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No one is going to correct you if you say that the farmers market is an expensive place to shop. It's so widely assumed that it's taken for fact—and a quick breeze through a market might even corroborate (especially if you're shopping for meat, though this article will focus on produce). I watched people walk through the stands at Union Square doing their assessments of price, picking up bunches of radishes with the dirt still on them, then setting them down upon hearing what it would run them. (Some people are more subtle than others about this—"I'll circle back later." Some people hightail it in the other direction. I'm guilty of both.)
Price-savviness is part of shopping, and though the argument that farmers markets seem more expensive than retail stores is largely true, it's not inherently true, Claire Brown, a former market manager for the Union Square Greenmarket (and now a writer for The New Food Economy), told me. Dollars are dollars and budgets are budgets. But the prices of the goods you buy at the farmers market are a lot more complicated than the numbers on the placards read—and those numbers shouldn't be the only thing we take into consideration.
It's complicated: That seems to be the general rule when it comes to how prices are determined at farmers markets. Part of the reason for that is that neither prices nor units of measurement (like bunches) are standardized, which means that some farmers will charge you a buck for a bunch of basil and some will charge you $3 or more, and the bunches might be the same size. "Take a pound of carrots, for instance," Claire explained. They might be "$1 at Trader Joe's, probably $1.29 at Fine Fare, and then you buy a bunch for $2 at the farmers market... but that bunch weighs more than a pound, and it has edible greens attached." Edible greens that most of us are probably composting (or just plain throwing away).
What's more, at the market, one bunch might be grown organically and one conventionally but neither are labeled and you're none the wiser. And maybe one farm lost its entire crop of tomatoes this year. And the other farm is run by a third-generation farmer using ancient farming practices. Or maybe the only difference between the two farms is that one pays its workers a living wage and the other doesn't. And all of that factors into how much your herbs or tomatoes or carrots cost.
So, like I said, it's complicated.
It's hard to generalize how farmers calculate their pricing—as you can see, there are a lot of interwoven factors that contribute to the number that actually goes up on the placard. But reasons to actually pay that price for the goods can mostly be sorted into two points: The food is worth more—it's fresher than what you can buy anywhere else, has more nutrients because of its freshness, and includes what Grace Galanti, a farmer at Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, called "consultative services"—someone to talk to about the goods, how to store and prepare and cook them. But all this can feel less significant if your primary concern is getting food on the table at all.
Which brings us to the second point: You're getting more than you would at the grocery store, often in quantity as well as in quality. As more and more markets begin to accept EBT (food stamps) and WIC and even offer coupon programs, this point becomes increasingly valuable.
So why are prices so low at some stands and so high at others? Why can I buy a bunch of herbs for $1 at one stand when another stand charges $3? I asked this question to some of the farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket and got a handful of different answers.
Tyler Dennis, of Alewife Farm (a produce grower in New York's Hudson Valley), suspects that the farm workers (i.e. not the farmers themselves but the people running the farm stand or the people working the fields back on the farm) at the stands where herbs go for a buck a bunch may not be making fair wages. "I’d also guess they’re using conventional practices that in a way simplify their process," Tyler said, "but that burden and that expense get passed down the line ecologically."
But Chris Field of Camporosso Farm, a Pennsylvania farm that specializes in hard-to-find chicories and other greens, had another take: $1 for a bunch of herbs could be profitable and smart, he explained, if you make that bunch small enough; because at $1, the bunch is an impulse buy (and a small bunch of herbs is usually all you really need anyway).
"Herbs are quite easy to grow and fast to pick," he said. "It’s one of those things that people, when they’re at a stand, just think, Oh, I could use some parsley. They don’t even hesitate. They just grab a few bunches." Increase the price and fewer people will just reach out and grab a bunch." Much more than a dollar, and the chance of impulsiveness decreases—and so does the farmer's chance at profitability.
"Farmers are business people first and foremost," Elanor Starmer, the Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) under the USDA, told me. (The AMS is responsible for the organic certification program, among other things.) "They can't stay in business if they can't figure out how to make it work for themselves financially." But very few farmers are trying to cheat their customers in regard to pricing (even though you might be tempted to suspect it when you hand over $7 for a basket of strawberries).
"We just try to be mid-range," Camporosso's Chris told me. "Some of the other specialty farms are a lot more expensive than us, and we try to be approachable." His partner Jessi Okamoto added, "We look at our stuff and think, well, would we be okay spending that?" Most farmers are trying to be accessible, for their prices to be reasonable; they just also have to turn a profit.
The farmers, as the people who've grown and put the time and effort into the food we're buying, naturally have a different understanding of what's "reasonable" than we, the consumers, are likely to. We see a basket of strawberries that are smaller than what we'd buy at the market and sometimes, especially at the beginning of the season, twice as expensive as what you could buy at the closest grocery store.
But what we don't see is the extra effort the farmers had to put in to be able to harvest the berries early in order to meet the high demand for the first of the crop. ("We have row covers on the fields to keep [our greens] from getting frost-damaged, then take them off and cultivate [weed and otherwise tend to the plants] since we don’t use herbicide, put the covers back on because it’s still cold. On, off, on, off," said Chris.)
Many farmers at a market will also choose to cultivate a specialty variety, bred for flavor rather than size or disease resistance or how they hold up in transit. Farmers can sell these varieties for more because no one else is growing them—and since they taste better than most commercial varieties, and they're less common, this crop diversity is good for shoppers, too (especially for chefs shopping the market for unique items to put on their menus).
