The relationship between shopping behavior and local economy growth

Urban farming is a popular trend across America, thanks to a "buy local" movement gaining momentum in many cities. The associated health and ecological benefits of consuming farm-raised produce and products also are pushing the uptick in urban farming operations. Yet, just like the challenges faced by rural farmers, urban farmers must understand how to stimulate business to stay viable in metropolitan settings.

The ability to predict consumer behavior is key to an urban farm's success. What factors drive shoppers to buy directly from or even grow their own food at an urban farm and not purchase lettuce or potatoes at a chain supermarket supplied by a corporate distributor?

That's the root of research conducted by Carola Grebitus, assistant professor of food industry management, who investigates what influences urban farm consumption in her study titled, "Relationship Between Consumer Behavior and Success of Urban Agriculture."

Grebitus' study is part of a five-year national project funded with $4 million from both the Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation. Her work adds to a multidisciplinary effort associated with faculty in ASU's School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Cultivating urban agriculture

To get a better perspective on consumer decision-making related to urban agriculture participation, Grebitus polled 325 ASU undergraduate students via an online survey as part of her study. She focused on Generation Y because they are educated and informed, as well as they tend to be large consumers of urban farming products and account for the greatest percentage of those creating urban gardens, based on data from the National Gardening Association.

Grebitus delved into both the psychological and personal factors that influence the buying and growing behaviors in her research. In general, urban farming has a positive perception by the consuming public. Freshness, health, taste, and support of the environment and local economy are the main reasons that encourage consumers to shop at local farms.

One notable finding is that 60 percent of study participants revealed they are willing to buy produce from urban farms, with 44 percent more likely to grow their own produce at urban farming establishments, results that both support favorable millennial impressions of urban agriculture.

In addition, the more often consumers buy local food, the more likely they are to take part in urban farming, whether shopping or growing. Attitude also is a significant predictor of whether consumers will buy and grow at urban farms. And gender and age play an important role in urban farming participation, too, as study results showed women and older consumers are more inclined to grow their own produce at urban farms.

Roadblocks to farming in the city

But not all perceptions about urban farms are blooming with positivity - or fact. Distance traveled, time commitment, and too much work are barriers that prevent consumers from purchasing at urban farms. Likewise, a common belief is that urban farmers only use organic products and produce food that is more natural than other growers. And 30 percent of respondents feel urban agriculture is expensive and associated with higher costs, a misconception that dissuades many from shopping locally.

While results related to subjective knowledge (based on direct experience and interpreted by the experiencer) do show respondents feel informed and knowledgeable about general issues related to food sustainability and food supply, they do not feel informed about specific issues such as community gardens or other urban agriculture endeavors.

"It's not a surprising result," says Grebitus of the lack of knowledge surrounding urban agriculture. "Consumers want to buy local, fresh, and organic products, but in reality, they have little information about urban farming."

By studying the personal and psychological attributes that drive consumer behavior, particularly millennials who represent future buying trends, the results can give critical business and economic details that lead to sustainable urban farming - key shopping habits that could increase the number of citizens who take part in urban agriculture, according to Grebitus.

"Such investigation also reveals important strategic information to help farmers develop successful market-oriented activities that can attract and keep customers," Grebitus adds. Findings from the study, however, suggest more awareness is needed about consumer behavior and perception to improve the likelihood they'll shop and grow locally in an urban environment.

Many who grow up in the city have never held a shovel. It's important to put resources into education so those in the community become aware of urban agriculture and its benefits. 

— Carola Grebitus

How does your urban garden grow?

One way to promote the development and consumption of urban farming is to increase educational opportunities, such as community centers that focus on gardening and nutritional curriculums so consumers can separate fact from fiction about urban agricultural practices. It would be beneficial to teach more consumers the basics about urban farming and its societal and environmental advantages and impact, including how it contributes to food security, supports healthy dietary patterns, and improves local ecology and sustainability.

Grebitus herself exposes students to local agribusinesses in her introductory course, AGB 100, taught at the Morrison School of Agribusiness at ASU's W. P.  Carey School. "Make students more familiar and informed about food production," she says. "Many who grow up in the city have never held a shovel. It's important to put resources into education so those in the community become aware of urban agriculture and its benefits."

By Sally J. Clasen

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