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Price fluctuations

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Back in June, we wrote about a study at Seattle University on prices at farmers' markets. The study's conclusions? That, overall, shopping for fresh, local produce at farmers' markets was a better deal than shopping for the same at supermarkets.

Now we have the Portland, Oregon, version of this study, conducted this summer by students at Portland State University. Their conclusions? As the Portland Tribune reported, "Farmers' market prices come in across the board — sometimes more expensive than at other grocers, sometimes cheaper." 

A locally grown peach, for example, costs more at a farmers' market than at a local grocery chain. Organic peaches at a national grocery chain cost more than the local peaches, while conventionally grown peaches were dirt cheap at Whole Foods and even cheaper at Wal-Mart.

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The students, who spent two months comparing prices around Portland, looked at more than just produce:

bq. A snapshot of the data: In some cases, farmers' market prices were well below the other four grocers: take shiitake mushrooms, corn, and zucchini, for example. In other cases, the market was well above the competition, as with croissants, eggs, and honey. 

One local farmer, former grocery-store owner Don Kruger, complained that farmers' market prices were just too, well, pricey. "The audience is so captive and so taken by what’s going on there, there’s almost this sky’s-the-limit idea with merchants that they can price out anything they want to price out," he told the Tribune.

But Aaron Silverman, a former farmer and market vendor who now works for the Portland Farmers' Market, disagreed, saying, “So far \[the concern of overpricing\] seems to be more an issue of perception than substance.”

Bloggers are also discussing pricing at farmers' markets. Kate Hopkins, of the Accidental Hedonist, recently asked, "Which is more important, taste or quantity?"

bq. If the focus should be to feed the country first and taste concerns should come later, then the marketplace will place a premium price on foods that do more than simply prevent hunger. This, in essence, is exactly what we are seeing happening. In areas of the country that are not California, produce found at farmers' markets does seem to command a higher price. Not surprisingly, better chocolate, better wine, and better cars also command better prices in their respective markets.

Meanwhile, cookbook author Michael Ruhlman took a gentle scolding from Russ Parsons, author of How to Pick a Peach, for a comment he made on a recent blog post. Said Ruhlman:

bq. Until local hand-grown produce and meat are available to everyone, and not just to those who can pay boutique prices, America’s so-called food revolution will not be complete. 

And said Parsons in response:

bq.The first thing that needs to be said is that contrary to popular opinion, American agriculture is not a broken system. It is a system that is performing perfectly at what it is designed to do, which is deliver high quality (at least in terms of nutrition and safety) produce at the lowest possible price. While malnutrition was unfortunately common in this country a century ago, it has all but disappeared today. And we pay far less for food than any other industrialized nation (and about half what we paid before World War II). 

Parsons goes on to say, however, that the cost of food grown locally differs greatly depending on location; it's more costly to grow food in Ohio than in California. 

bq. Good farms and farmers' markets are fragile things. There is no guarantee that they will be around forever. So some place in your calculations, you must include the fact that if you don’t shop at farmers' markets and pay that extra cost, there is a very good chance that they will cease to exist. I know that altruism rarely figures in economic arguments, but there’s no getting around this fact. Remember that when you shop for fruits and vegetables, you are in effect voting for what kind of agricultural future you prefer.

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