But these varieties are also usually more prone to disease. "Sometimes for us, growing specialty crops, we really have to take into account that we’ll maybe harvest 60%," Chris told me. That means that if they plant 2500 heads of Tom Thumb lettuce, an heirloom variety, and can harvest 60% of it (losing the other 40% to root rot), they're only able to bring 1500 heads of it to market—even though they've used the same amount of farmland and other resources to grow it as if they had been able to harvest the full crop. (Which means they're barely making any profit on it. "It's a loss leader," Jessi said.) And then there's the business of actually harvesting, cleaning, packaging, and driving the produce to market (or to wholesalers, or whoever else is buying it). And having employees to do that labor, and being able to pay them a living wage.
That last reason—being able to pay farm workers well—isn't a priority for all farmers, but for many, it's reason enough to participate in a market like Union Square, where they can earn a lot more than they would at a market closer to their farm or doing wholesale and therefore pay their employees better. "We do the local market mostly as a community service thing," Grace told me; they don't really make any money there, but as Administrator Starmer explained, "Many small farmers have a social mission. They're interested in serving their communities. They'll attend markets in higher-income areas and lower-income areas. You might see the prices vary at those markets" as a result.
It's true: At a big urban market like the one at Union Square, the prices are notably higher than one closer to the farms (or even at an urban market with less foot traffic, like one in the Bronx). Many farmers will even charge slightly less—say, $2.50 rather than $3—at a market uptown, which is more neighborhoody and less the tourist mania that Union Square is. Administrator Starmer told me that sometimes market managers work with farmers to set the prices and establish some price stability, but Tyler, of Alewife Farm, said that, for better or worse, that's not the case at Union Square.
"Market managers don’t regulate [pricing] at all," he said. "It’s totally up to us." As a result, he said that he feels "a lot of pressure to benchmark our pricing with the other produce people here. We’re not certified [organic], but we’re effectively organic. So in that sense I look at places like Norwich Meadows [a certified organic stand at Union Square] for pricing benchmarks even though they’re almost always more expensive that we are." Tyler also said that he's gotten feedback on his pricing in both directions; he's been accused by customers of pricing his produce both too highly and too cheaply.
But is the farmers market truly more expensive than a grocery store? Administrator Starmer's agency, the AMS, did a study with the Vermont Department of Agriculture looking at produce sold at farmers markets in Vermont and comparing them to prices in retail stores. "We found that the majority of the time, the farmers market was comparable or competitive [that is, within a 10% range] with retail prices—[prices were] equal to or less than at the grocery store, especially organic products," she told me.
This backs up what Claire said about the carrots: A bundle of them might be more expensive than a bundle at the grocery store, but it weighs more than a pound, has the edible greens still attached, and they're fresher than what you'd get at the grocery store—usually picked within a day of coming to market. She says this is especially apparent in bunches of greens: "You get a lot more bang for your buck at the farmers market, but the per-unit price makes it seem more expensive."
"Affordability at farmers markets has been a priority for us over the past seven years," Administrator Starmer said. The AMS has been working to increase the number of farmers markets that accept EBT and WIC. There were 800 markets that did so in 2009, when the AMS began its push to increase access to American farmers markets; in 2016, there are 6500. And they're seeing the program really being used: In 2007, EBT use saw $2.7 million pass through farmers markets; today, $19.4 million in EBT is used annually. This is, of course, hugely valuable for shoppers who rely on EBT for food—but it's also good for the farmers, as it grows their consumer base.
The program is widely used in the funny financial market that is New York: In the city as well as outside it, there are a lot of customers on both ends of the income spectrum—lots of people who have a lot of expendable income and lots of people with very little access to food at all (and lots of people in the middle). The wide participation rate makes driving the 120 miles two or three or four times a week from the farm to the markets in New York fiscally worth it for many farmers, including all the farmers I spoke to.
"That's why you meet people who work 20-hour days, four days a week, to drive down to the city," Claire told me. "In our screwed-up system, for many farmers it makes more sense to drive down to the city than to work with wholesalers, distributors, and local retailers." Wholesale and restaurant relationships simply aren't enough. Markets fill a huge part of the farmers' margins.
The Greenmarket sets up in Union Square Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and on a market Friday, the square sees well over 300,000 people. This means that the farm stands at the market occupy valuable real estate; in the 2015 market season (June 6 to November 21), it cost $1125 to reserve a booth space at the market (many farms reserve two or more spaces), and there are fines if your attendance record is poor—and this, too, can contribute to how farmers set prices, and thus to why certain markets can seem more expensive than grocery stores or even other farmers markets.
These costs aren't unique to Union Square; many large greenmarkets operate similarly. But if you're wary of cost, head to another, less central market—you'll likely find both fewer people and lower pricing (though you'll also probably see less variety). Grace, of Eckerton Hill, also mentioned that prices at many stands go down over the course of the day, as farmers try to sell as much as they can before heading back to the farm: "Most farms aren’t bringing stuff home. They’re donating it," Brian Bishop of Berried Treasures Farm said. In New York City, that produce goes to City Harvest, an organization that picks up the food and delivers it to soup kitchens and similar organizations that feed the city's hungry.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post was originally published in May 2016.
Tell us about your own experience shopping at farmers markets. What do you (or don't you) buy there? Tell us about it in the comments.
Illustrations by Catherine Lamb.