The Farmers' Market Myth

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Most people think farmers' markets are more expensive than supermarkets—but studies don't always support that conclusion. In fact, they're often cheaper.

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It's getting harder and harder to be an elitist these days.

We're all familiar with the accepted gospel: Only well-heeled food snobs can afford the exorbitant prices charged for those attractively displayed baby greens and heirloom tomatoes at farmers' markets, while those who can't afford such greener-than-thou food-purchasing decisions must paw through limp broccoli, wilted lettuce, and tennis-ball tomatoes at supermarket produce departments.

It may come as a surprise that there have been virtually no formal studies to support this widely accepted contention, and the few studies that have been conducted call its veracity into question.

In one study, non-organic farmers' market cantaloupe, cucumbers, lettuce, and peas were better buys than their supermarket counterparts.

A report released earlier this year by Jake Robert Claro, a graduate student at Bard College's Center for Environmental Policy who did the study for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, found that prices at farmers' markets for conventionally grown produce items were lower than they were at supermarkets. For organic items, farmers' markets beat grocery stores every time hands down.

"We're starting to see enough competition among vendors at farmers' markets that the prices are becoming competitive," Claro said in an interview.

Claro organized a five-member team that collected price information from 10 farmers' markets and 10 conventional supermarkets serving the same towns in Vermont during the summer of 2010. The group compared costs for a dozen items: blueberries, cantaloupe, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggs, bell peppers, lettuce, potatoes, peas, string beans, squash, and tomatoes.

Non-organic farmers' market cantaloupe, cucumbers, lettuce, and peas were better buys than their supermarket counterparts. With the exception of eggs and potatoes, the other non-organic farmers' market items surveyed were between 10 and 20 percent more expensive. Conventional eggs were 43 percent more expensive and potatoes 58 percent more expensive—differences that Claro said were expected, given the economies of scale industrial-sized egg and potato producers enjoy.

Astoundingly, organic items at farmers' markets were nearly 40 percent cheaper than they were at neighboring supermarkets.

Claro's study reinforces the findings of other groups looking into pricing at farmers' markets. In 2007, Stacey Jones, an economics professor at the University of Seattle, had her students compare costs of 15 items at a farmers' market and a nearby supermarket. The farmers' market was slightly less expensive. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture compared prices of conventional food in four Iowa cities and found that the farmers' market prices were often equal to or lower than those at grocery stores.

"It's promising to see that regardless of the region, these studies are holding up," Claro said. "This trend is going to grow stronger. Maybe that will put the elitist perception to rest."

Now, if only it will stop raining long enough for the farmers up here in the northeast to get out and plant something to sell.

Image: peyri/flickr

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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