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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: http://www.flatsmentorfarm.org/market...

                    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.

                  2. Yes the prices at farmers' markets are higher than at most supermarkets. There are a number of reasons for that

                    1. People are willing to pay more.
                    2. It costs more to grow a crop on a small farm than it would to do the same on a huge agribusiness farm. Economy of scale makes a big difference in cost.
                    3. Many of the farmers at the farmers' markets use organic or similar methods. While better for the earth, etc., these methods may require more labor or produce lower yield. There is a reason why using pesticides, herbicides, and manufactured fertilizers caught on, and it is profit (in the short term, at least).

                    I am willing to pay a premium for produce picked that morning. It tends to be tastier and more nutritious - and have a longer life in my fridge if it does not get used immediately. However, it is often useful to visit all the stalls at a market before making any purchases. You might revise your shopping list based on the nice surprises you may find, plus you can be sure to get the best price for what you do buy.

                    Apropos doing social good, that costs money, which is usually in short supply for small-scale farmers. The great news is that social good IS getting done! One example that I know of is Waltham Fields Community Farms. They operate as a non-profit. In addition to their CSA and educational programs, they specifically seek to address the needs communities where good produce may not be readily available or affordable. Check them out! http://www.communityfarms.org/

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: PinchOfSalt

                      Yes, farmers markets and CSA prices are too high---for most people. A lot of people live from paycheck to paycheck or on a fixed income and do not have the disposable income to be able to pay the $350 or so upfront to join a CSA, even though they too, may be very willing "to pay a premium for fresher produce."

                      A lot of the farmers are farmers by choice, as opposed to being born into a farm already paid for, and they lease the land or have bought it at very high cost in areas where land is worth even more for development, so they have to grow a premium product that they can justify selling for a high price.

                      Until everyone can afford to shop at farmers' markets, and not only the farmers but their workers can make a living from farming, shopping at farmers' markets is going to be somewhat of an elitist choice. Hopefully the growth of these markets over the last few years means that we're moving in the right direction.

                      1. re: cassis

                        Actually, WIC offers coupons for farmer's markets. Still doesn't make it affordable for everyone but definately a step in the right direction.

                        And I am by no means knowledgable about how supermarkets set their pricing, but I would think that the "loss leader" thing is probably at work when you see zucchini or whatnot at $0.29/lb.

                        1. re: gimlis1mum

                          Yes, but food stamps are not going to go very far at the prices typical of most farmer's markets.

                          1. re: StriperGuy

                            FYI, there is a program called Boston Bounty Bucks, in place at more than 20 markets in Boston, that provides a dollar-for-dollar match to all SNAP (previously Food Stamp) purchases up to $10 per market, per day. That means that if a SNAP recipient shops at a participating market their $10 in SNAP benefits gets them $20 in produce.

                            So that certainly helps get a bit more mileage out of food stamp dollars. http://www.bostonbountybucks.com for more info.

                            1. re: celeriac

                              I didn't know about that program - thanks for the info. And just to clarify, the WIC website says that farmer's market coupons are in addition to the usual WIC benefits.

                              1. re: gimlis1mum

                                There's an article on boston.com today about something that appears to be a different program in which lower-income patients at community health centers receive "prescriptions" of coupons for farmer's markets, up to $100 for a family of 4 (the article doesn't say what time period that covers, or whether it's a one time only deal.)

                                The same article mentions the challenges of getting folks in low-incme neighborhoods to actually shop the farmer's markets, even when the prices are fairly competitive with local shops. It says that the farmer's market in East Boston is going great guns, but the one in Mattapan is poorly attended and struggling.


                                1. re: Allstonian

                                  Interesting. The one in Roslindale is fantastic - and thriving - and I've seen people use some kind of coupon or SNAP-like thing...

                                  1. re: Allstonian

                                    Very interesting! It's been a while since I shopped regularly at the Brigham Circle market, but there were always folks using the (SNAP?) coupons. I'd estimate, maybe a third of the patrons, just from my unofficial observations while standing in line. The Malden Center one always seems to have a good proportion of patrons with coupons, too.

                                    Even if it's only a one-time deal, $100 is a nice chunk of change to give a family to buy veggies. Much better than $10 (though again i wonder, if there is some other subsidy because of the number of people I've seen using the coupons at markets).

                            2. re: gimlis1mum

                              In my experience, Mass tends to disfavor food stamps in favor of other benefits, like SSDI and SSI. I know a lot of folks who got $12 or $7 in food stamps every month - worth it, but strange.
                              (Submitted as supporting evidence, not as critique)

                          2. re: PinchOfSalt

                            I agree with your points, however, what bothers me is when a vendor sells the same stuff out of the same boxes as the bigs add charges 2X is price of the bigs.

