When was the last time you heard someone talk about the great bargain they found at a farmer’s 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?”

Fresh! Local! Cheap?

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.

So much veggie

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
Gingergold Apples 1.05 1.5 1.43 3.66 3.49 1.56 1.49
Green/Yellow Beans 1.02 2.5 2.45 3.56 3.49 1.32 1.29
Celery 0.47 1 2.13 0.61 1.29 0.27 0.58
Celeriac 1.05 1 0.95 4.19 3.99 NA
Sweet Banana Peppers 1.61 2.5 1.55 6.42 3.99 6.42 3.99
Red Peppers 2.05 3 1.46 12.07 5.89 6.13 2.99
Parsnips 1.63 3 1.84 4.55 2.79 NA
Corn 5.59 3 0.50 3.54 0.59 2.80 0.50
Cherry Tomatoes 0.77 3.5 4.55 3.59 4.66 3.68 4.784
Heirloom Tomatoes 1.8 5 2.78 7.18 3.99 5.38 Beefsteak NA, 2.99 lb. Beefsteak
Total 26 49.38 27.57
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.

This is the only time of year I feel good about buying red peppers As for corn, corn is great


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11 comments on “When was the last time you heard someone talk about the great bargain they found at a farmer’s market?”

  1. Brett Laidlaw 2 September, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Fantastic post, Tom. What a novel concept, actually doing the research and putting up the numbers, instead of offering bland speculation based on prejudice and hearsay! Well, you’ve shown what many of us have known all along, that farmers markets are not just a delight to the senses, a necessary oasis of green and tasty things in the concrete jungle, and a center of community, but a bargain, as well. I hope this gets a very wide reading. Thanks so much for putting it up.


  2. Nate 2 September, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. I stopped shopping for produce at the grocery store early this summer. I always spend about 1/2 the money, and get twice the experience. The produce is always higher quality, too. This past week I picked up some homemade cheese that tasted like it had been aged in a French cave, an it was only 4.99/lb…unreal.

    Great pics accompanying the post, by the way!

  3. Beth Dooley 2 September, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Nice work. I’d add that the farmers market produce is far fresher and will last longer than the other two sources. It goes straight from the field to the market same day. At Rainbow, it may be a week old before it gets onto the shelf.

  4. Steph 3 September, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Great research! It’s good to see some hard numbers and data. Although you pointed out some of the slight con’s of the experience (time, skill, effort), I’d say that those all have a positive side. For me, shopping at the market is a very positive experience and helps me feel more connected to the food I eat. I’m able to ask questions about my produce and how it might be eaten. The sights, smells, sounds. All the happy people shopping for their food. Also, I want to point out that the various Farmers Markets have somewhat different pricing. The Mpls FM on Lyndale, where I frequent, has the best prices from what I’ve seen. People argue about the fact that they allow resellers (there are only 5, and they can’t sell local, in season stuff), but that’s another debate (read this article from Simple Good and Tasty

    Anyway, I am glad that you came up w/ some good data on the bottom dollar argument. I’d highlight the fact that the $, the support of local/sustainable farming, plus the intangibles sum up to a better deal all around. And let’s not forget that comparing the quality of the produce between the Farmer’s Market and the Rainbow is a no-brainer.

    Great blog! Looking forward to following.

  5. bearing 3 September, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    To be a little fairer to the Wedge, you would need to distinguish organic from conventional produce, no? Is your Farmer’s Market produce conventional? Is the Wedge produce organic? I’m not anti-conventional-produce, but to be fair, much of the Wedge’s upcharge comes from the fact that a large proportion of what they stock is organic, and organic stuff almost always comes with a higher price tag, for which some people are willing to pay.

    Otherwise, great post.

  6. Tangled Noodle 3 September, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Fantastic post and original approach to the debate! I would like to add one pro and one con to this: a huge benefit of farmers’ markets is the wonderful variety of produce. You noted here that you were unable to find certain items at Rainbow; I’ve been trying new veggies all summer long that I have rarely, or never, seen at most conventional markets but are abundant at FM. On the flip side is that the market doesn’t run year-round (and as late as it does remain open, local produce availability becomes less and less).

    This is an excellently-researched, well-balanced and informative post!

  7. Jason DeRusha 3 September, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Wow. This is really fantastic work, and quite interesting. I imagine different markets give different savings. For example. Mill City seems more expensive to me than Minneapolis, although I haven’t run the numbers on it.

  8. Maja Ingeman 3 September, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Great article! I keep trying to convince people that the farmers market is worth the parking headache for the low price, not to mention the quality and the feel-good effect from buying local… though I hear suburban and rural farmers markets are far more hit or miss, price-wise.

  9. Amy P. 3 September, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Thanks for doing the cost analysis, I’ve wondered about how prices compare but haven’t delved into it. Plus how do you put a price on the feel-good factor of going to farmers markets and getting to talk directly to the grower? That’s pretty cool and definitely more fun than shopping at a store like Rainbow. I’m dreading when the local growing season ends.

  10. Tom 4 September, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    I agree with what everybody is saying about quality, but I avoided making the argument in the original post because I suspect that argument would be dismissed by the Reason critic as so much foodie-elitism. In my experience there is no question that the food you’re paying less for at the farmers’ market is of a much higher quality than at Rainbow (the quality of produce the Wedge stocks is usually pretty spectacular).

    bearing — D’oh! Organic! I didn’t even consider that as I was looking into this. Some of the produce from the farmers’ market was organic, but not all of it, and I suspect almost all of the Wedge produce is organic. I personally prioritize buying local over organic (just my set of prejudices) but see the value of organic food, particularly inasmuch as it lessens the impact of farming on the environment. I really didn’t mean this as an attack on the Wedge; I like to shop there and, addressing Tangled Noodle’s point, it is open year round.

  11. Doniree 7 September, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Great post! I meant to do a lot more Farmer’s Market shopping this summer than’s actually happened, but I’m DYING now to get there and try some of the veggies you mention I’ve never tried before. Great comparisons, thanks for taking the time to do that and share!

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