When was the last time you heard someone talk about the great bargain they found at a farmer’s market?
By Tom // Posted 2 September, 2009 in: Farmers Market
With all the positive attention the “local food movement” is getting these days, some reaction is inevitable. While I think there are fair criticisms to be leveled at locavores, a lot of what is written against eating local leaves me scratching my head. Such was my reaction when, reading a review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a critic discussing the practicality of local eating for non-upper-middle-class folks asked the question “After all, when was the last time you heard someone talk about the great bargain they found at a farmer’s market?”
It seems like I always get a good deal at the Midtown Farmers Market. I look forward to the summer farmers’ market season not only as a time to enjoy delicious fresh produce but also because my grocery bills will be significantly lower. You can get a lot of local vegetables for twenty bucks. This was just a gut feeling, though; I had never actually compared what I spend at the farmers’ market to what it would cost to buy the same food at the supermarket. But with my curiosity piqued by the locavore naysayers, I thought I’d try to put together some numbers.
I started by going to the Midtown Farmers’ Market on Saturday (Week 18 if you’re keeping track) and buying produce as I usually do (impulsively). I ended up with 3 Gingergold Apples, green/yellow beans, Celery still attached to its root (celeriac), sweet banana peppers, red peppers, six ears of corn, a pint of cherry tomatoes and a quart of beautiful heirloom tomatoes (I have been buying this exact tomato order from Honey Creek Farm for the past three weeks and will continue to until that sad day when there are no more tomatoes). The total for all this? $26.
For comparison, I went to two grocery stores. I chose the Wedge, our local co-op, because it is the place where I do most of my grocery shopping when the farmers’ market is not available. But since it won’t surprise anybody from the Twin Cities for me to say the Wedge is kind of expensive, I also checked out the prices at Rainbow, which is a generic, low-priced grocery store. For my readers in Michigan, Rainbow is kind of like Kroger or Meijer (not as extensive as Meijer though). The results of my shopping are summarized in the table below with the low price for each item highlighted.
|Market Mass (#)||Market Price ($)||Market Price/Unit||Wedge Price ($)||Wedge price/unit||Rainbow Price ($)||Rainbow price/unit|
|Sweet Banana Peppers||1.61||2.5||1.55||6.42||3.99||6.42||3.99|
|Heirloom Tomatoes||1.8||5||2.78||7.18||3.99||5.38 Beefsteak||NA, 2.99 lb. Beefsteak|
|Total, Rainbow Goods Only||22||40.64||27.57|
I started by weighing the produce at home, since most produce is sold by weight, and calculating the price per pound at the farmers’ market based on what I paid. Next I set off for the Wedge and Rainbow to record their prices. Back at home, I calculated what the same mass of vegetables would have cost at each store (I did not use mass for corn since it is sold by the ear, and instead used the price per ear). I was able to find the exact same produce at the Wedge as I could at the farmers’ market (not all of it local, though). Rainbow was slimmer pickings, with no celeriac, parsnips, or heirloom tomatoes. For the latter, I used the price of the beefsteak tomatoes they did have.
If I had bought everything at the Wedge, my $26 dollars worth of vegetables would have cost $49.38, almost twice as much. At Rainbow, ignoring the two vegetables that were not available and substituting bland beefsteaks for sweet, delicious heirlooms I still would have spent slightly more, $27.57. And if I subtract the parsnips and celeriac from the farmers’ market total to reflect the goods available at Rainbow, the total for the farmers’ market was only $22. The farmers’ market is unequivocally cheaper than even a pretty cheap grocery store. This makes sense: at a farmers’ market you should be cutting out one or several middle men, dealing directly with the producer.
I don’t want to overstate my case: even if the raw cost of the goods is lower, there are a lot of other costs associated with shopping at the farmers’ market. It takes more time to shop at the farmers’ market; you have to pick out the goods, choosing between stalls that have similar produce. And, the market is only open on one or two days during the week, which can be inconvenient for someone with a busy work schedule. You probably still need to go to the grocery store to get additional items, more food-buying time. Then when you get home you have to clean and store the produce — I have spent more hours than I’d care to admit washing, drying and bagging greens. And then you have to know how to cook what you bought, a skill that takes time to develop. There’s not much at the farmers’ market that is ready to eat after four minutes in the microwave (then again, there is plenty that is delicious to eat raw). It doesn’t hurt that all this shopping, storage and cooking is very fun, but it does seem to require that one be willing a fair amount of leisure time to food.
But when people talk about “getting a bargain” they’re usually just referring to the final price. By that standard, the last time I got a “great bargain” at the farmers’ market was the last time I went.