Is local food more expensive?

The USDA recently put out this article which summarized a study they performed comparing farmers market pricing and local grocery store pricing. The comparison is only for Vermont, and only during the summer, so it is a pretty limited data set but it does give a great comparison to retail food and farmers market food pricing.

But wait a minute, we all know that prices at the market are higher than at the store. How can this be? Note that this survey was done in the summer. The first watermelons, or squash, or whatever to come into the market are often expensive. In fact, they’ve probably ridden a truck from another farm in Georgia or Florida to be here. They are the first ones of the season and they are expensive. But give it 30 days and vendors are using watermelons as a door stop. They are everywhere and cheap.

This is the key to shopping at the farmers market. Shop in season! Not the edges of the season, the actual season. That’s when pricing is cheap. And unlike your mega mart, the local farmers don’t have huge drive in coolers to keep their produce sitting around waiting for the end of the season. When the farm is producing, it’s producing literally by the ton so it has to be priced to move.

When I was growing up, we went to the market to buy corn and beans every year. Always whenever dad decided it was time based on some agrarian clock in his head. We’d buy it by the bushel at that time, and then bring everything home and cut, snap, prep, and freeze. Then, when Thanksgiving and Christmas came, dad broke out the frozen bags of corn, peas, beans, etc, and we had our sides ready to cook for the 50 or so people who showed up for the holiday. Why did we do this? Because the corn in season was better and cheaper than anything you could buy in the winter. The key was to buy during the best part of the season.

Zone 7 (where we live) planting guide
Zone 7 (where we live) planting guide. The green is when you start seeds. The red is harvest time.

If you show up on the first warm March day at the farmers market and are shocked at the prices, understand that nothing is producing yet. Anything you see for sale has a story of how it got there and that story has a cost. If you don’t know about food miles, take a read here to learn what it is about. This is a great book about eating local.

If you come back to the market now (mid July if you are reading this later), you can see in the chart above is the heart of the season, and you’ll see the price of abundance. It’s pretty cheap.

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