Pathways to Prosperity is an applied research and extension project that works to understand and support the development of community-driven approaches to developing healthy and sustainable rural economies. The project focuses on how communities can collaboratively develop local food processing facilities, branding and marketing campaigns, and other value-added agriculture strategies aimed at improving the profitability and economic viability of local farms and ranches.

It connects rigorous research with extension outreach to support the development of effective, collaborative approaches to strengthening the value-added food and agricultural sector in rural communities by developing their unique resources and amenities.

Asset-Based Opportunities for Rural Food and Agriculture Development

In the years since 2008, the U.S. economy has pulled itself back up, recovering many of the losses incurred during the Great Recession. Yet, despite the apparent progress, economic growth has not been distributed equally, leaving many rural communities struggling even in the midst of an apparently healthy economy.

Reversing this requires investing in a broad range of resources within rural communities, such as abundant natural resources, unique cultural characteristics, and strong social networks. Considered together, these diverse resources comprise the “wealth” of a community. Such “asset-based” approaches to rural development create opportunities for communities to employ their unique strengths as a basis for development.

One avenue for rural development is the creation of a local value-added agriculture sector. The value-added sector includes food and agricultural activities that enable farmers, ranchers, food processors, and other food-related businesses to benefit from consumer preferences for organic products, locally grown food, and other quality characteristics not available in conventional agriculture.(1) A strong, locally owned value-added sector allows rural communities to earn a larger share of agriculture sales rather than exporting that income to externally owned business.

(1) This definition is adapted from Lu and Dudensing (2015) and Diamond et al. (2014).

A Focus on Collaborative Pathways

Overwhelmingly, effective asset-based policy-making depends on public, private, nonprofit, and community members collaborating to design and implement local policies. This practice can promote democratic participation and accountability, strengthen the ability of communities to identify and collectively solve local problems, and make it possible for small communities to better identify and pool their resources.

Collaborative approaches to leveraging rural resources is what we term the “pathway to prosperity.” Within this perspective are four foundational assertions rooted in past research and practice.
  1. Rural communities can use assets to create wealth. Rural communities can use their unique combinations of resources to create more overall community wealth.
  2. Some resources are imprortant at different stages in the collaborative process. For instance, a rural community may be able to use its strong social networks in order identify available financial resources, etc. within the community.
  3. Collaboration is essential to the process of pooling and using resources. The more inclusive the collaboration, the more resources a community can potentially bring to bear on a problem.
  4. Effective collaboration rests on community values. Communal values that encourage community members to participate in and contribute to public processes are what we call “civicness.”

The pathways concept provides a starting place for the essential research questions that focus this project;
  • What types of assets are most prevalent in rural communities?
  • What combinations of those assets are associated with higher overall community wealth?
  • What sequences of those assets are associated with wealth creation?
  • How do rural communities use collaborative processes to leverage these assets?

Approach: Research and Outreach

The Pathways project combines research at both the community and national levels with extension and policy outreach to identify, verify, and disseminate effective, collaborative approaches to value-added sector development. This work starts with three research phases. These combine national-level analysis, on-the-ground exploration of collaborative practices in our partner communities, and focus groups with rural development practitioners from across the U.S. to identify promising strategies for value-added sector development.

National Asset Mapping
The first task of the Pathways project is to develop databases of measures for all assets that make up a community’s wealth and measures of the local value-add sector for every county in the U.S. using existing, publicly available information. These datasets serve two purposes:
  1. They indicate what assets are particularly common in rural communities and what value added agriculture development looks like nationally.
  2. They indicate how our partner communities are similar to, or different from, other rural communities and, as a result, how strategies used in our partner communities may be applicable elsewhere.

Partner Community Research
The second task of our project is to explore how collaborative approaches are used for value-added sector development in our partner communities – San Luis Valley, Colorado and Wayne County, Ohio – that provide long-standing, effective examples of collaborative approaches to value-added development. On-the-ground research allows us to dive deep into understanding how rural assets are used and what role collaboration plays in employing them.

  • Learn more about the San Luis Valley
    • Learn more about Wayne County, Ohio

    • Refining Our Findings at the National Level
      The final phase of the project returns to the national level to refine the findings from the first two phases. This involves drawing on the broad practitioner networks of our national partners to conduct nationally-diverse focus groups with experienced local food system and rural development practitioners. These focus groups explore how observations and analysis from our partner communities applies to rural communities elsewhere in the U.S.

      Extension and Outreach
      These three phases of research set the stage to support and advance collaborative approaches to value-added development in three ways;
      1. Use findings to strengthen future collaboration in our partner communities. The Pathways project aims to use the on-the-ground research and analysis conducted in our partner communities, combined with the resources of our NRAC partners, to support the collaborative value-added agriculture development in each of our partner communities.
      2. Creating usable resources for rural development practitioners. An important set of products of the Pathways project are tools and resources for practitioners in rural communities interested in developing and/or strengthening their collaborative approaches to value-added sector development.
      3. Informing rural development policy. Finally, the Pathways project provides briefing and policy materials for state and national policy makers on how they can support collaborative value-added sector development in rural communities.

Project Team Members

The Pathways to Prosperity project team is a collaboration between researcher and rural development practitioners at Ohio State University, Colorado State University, and American Farmland Trust.

Team and Partners

Jill K. Clark (PI)

Jill Clark’s teaching and research focuses on community and state governance of food systems, the policy process, and community engagement. She is a part of the leadership for the Ohio Food Policy Network and is an advisory board member for Johns Hopkins national Food Policy Network.


Becca Jablonski (Co-PI)

Becca Jablonski is an Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University. Her work evaluates the farm and ranch profitability impacts of non-commodity markets and the economic impacts of food system policies and programs.


Julia Freedgood (Co-PI)

Julia Freedgood is Assistant Vice President at American Farmland Trust where she oversees program and policy efforts to support land retention, transfer and access, as well as planning for agriculture and food systems. Currently she leads AFT’s “Farms for a New Generation” Initiative, which supports beginning farmers and ranchers in gaining access to affordable land.


Shoshanah Inwood (Co-PI)

Shoshanah Inwood is rural sociologist and an assistant professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University. Her research and Extension programs study both the role of communities in food system development and the household-level social and cultural processes that underlay the American food and agriculture system.


Aiden Irish (Project Coordinator)

Aiden Irish is a doctoral candidate in the Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. He studies rural collaborative policy making within local and regional food systems. Previously, he worked as a policy consultant for Waterkeeper’s Chesapeake and as a research associate for Ecoagriculture partners in Washington D.C.


National Resource Advisory Council Members

In addition to the project team, Pathways to Prosperity benefits from the commitment, expertise, and input of a distinctive team of advisors on the National Resource Advisory Council (NRAC). These partners bring insight and organizational resources to support the project and our partner communities on topics ranging from rural development and finance to food system governance.

Contact and Funding Information

Please share any concerns, questions, ideas or recommendations related to Pathways to Prosperity by contacting us at; or by mail at;
Pathways to Prosperity
310C Page Hall
1810 College Road North
Columbus, OH 43210

This work is supported by Innovation for Rural Entrepreneurs and Communities Program (grant no. 2019-68006-29681) from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

© John Glenn College of Public Affairs
Page Hall, 1810 College Road, Columbus, Ohio 43210

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