Understanding Farmers’ Market Prices: How to spend wisely and get the most out of your dollar while shopping the market

Affordability has always been an important aspect of farmers’ market shopping. One of the basic ideas behind direct marketing is that by cutting out middlemen like wholesalers and retailers, customers can get a better deal on fresh, high quality produce, and farmers can set fair prices because they are able to retain every dollar they receive from customers.

Price Comparison Study
We sometimes hear customers say that they find farmers’ market prices are too high, and that many items are not affordable for people on a tight budget. Given the Ecology Center’s longstanding commitment to making healthy food accessible to people of all income levels, we take these comments seriously. Spurred by customer remarks, we undertook a pricing study last summer to see where prices in our markets stood in comparison to local retailers such as Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, and Safeway. We found that on average, prices for organic produce at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets were equal to or less than organic produce prices found at nearby grocery stores. We also found that our organic produce is priced similarly to that of other farmers’ markets in the region.

Prioritizing Organics
It’s no secret that organic prices tend to be higher than prices for industrially produced foods. The main reasons for this are the higher labor costs associated with organic farming and the increased cost of natural inputs in comparison to petroleum-based chemical inputs. Of the 57 farms that sell at our markets over the course of the year, 40 are certified organic, and many others farm using organic practices but do not go through the certification process. Our emphasis on and commitment to small, organic farmers means that prices at our markets may look higher overall than they do at supermarkets, where organics do not represent the vast majority of the produce section. And our prices may seem higher than some other area farmers’ markets, which have many fewer vendors selling organic produce.

Current federal policy set in the 2008 Farm Bill creates significant price differences between organic and industrial foods. A majority of the funding for agricultural research and technical assistance goes towards industrial farmers, as opposed to organic farmers. Furthermore, most organic farmers have to pay a 5% surcharge on the Farm Bill’s Crop Insurance Program, because the government considers organic farming to be more “risky.” In addition, the Crop Insurance Program specifies that when organic growers suffer a loss, they will be reimbursed for the conventional (lower) rather than the organic (higher) crop price. It’s also worth mentioning that fruit and vegetable growers do not receive federal crop subsidies, whereas growers of commodity crops like corn and soy do. So federal policy not only encourages organic prices to be higher, it also keeps prices artificially low for processed foods containing many corn and soy-based ingredients.

We make a point of giving priority to organic farmers because we believe that organic farming practices are healthier for consumers, farm laborers, and the environment. We find that consumers overwhelmingly appreciate these efforts. In fact, as a part of a consumer study we conducted in March 2011, we asked shoppers, “What products would you buy if they were sold in this market?” A majority (55%) of respondents said that they wanted to see more organic fruits and vegetables at market. For those shoppers who are concerned about pesticide residue, but can’t always afford the higher prices associated with organic produce, we recommend checking out the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This online resource helps people avoid exposure to pesticides by sharing which fruits and vegetables tend to have the most pesticide residues.

How Prices Are Determined
There are so many factors, in addition to farm practices, that go into determining price for a particular crop. Weather and season can have an effect, as can cost of fuel, energy, and water, all of which vary depending on where a farm is located. For example, inclement weather may cause a farmer in a certain part of the State to lose a large portion of her crop; that farmer may charge more for that item at the farmers’ market to make up for the loss. In contrast, produce buyers at grocery stores can buy the same item from farms located in other parts of the State, country, or world that were not affected by the weather, and charge customers less. In general, farms selling at farmers’ markets set prices that reflect their true cost of production based on existing constraints in their particular region.

Carl Rosato, owner of Woodleaf Farm in Oroville, says, “Growing a crop to make a profit is the only way I can stay in farming. In a bumper year, I offer many more deals with blemished fruit and box prices. In a year like this one, the fruit harvest has been small, so there probably won’t be as much inexpensive fruit. My prices have remained about the same for almost ten years, even though other costs like gasoline and farm labor have risen dramatically. In farming, the better years help finance the poorer years.”

Rosato’s comment shines light on a key difference between retail businesses and farm businesses that direct market their products. In farming, there is a high level of financial risk because of potential losses due to weather, disease, and pest problems, which can cause farm income to fluctuate significantly from year-to-year. Retailers do not face this same level of financial risk, which may enable them to set consistently lower prices because they do not have to finance the poor years with the good ones. By buying direct from farms at the farmers’ market, a customer can be assured that they are enabling farmers to continue farming. Buying food in a retail food environment means that your dollars have less of an impact on ensuring a sustained, local food supply.

At farmers’ markets, the individual farmers and vendors set the prices. The direct marketing laws that govern Certified Farmers’ Markets do not allow the market associations like the Ecology Center to set prices. While shopping at the farmers’ market, if you find products that you feel are overpriced, you can give that feedback directly to the vendor. At the heart of the direct marketing model, the farmer and the customer have a direct, dynamic relationship. The immediate feedback on pricing and other issues is part of that.

