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Jul 26, 2010 06:03 AM

Farmers Market prices

Are farmers market prices too high? Don't get me wrong, I love the Boston area farmers market, look forward to their arrival, and miss them when the weather turns cold. But I can't help noticing that when it comes to pricing their produce, well, you might as well shop at Whole Foods.
Example: last weekend I went to the Saturday market at the Morse School in Cambridgeport. I saw some beautiful looking golden zucchini and bought some at $3/lb. On my way out of the market, I saw the same zucchini at another stall at $1.50. OK, my bad, I guess. Should have done more careful comparison shopping. But when I saw some equally gorgeous golden zucchini at Russo's yesterday for $.29/lb, I was amazed -- and I started wondering why the farmers market prices were five to 10 times higher.
OK, I get it. Small farmers growing quality stuff, struggling to survive and stay in business. They deserve our support. And I'm willing to pay a premium to get the presumably higher quality food they offer. And I certainly don't think they're getting rich from what they sell when they drive into the city and set up their stalls.
But I'm old enough to remember when part of the appeal of driving out to the countryside and going to a farm stand was getting fresh produce at a bargain price. Simple concept: cut out the middleman so the money goes directly to the grower and the customer saves some dough.
Now I have no idea of the economics involved in the farmers market biz. Maybe the farmers are making a bundle (which I doubt) or maybe their only eking out a scant profit. But I wonder if they'd do better, no matter what the case, by charging less. I would think that the increase in sales volume would lead to greater profits, not to mention the social good of making fresh produce more affordable and available to more people. Because it looks to me like the local farmers market are turning into farmers boutiques for the well-off.

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  1. You may find a better value in becoming a member of a CSA. I feel certain there is no way I could get as much produce anywhere else for what I am paying for the csa.

    1. to your point about the farmers boutiques, it could be one of those things where people equate expensive with quality and they find they can get more people in that way.

      1. I live in Manhattan halfway between a small, two-times-a-week farmers’ market and Fairway. I try to support the farmers as much as I can. But recently, when the farmers’ market had sour cherries at $8.00/quart and Fairway had them at $2.99, bye-bye farmer. I’m simply not spending $32 to put up 3 pints of sour cherry preserves. And if the Fairway labeling is accurate, I was supporting a local farmer by buying there as well. I just couldn’t shake hands with him.

        1. I've found some prices that are very much on par with big chain grocery stores but with much better quality, while some items are priced really for the affluent.

          I don't blame the farmers (most of the time) but there is fascinating insight into the whole idea of small, local sustainable farms vs. big industrial farms in books like the Omnivore's Dilemma, and why prices seem out of line. It's not just a question of what looks fresh (say a Russo's, but carries a lot of imported fruit).

          At the end, I do what you do. Some items I try to support through our local sustainable farms as much as possible, but some items I do defer to buy at the local super.

          15 Replies
          1. re: kobuta

            I find at most of the decent sized farmer's markets in greater Boston that at least a few vendors always have at least supermarket (not whole foods) comparable prices.

            At my local, the Belmont market, a decent mid-sized one, there is one large vendor off in the corner that is often 40-60% less then the others. Funny, that booth is always busy ;-).

            Another example is the Hmong farmers, who attend several markets, who usually have the most beautiful Asian veggies I have ever seen at very competitive prices. $4.00 for pea tendrils to die for, that would be $8 elsewhere...

            When you think travel time, staffing the booth, etc., I am willing to pay at least supermarket prices for MUCH better produce.

            1. re: StriperGuy

              I am too, and I'm willing to pay premium on certain things (love, love my farm fresh eggs!). I love the fact that if I buy veggies there and can't get to them within a day or two, they don't start wilting in my fridge already and start looking quite sad.

              I also just recently tried to get into the grass-fed beefs and pork, but finding the right cut is a challenge. Haven't found someone who sells whole chicken yet at the markets near me. I'm not a heavy meat eater, so I haven't tried the CSA route.

              1. re: kobuta

                Kobuta, CSA is usually all produce, i.e. vegetables and fruit. Some farms offer additional meat and/or cheese and dairy shares at extra cost. So you get to choose the type of share you want.

                1. re: Gio

                  I've seen some meat CSAs though, and even some seafood ones. Stillman's for example, which operates at many farmer's market, actually markets their CSA's at their stalls, in addition to selling cuts of meat not distributed to their members.

