-project directors. 

    “The project draws on emerging insights from network science and applies them to farm-level research, extension activities and classroom education.  We found that a farmer can increase sales by 19% -25% by adding just one additional connection to their internal or social network,” Tubene said. 

    Tubene collected and analyzed data from farmers on the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland “due to the agro-ecological zone of the state.”  Both regions, he said, are known for growing high-value crops (hot peppers, eggplants, okra, amaranth, garden eggs, etc.) and are in a constant quest to diversify agricultural enterprises and expand produce sales into the Baltimore-Washington market corridor.

    Dr. Stephan Tubene

    Andy Wetherill of Delaware State University gathered information from Delaware farmers, while Drs. Fisseha Tegegne and Aditya Khanal of Tennessee State University collected Tennessee farmers' data.  Tegegne served as the principal director coordinating the project and Pennsylvania State University's Dr. Stephan Goetz assisted with the network analysis. 

    The research team worked with its respective Cooperative Extension units to identify farmer networks for agricultural production, marketing advice and sharing resources.  Tubene used a database of small farmers and ranchers maintained by UMES Extension along with contacts with farmers through small farm conferences and meetings organized by UMES' Small Farm Program.  

    Then, Tubene said, the relative importance of each farmer to the network - how central they were in the network or the number of connections each farmer has with other farmers - was determined.  

    Finally, the group analyzed whether being central in the network (“degree centrality”) influences the individual farms' economic performance. 

    “The degree that a person can communicate with other members of the network without having to go through other members (closeness centrality), the more easily they can share information about production, new technologies and crops, and marketing practices,” Tubene said.  

    “People who are sought out are more popular within the network, while people who serve as an intermediary between other farmers in the network (betweenness centrality) control the flow of information,” he said. 

    These measures of “centrality” showed that small farmers who have stronger connections have more access to information, which in turn can mean greater sales. 

    An article about the study can be found on the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development site here: https://www.foodsystemsjournal.org/index.php/fsj/article/view/804/790  

    Other contributors were Dr. Lan Li, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (formerly of Tennessee State University), and Dr. Yicheol Han, Korea Rural Economic Institute (formerly of Pennsylvania State University).


    Gail Stephens, agricultural communications and media associate, School of Agricultural & Natural Sciences, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, 410-621-3850, gcstephens@umes.edu