In the early days, farmers’ markets and produce stands were secondary venues where farmers sold the produce that they could not sell to wholesalers: produce that was too ugly, too large, too small, or too ripe for distributors. Today, most farmers who sell at urban farmers’ markets consider the farmers’ market their primary sales venue, and bring their most premium, high quality produce directly to customers rather than wholesalers. This can also mean premium pricing, which can be at odds with customer’s perception and expectations based on the older model.

Externalized Costs
There are many hidden benefits to shopping at a farmers’ market that increase the overall value of the food bought there. These benefits include personal health and happiness, healthier ecosystems, worker and consumer safety, and reduced dependency on petroleum. Industrially produced food that you purchase at the supermarket can have many “externalized costs” associated with it. Externalized costs are costs that are not factored in to the price of the actual product. At this link, Marion Nestle details the externalized costs associated with industrialized food production, including the human costs, environmental costs, safety costs, and health care costs. Impoverished and sickened farmworkers, polluted drinking water, dead zones in the ocean, widespread e.coli outbreaks, and landfills filled with plastic packaging are but a few of the costs that are not figured in to the prices at supermarkets. We prefer to think about the overall value of food using “true cost pricing,” a system that looks at the upstream and downstream, positive and negative impacts of a product throughout its life cycle from production to consumption to waste disposal. Given this system, farmers’ market shoppers are actually receiving a “higher value” item for the price they pay than they would in a grocery store.

Money-Saving Tips
Though prices for certain items may be high for a variety of reasons, there are many good deals to be found at the farmers’ market, and also many good reasons to spend a little bit more to support your local, organic farmer if you have the ability to do so.
Here are some tips to help you navigate the market and get the most out of your dollar every time you shop:

1.    Buy in bulk and share with a friend. Farmers are often willing to give customers a deal when they buy in larger quantities. For example, you can split a flat of strawberries with a group of friends and receive a lower price per basket. You can also buy in bulk and stock up on items that store well, like rice, nuts, dried fruits and vegetables, flour, dry beans, and olive oil.
2.    Ask farmers if they have “seconds,” “pie boxes,” or “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables with slight blemishes are often just as delicious on the inside as visually perfect produce. Ask farms if they offer discounts on these “cosmetically challenged” items.
3.    Buy produce at peak season. Most produce, especially stone fruit, is more expensive at the beginning and the end of its season. If you wait until fruit is at peak production you will generally get a better deal, and a tastier fruit.
4.    Walk the market before you buy. Compare prices at the various stalls before making your purchases. You may find better deals, or tastier produce, at different stands on any given day. If you are looking for ingredients for a particular recipe, it’s a good idea to be open to making substitutions for expensive or out-of-season items. Vendors can often help you choose which items would work well in a recipe if they don’t have exactly what you’re looking for.
5.    Eat whole plants from root to shoot. Many plants have multiple parts that are edible. Root crops like beets, turnips, and even yams, have edible leaves in addition to edible roots. Ask farmers which parts of their crops are edible; you may be able to get two meals out of one purchase!
6.    Follow us on Twitter as we often post the best deals and exciting seasonal arrivals. You can also ask market managers and other shoppers where the good deals can be found.
7.    Shop at the end of the market day. While the selection may be greatly reduced as many farmers sell out of their most popular items, what they have left they may be willing to offer at a discount rather than packing it back to the farm.
8.    Get to know your market. The more you shop a particular market, the more you’ll know where and when the deals are found.

EBT, WIC, and Farm Fresh Choice
The Ecology Center has long been a leader in seeking additional approaches to making fresh foods available to people of all income levels. Through our Farm Fresh Choice program we have operated produce stands that sell fresh, local, organic foods at wholesale prices to parents at subsidized afterschool programs since 2001. We pioneered the use of EBT and WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks at all four of our farmers’ markets and have helped hundreds of markets across the state accept and promote EBT sales. We accept WIC Fruit & Vegetable checks at the South Berkeley Farmers’ Market every Tuesday – the first farmers’ market in Alameda County to do so. If you’re not sure how to use your benefits at the farmers’ market, feel free to call us, email us, or stop by our farmers’ market information booth to ask us how. The Ecology Center Farmers’ Market program can be reached at 510-548-3333 or farmersmarkets@ecologycenter.org.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Farmers’ Market Prices: How to spend wisely and get the most out of your dollar while shopping the market

  1. Pingback: Farmers’ Market Shopping Tips | Advice From Nashville

  2. I am just starting my farming, and want to sell at Farmers markets, what items are you all buying and what are prices of these items? are there certain produce that is always sold out? Thank you!

    • Hi Teresa,

      Selling at certified Farmers’ Markets means you sell directly to customers, so you set the prices. What sells out at farmers’ markets varies a lot by seasonality and demand. We encourage you to visit our weekly farmers’ markets in Berkeley to learn more!

      Thanks for your interest.

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