                  They even have seafood/fish CSAs, but the names of ones mentioned on this board escape me at the moment.

                  1. re: kobuta

                    you may want to look at River Rock Farm. Great grass fed beef and they offer a csa for their beef.

                    River Rock Farm
                    81 Five Bridge Rd, Brimfield, MA

                    1. re: kobuta

                      Almost a month later I see your post, Kobuta. There is a seafood CSA (Community Supported Fishery) in the greater Boston area. It's called Cape Ann Fresh Catch. Sponsored by the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association (GFWA), MIT SeaGrant, and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

                      We have bought shares in the past but took a break this last
                      season. They even have a winter share with Maine shrimp.

                2. re: StriperGuy

                  Can you tell me which farmers markets the Hmong farmers go to? I saw an Asian produce stand at Waltham Farmers market this past weekend, but I forgot to ask them if they go anywhere else. They had fresh pea tendrils, Chinese broccoli, Chinese water spinach - all look 1000x fresher than the ones sold at Russo's.

                  1. re: y2000k

                    I see the Hmong farmers on Sundays at the Charles Square Farmers Market in Harvard Square. Got some beautiful arugula from them last week.

                    Here is the complete listing on their website:

                    1. re: ilovedessert

                      Cool! It looks like they are the folks at the Waltham Farmers Market then. And I see that they also go to the Friday Newton market in Newtonville, which is fairly close to where I live.

                      I too bought arugula from the last week, plus mixed lettuce. Perfect for a salad. I did a quick garlic stir-fry with the pea tendrils I bought. Haven't had such fresh ones for a long time!

                      1. re: y2000k

                        There's a Hmong Farm stand at the Tuesday Newton Farmers Market. Also, I was there today, and there was a BIG range of prices (at least for cherry tomatoes). I paid $3/pint, which seems very reasonable to me, for a melange of varieties of cherry tomatoes. Peaches were $2/lb, which also seems reasonable... Maybe the prices depend on the market?

                  2. re: StriperGuy

                    And those pea tendrils are 200% better than any others I have gotten. So tender that I was eating them raw. Although my singaporean friend took a picture of me (the stupid american) and sent it too all her friends for comedic value. I thought they were great raw.

                    1. re: tdaaa

                      Totally agree, those are the only pea tendrils I have ever had that WERE in fact worthy of eating raw. I always nibble on some right out of the bag when I buy them.

                      They blow away Asian veggies sourced anywhere else, and honestly their greens often look the freshest in the entire market.

                      1. re: StriperGuy

                        they are also in central square, cambridge, on Mondays, and Somerville Union Square on Saturday mornings. Great cilantro, Thai basil, amaranth, beautiful lettuces you could use as bouquets, in addition to the pea tendrils and arugula. And late in the summer, fresh lemongrass....such a treat! Really reasonable prices.

                        1. re: Madrid

                          I mentioned the Hmong farmers in my Fresh & Local newspaper column coming out in today's Independent Newspaper group papers. Some of them will make it to the markets earlier and later in the season in the future. They have a grant this year to add hoop houses to their fields to extend their growing season.

                          They also have perfect squash blossoms. I love the careful pride they take in growing and presenting their wonderful produce.


                          1. re: BostonZest

                            Those squash blossoms were the best I have EVER purchased by far.

                3. The difference is big to the farmer. Our CSA farm sells to Russo's. You can see the Russo's trucks there in the AM. Same with a number of the larger farms. They get very little money for that product. That's why they'll run farmstands, CSA's and go to markets; they need to convert a percentage of sales into higher value. The logic is similar for smaller farms, though they may even have a smaller to no wholesale business.

                  So yeah prices can be high but there's a reason. I almost hate to say this but prices at farmers' markets might be able to go down if the wholesalers - like Russo's - paid more. But that won't happen because that's driven by the chains, by competition from trucked in produce bought in volume, etc.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: lergnom

                    The way I see it...."You are eating it!", I do not begrudge a small farmer/operator if he/she provides top quality, local, responsibly grown food. Be it produce, eggs, meat, (rabbit, fowl, pork , beef, and lamb), I want quality in production over price. Hey Mainland China Chickens are soon to be available in U.S. I think I will pass on that one.