                            1. re: treb

                              I have some concerns about this re: Verrill Farms. I haven't done any serious research about it, but it seems more like Savenors-de-burbs than dirty-grubby-Farm.

                              Verrill Farm
                              11 Wheeler Rd, Concord, MA, MA 01742

                          3. "farmers boutiques for the well-off" - I love it ! That's exactly how I feel. I can't believe you actually found a price diiffernce at the market. When I go - all the farmers are charging the same. It seems like price fixing. I love the produce and cheese I buy. I'm happy to have it available and I'm grateful I can afford it. But it is elitist. Its not like my younger years (what is !) where you saved money by buying from the farmers. Now you save by NOT buying from the farmers.

                            1. I agree on all counts -- I like visiting farmers' markets and like the idea of supporting the farmers. But I find that I spend 3-4x more than at my usual shopping destinations, Russo's or Wilson Farms, for produce that's the same or often not as good quality.

                              Wilson Farm
                              10 Pleasant St, Lexington, MA 02421

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Pia

                                I have to admit that I still blanch at some of the Farmer's Market prices, and I really do value quality food. There are some items at the markets that are simply far and away better and I buy those, but for locally grown produce in any larger quantity, I head to Wilson Farms.

                                Wilson Farms is also a small family-run farm, and for some reason their prices, especially when the crop is in, are simply much less expensive. I admit, I don't buy fish or beef or any of the "foo foo" foods that they sell; just their local produce which for the most part is the same as every other farmer in the area.

                                Now the Hmong farmers are bringing some wonderfully unique and special items to market, and I buy quite a bit from them weekly.

                                Wilson Farm
                                10 Pleasant St, Lexington, MA 02421

                                1. re: smtucker

                                  Totally agree on Wilson. This is a great time of year to shop there just for that reason. They grow a decent variety of produce and the prices are quite reasonable if you avoid the prepared foods. (The chicken isn't ridiculously expensive, though, and is quite good and I love Bianco's hot Italian sausages.)

                                  I bought a huge bunch of their scallions for .50 last week, and have enjoyed the corn and jet star tomatoes. I also shop the farmers' markets, but feel perfectly comfortable supporting Wilson Farms without breaking the bank.

                                  Wilson Farm
                                  10 Pleasant St, Lexington, MA 02421

                                  Bianco's Inc.
                                  375 Revere St, Revere, MA 02151

                              2. A few years ago, one of the farmers at the Davis Square market in Somerville said "people in Davis Square will pay any price."

                                Me, I shop selectively, plus I have a kitchen garden, so I don't join a CSA.

                                1. Yesterday's haul at the Brookline farmer's market:

                                  Yellow freestone peaches (dead ripe) -- $1.50 a pound
                                  Heirloom tomatoes -- $2.50 a pound
                                  Standard-issue tomatoes -- $1.50 a pound
                                  Sweet red onions -- $1 for a bunch of five, all of them slightly smaller than a baseball (he actually cut me a deal on these because he said they were awfully small)
                                  Huge head romaine lettuce -- $2
                                  Cucumbers just under the size where they start getting seedy -- 5 for $2
                                  13 ears of corn -- $5
                                  2 bunches of asters and two large Asiatic lilies -- $9
                                  3 jalapenos -- 50 cents
                                  1 bunch basil -- $2

                                  Everything with the arguable exception of the basil and the romaine was the same price or cheaper than I would pay at Russo's, with the added benefit of everything being at the peak of ripeness. I certainly wouldn't argue that farmers markets are only for the well-to-do.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                    yes and the Hmong farmers were at Brookline Thursday and I get to try things I don't know: red amarinth (gorgeous green and delicious) and purselane. I love their greens and find them reasonably priced. I do most of my shopping at Russos but I never regret stopping at the Farmer's Market. And I'm a big fan of River Rock's beef as well.

                                    1. re: teezeetoo

                                      and Hmong leaves the roots on their cilantro! Hooray!

                                      1. re: gimlis1mum

                                        Really? Lately the Reading MB has been selling cilantro complete with roots!
                                        Hooray from me too.

                                    2. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                      Dozen ears of corn at Russo's were $2.50 last week.

                                      1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                        Those are GREAT prices. I was at Roslindale this am, and paid $4/lb for heirloom tomatoes, and $3/lb for peaches, along with $.50/ear of corn. Flowers were gorgeous, but $7/bunch. Enjoy your bounty!