Researchers estimate the potential of urban farming

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the food supply chain break down, and urban agriculture could be one solution. But what types of people are most likely to participate in urban farming? This is one of the questions Carola Grebitus, associate professor of food industry management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness, considered as the basis for a few research papers.

By Claire Curry

As the global population increases — the United Nations projects that it will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 — so does the demand on the world's food supply. Urban agriculture is a solution that can ensure sustainability, improve food access as well as the economics of its production and transport costs, promote healthier diets, and even impact the weather and climate — in a good way. It also helps meet today's consumers’ increasing demand for farm-to-table products. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve also seen the food supply chain break down, and urban agriculture could be one solution.

For all these reasons, over the past six years, the current and future impact of urban farming has driven interdisciplinary research by a collaborative team from Arizona State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation funded the research with two grants totaling nearly $2 million. Some of the outcomes are from several studies and findings published in scholarly journals, and this work has set a foundation for continuing research.

The team included scholars from ASU's School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, the Urban Climate Research Center, and the W. P. Carey School of Business, and looked at multiple aspects of urban farming in the Phoenix area, mainly. For example, Project Director and Distinguished Professor Alex Mahalov, and Francisco Salamanca Palou, assistant research professor in ASU's School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences, examined air temperature differences in the Phoenix metropolitan area, an urban heat island. Through computational modeling, they considered how the temperature might change in different scenarios.

"The temperature in the city is hotter than in more rural areas," Mahalov explains. "How can we quantify it and mitigate it? Maybe if we paint all of the roofs white, we could reduce the temperature by several degrees."

The researchers studied how many gardens exist in Phoenix and where land is available to create new ones. In addition to exploring environmental factors, they also considered dollars and cents: the economics of running urban farms, consumer perceptions of farming and locally grown produce, and marketing strategies that could make them successful and profitable.

The business of urban farms

What types of people are most likely to participate in urban agriculture? Would consumers pay more for local produce grown on urban farms? Do people who prefer organic foods consider produce from urban farms to be natural?

These are some questions that Carola Grebitus, associate professor of food industry management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness, considered as the basis for a few research papers, including the most recent "College-Age Millennials' Preferences for Food Supplied by Urban Agriculture," published in May 2020 in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. Grebitus co-authored the paper with colleague Iryna Printezis, clinical assistant professor of supply chain management.

We focused on millennials because they are the consumers of the future and the largest generation yet.

– Associate Professor of Food Industry Management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness Carola Grebitus

Using two online choice experiments, Printezis and Grebitus investigated the consumers' willingness to pay for fresh food and processed food sold at urban farms. Findings show that college-age millennials are willing to pay a premium for local food but are not willing to pay premiums for food sold at farmers' markets. They also discount it when it's purchased directly from an urban farm.


"Perhaps they think they should pay less because purchasing directly from the urban farm cuts out the middle man," says Grebitus. "This can be a problem for the urban farmer. How can we incorporate the farm in an urban area if the consumers expect a discount? They like local, they like organic, but it becomes tricky when you want to have higher premiums at an urban farm" if the consumers are not willing to pay for it. 

What's more, the research suggests that urban farms could benefit from targeted promotions that emphasize the value of purchasing through this channel. They might also supply their products through other channels, such as grocery stores.

Consumer behavior and urban agriculture

To further explore what it takes for urban farms to succeed, Grebitus and her colleagues delved deeply into consumer behavior. In the paper "Relationship between Consumer Behavior and Success of Urban Agriculture," published in Ecological Economics, the researchers considered consumer preferences to purchase or grow their food at urban farms.

A survey of 300 Generation Y consumers revealed that psychological and personal factors influence consumers' intentions to participate in urban agriculture.

"Among other factors, subjective knowledge regarding urban agriculture and a favorable attitude toward urban farms increases the likelihood of buying and growing products at urban farms," their paper concludes. What's more, they found that females and older consumers are more likely to grow their produce.

"Some consumers want to go to the urban farm but don't want to grow food themselves while others want to grow food because they enjoy gardening, want to save money, or be more independent," Grebitus says.

Organic and natural products

Another paper published in Choices, a publication put out by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, looked at the importance of perceived naturalness to the success of urban farming. Results revealed that consumers who view organic production and urban farming as natural have a strong preference for local food.

Urban farmers could benefit from catering to consumers who prefer organic food and who consider urban farms to be a natural way of producing food, the researchers agreed.

Another paper that further explores consumer perceptions of urban farming published in June marks the sixth paper borne from the six-year interdisciplinary project. In the paper, "Consumers' Perception of Urban Farming," published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, the number of positive associations in categories such as environment, society, economy, food, and attributes were higher than negative associations. The researchers concluded that the findings are encouraging that consumers would be likely to accept urban farming in cities, but further studies are needed to understand consumer perceptions better.

Grebitus says the biggest surprise in her research was that the willingness to pay was negative. "People tend to glorify farmers' markets," she says. "The grocery store is not perceived as positively. But we tested willingness to pay for tomatoes and pasta sauce, and people still prefer the grocery store more. It's convenient, and it's cheap."

What does the future hold for urban farming? While urban agriculture makes it possible to bring fresh local produce to city residents, more consumer education is needed to increase awareness of all of the positive advantages.

“There are several advantages of urban farming," explains Mahalov. "It will improve the temperature locally, provide more green spaces, improve food access, and it's good for health."

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