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The Cost of Eating Farmers Market to Table

We’ve always understood the Farmers Market as an unspoken agreement between the farmer and the consumer. The consumer’s side of the bargain is to buy directly from the farmer so that all the profits go directly to the farmer. In exchange, the consumer reaps the benefit of purchasing the cream of the crop at a reduced price. This symbiotic relationship provides that the farmers still reap a greater profit than had they supplied to a supermarket at wholesale, and the consumer enjoys superior, local produce at a discount.

Farmers Markets have grown increasingly popular and prolific. According to the USDA, there were only 4,093 Farmers Markets in 2005 and 8,268 Farmers Markets as of August 2014, more than double in only nine years. In response to their growing popularity, farmers have not been shy about raising their prices, especially in big cities and affluent suburbs.

Simultaneously, health food grocery stores have proliferated across the county. Whole Foods has become so popular in fact, it is driving traditional supermarkets out of business. Many independent health food stores are also thriving. One of the missions that Whole Foods and independent health food stores advertise is their sourcing of fresh, organic produce from local farmers—often the very same farmers who sell at farmers markets.

So we decided to compare what it cost to buy directly from farms at a farmers market versus buying their products at the priciest of health food stores. We always knew farmers market prices were high, but we found that in many cases the farm charged more for buying directly from them at a farmers market than a health food grocery store distributing their product.

Take, for example, Paradise Valley Produce, which sells its mixed greens for $8/lb at our local farmers market. Their mixed greens—equally fresh—can also be purchased at our very high-end local health food store for $6.98/lb. McClelland’s Dairy prices their sea salt butter at $12/8 oz. crock and $8/8 oz. wax paper round at our local farmers market. The same high-end local health food store sells these exact products at $9.98 and $6.19, respectively. Why would anyone pay more for an identical product? Then factor in the convenience of grocery stores: the ability to shop on your own time, buy other stuff too, park right out front, and avoid the throngs.

Farmers do need to make a living and renting stall space at a farmers market isn’t free. Where we live, farmers pay $40 per 10’x10’ space per day, plus an initial registration fee of $150. Of course it doesn’t pay for farmers to incur the expense of selling at farmers markets if people don’t frequent their stalls. To ensure the public does so, however, farmers need to offer an incentive. If farmers offer their products at competitive prices, people will be more likely to make the effort to buy directly from them. Let’s both live up to our end of the bargain.

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