Farmers' Markets vs Supermarkets

Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, considered to be the ‘agricultural center of the world,’ I am familiar with farmers' markets. My grandfather sold oranges at a roadside market once a year. I appreciate the fact that farmers' markets provide local, quality produce, however, I must confess that until doing research for this article I thought of the prices of produce at farmers' markets as being much more expensive than supermarkets.

In a study of California farmers' markets, titled “California Farmers Markets Price Perceptions,” (Powerpoint) 54 percent of sellers at California farmers' markets “actually charged lower prices than supermarkets on a cumulative 345 items.” Another 44 percent said they set prices equivalent to supermarkets on a “a cumulative 259 produce items.”

A Seattle University economics professor, Stacey Jones, sent the students of her business statistics class to local farmers' markets to conduct research on the prices sellers charged. The class discovered that the farmers' markets charged lower prices pound for pound than supermarkets for 15 items, including apples and carrots.

The Seattle Times quoted Jones as saying, “There's sort of a common perception that the farmers' market is more expensive. A lot of people feel they're doing the farmers a favor.”

The students discovered the following:

  • Organic Fuji apples, 1 lb. Broadway farmers' Market $1.99, Madison Market $1.99, Broadway QFC $2.49.
  • Organic salad mix, 1 lb. Broadway farmers' Market $7.50, Madison Market $7.49, Broadway QFC $6.99.
  • Organic asparagus, 1 lb. Broadway farmers' Market $3, Madison Market $5.29, Broadway QFC $8.99.
  • Organic baby bok choy, 1 lb. Broadway farmers' Market $1.33, Madison Market $3.49, Broadway QFC $1.99.
  • Organic red potatoes, 1 lb. Broadway farmers' Market $2.50, Madison Market $1.99, Broadway QFC $1.99.
A class at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon studied prices of produce at local farmers' markets. The class compared prices of 100 items at farmers' markets and supermarkets. According to the Portland Tribune, “The survey shows that farmers' market prices come in across the board — sometimes more expensive than at other grocers, sometimes cheaper.”

Joshua Binus, the professor of the Portland State University class, said, “People can start to get a sense of what sustainability really looks like on the ground and in their communities,” he said. “If people look at the divisions in the prices across the food groups, you can get a decent idea in your mind where the best place to put your dollar is if you want to get a lot back. You can find ways to save money if committed to getting locally grown, sustainable food.”

Tulsa, Oklahoma based owners of a farmers' market decided to conduct their own survey comparing their prices with three supermarkets in July 2005. Romaine lettuce was the first item they compared. Wal-Mart charged only $1.38 for a head, but it only weighed one pound.

The farmers' market charged $2.50 for a three pound head. They noted that their lettuce was “greener, had fewer culled outer leaves, and had none of that tale-tell sign of old produce-wilt,” and noted that if “adjusted to a price per pound basis, Wal-Mart’s lettuce would have cost $4.49 if it weighed as much as ours did.”

The Tulsa farmers noted the following:

Analyzing the data on a price per pound basis yielded interesting results. While much of what people buy in the grocery store has a cheaper price tag than what they purchase at our market stand, in nearly every case the grocery store food weighed significantly less. This gives meaning to the expression, ‘you get what you pay for.’ Additionally, not everything has a cheaper price tag in the grocery store, such as basil and heirloom tomatoes which are both dramatically higher. -- Three Springs Farm
In my hometown paper newspaper, the Fresno Bee, a letter to the editor succinctly linked adding more farmers' markets in the Fresno area to cleaning up the air. The air basin in the San Joaquin Valley is one of the worst. Fresno ranks number two, behind Los Angeles, in the list of smoggiest cities in the United States. Three other Valley towns make the top five: Bakersfield at number three, Visalia at number four, and Hanford at number five.
Living in the Valley, we are really privileged to have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in what amounts to our own back yard. The San Joaquin Valley is one of the biggest agricultural suppliers in the world when it comes to grapes, oranges and almonds. Despite this statistic, most of our fruits and vegetables come from elsewhere. Whatever happened to the good, old fruit stands? It seems today that there are far fewer fruit stands than when I was growing up.

One important factor that would arise from buying local foods is the amount of materials that would be spared. This would help our global-warming problems. Another key factor is that we would also start to improve air quality. One out of every five children will develop some type of asthma, due to living in the Valley.

Supermarkets or super-monsters?

Chain stores began to pop up during the turn of the 20th century. In the 1920s chains began to consolidate stores to include fresh meats and produce with basic dry goods. According to Groceteria.com, “The supermarket, as it came to be known, was initially a phenomenon of independents and small, regional chains.” During the 1950s and 1960s many Americans moved to the suburbs and the “transition to supermarkets was largely complete.”

Chain stores increased in the 1950s, “underwritten by the federal government,” according to Stacey Mitchell in her book Big Box Swindle, “including $130 billion for the interstate highway system -- giving the United States more paved mileage per capita than any other country.” Suburban homes were favored by federal mortgage guarantees. “These policies indirectly supported the chains by fueling suburbanization at the expense of central cities and creating the automobile infrastructure that would make giant shopping centers possible.”

In 1954 Congress changed the tax code and it made shopping centers “highly lucrative tax shelters” by allowing commercial property owners to “make massive deductions in the early years,” according to Mitchell.

In February the British journalist India Knight described a supermarket thus:

The bacon leaks the water it has been artificially pumped up with, the vegetables are perfect only because they have been sprayed with chemicals, nobody much wants to feed their children jars of nondescript mush, the clothes’ cheapness raises uncomfortable questions about their manufacture and most wine-lovers would rather buy their supplies from knowledgeable small shops that care about their stock. -- Times Online
Finding farmers' markets

Why buy produce in a big box retailer when you know the produce is not as fresh as what your local farmers can provide? Do something good for the environment and your community and buy local fruits and vegetables. As the organization Sustainable Table puts it, "Farmers markets support a sustainable food system by offering regionally-grown produce. Small family farms stay in business; land is protected from development, and consumers receive fresh food that does not travel far."

To find local farmers' markets, check out the following websites: Local Harvest & Farmers Market

Further Reading:

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casperella (anonymous)

there needs to be a lot more info come on work

Written in March 2010

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