Are Farmers Markets Too Expensive?

Are Farmers Markets Too Expensive?

Fresh Georgia peaches

Summer brings about the return of farmer’s markets, local garden, and fresh produce. Farmers markets usually have fresher, higher quality goods and produce than the grocery store selections. Their haul is also often organic and locally grown and produced. But when you visit your local farmer’s market, are you paying more money than you should?

What Consumers Believe Versus The Actual Facts

People often claim cost as the main reason why they don’t frequent their local farmer’s markets. Many consumers believe that farmer’s markets are more expensive than their grocery store when comparing the same items. But is it true?

The Nevada County Public Health Department gathered data from the prices of their area farmer’s markets and compared it to prices obtained from area grocery stores from January 2014 to July 2014. They found that while farmer’s market produce is very similarly priced to the grocery store counterparts. In fact, 5 out of 10 item prices measured found that the farmer’s market prices were equal to or cheaper than the grocery store alternative.

Organic Produce Prices from Placer and Nevada Counties

Another study in 2007 by University of Seattle economics professor, Stacey Jones, found that a comparison study of 15 items revealed that the farmer’s market items were slightly cheaper than the nearby grocery store’s items. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture studied conventional food in four Iowa cities and reported that the farmer’s market prices were more often cheaper or equal to prices at the neighboring grocery stores.

Across different tested regions, farmer’s markets proved to be cheaper than most consumers expected them to be. But are you always saving money when you visit your local farmer’s market?

It seemed to depend on the produce; for more commonly found vegetables that are easy to mass-produce, the grocery store prices tended to be slightly cheaper than the farmer’s market prices. But for more specific kinds of produce like sweet potatoes and butternut squash, the prices were equal. For things like apples, beets, and chard; the produce at the farmer’s market was cheaper.

Pros and Cons of Grocery Stores and Farmer’s Markets

So with prices that are fairly comparative between the two, which offers a better buy?

The Grocery Store

  • Pro: You can find out-of-season fruits and vegetables that have been shipped in
  • Con: Their frozen produce is typically cheaper than their fresh selections
  • Pro: There is greater consistency in product with factory farming methods
  • Con: You’ll pay much more for organic produce here than at the farmer’s market

The Farmer’s Market

  • Pro: Produce is much fresher (usually harvested within the last day or two before your purchase) and often organic
  • Con: Your selection is limited to local growing conditions and season
  • Pro: You’re supporting small, family-owned businesses
  • Con: Non-produce items like locally-raised meats, honey, etc. are more expensive here than the grocery store’s factory-produced versions

In the bigger picture, the grocery store offers more selection that offers slightly lower prices than the farmer’s market. But much is factored into the price of your produce: production and shipping costs, time, labor, variety, season and weather conditions, demand, and quality, just to name a few examples. Take that into mind when deciding whether or not your farmer’s market is excessively expensive.

What You Pay Depends on What You’re Shopping For

In another study done by Jake Robert Claro, a graduate student at Bard College, they found that organic items found at farmer’s markets were 40% cheaper than the grocery store’s organic counterparts in the area. So if you’re looking for naturally-grown, organic produce that you know exactly where it came from… the farmer’s market will have cheaper selections for you and your family.

But if you’re buying imported produce in bulk- the grocery store is still marginally cheaper than the farmer’s market. Another consideration to make… how long is the shelf-life of your purchase?

Price becomes tricky when you’re trying to pin down what you’re paying for. It makes it difficult to determine whether or not you’re paying too much for your produce. Something to consider is how long you’ll be able to use that head of lettuce before it spoils.

Grocery store produce isn’t as fresh as farmer’s market produce. That’s almost always a guarantee just because it’s more cost-effective to have that produce shipped into the store from further away. Farmer’s market produce is local, so it was more recently harvested.

So if you buy a head of lettuce from the grocery store for a cheaper price than you would at the farmer’s market, but it only lasts you two days before it begins to wilt rather than the farmer’s market lettuce that would have lasted you the week… are you really saving money when you just had to throw away the majority of that lettuce?

Again; it depends. You’d be saving money if you use your grocery store produce within the first few days after purchasing it. But if you need to keep your food fresh a few days longer, the farmer’s market might be your more frugal option.

How to Make Farmer’s Markets Cheaper

If you do decide that your local farmer’s market is a better deal, then you should know how to get more bang for your buck. While data seems to support that farmer’s market prices are often equal to (or even cheaper than) grocery stores, not all farmer’s market selections are going to be cheaper than the grocery store versions. You’ll need to know what to look for and when to shop!

Some money-saving tips to help you shop smarter at a farmer’s market:

  • Scope out the area, and go for a smaller market rather than the bigger, busier ones that tend to be higher-priced.
  • Become a repeat customer; get to know your local farmer… they’ll tip you off when the prices dip lower.
  • Don’t become set in your shopping list; often the items you planned on buying are too expensive… opt for cheaper produce and try out a new recipe instead.
  • Buy in bulk; because seasonal items are in surplus, buy a lot of whatever’s at a low price then freeze or can what you don’t need right now, or go in on the purchase with your family/friends and pay almost nothing.
  • Walk through the entire market before making your purchases; some vendors will offer lower prices than others for the same items, or have buy-one-get-one deals.
  • Play the waiting game; prices often drop just before the market closes, or if you haggle a bit. It’s risky since you might not buy what you came for, but it can save you money.
  • Bring cash; most vendors deal exclusively in cash (or in goods and services if you have those to offer for a better bargain).

Farmer’s markets don’t seem to be “too expensive.” In fact, they seem to be trying to compete with or even beat out the grocery store prices to capture your business. Visit your nearby farmer’s market this summer and take note of the prices then compare them to your grocery store selections. Those prices can change on a daily basis, but if it ends up being cheaper than your local grocery store it could be well worth the change in your routine.