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Debate: Are Farmers' Markets Too Costly?

Whether you think you’ll be accosted by hippies or buoyed by nature’s bounty, this shopping alternative is catching on.

produce at a farmers market, image
Photo caption
A bounty of fresh vegetables and fruits lures discerning shoppers and chefs to local farmers markets.

overpriced luxury
If we’re going to talk about prices at farmers’ markets, we must address what I see as the considerable psychic cost of shopping at them—the music.

What is it about locally grown kale and free-range chicken eggs that creates such a welcoming space for tie-dyed baby boomers to belt out Jimi Hendrix covers on the flute? Why must hip thirtysomethings with ironic mustaches wail away on old-timey washboards when all I want is to sample some artisanal Gouda in peace?

I know—they’re just trying to have fun. But for me, farmers’ market music is the embodiment of the more general climate: There’s something just a little too . . . precious about it all.

This preciousness can be mistaken for priciness. Indeed, while farmers’ markets do offer some real indulgences (such as the six-ounce jar of Adriatic-fig-and-candied-ginger jam I recently saw on sale at my local farmers’ market for $12), most of the produce is priced competitively with conventional supermarkets and natural food stores. Some recent surveys (and my own spot check) confirm this.

But if you’re concerned about cost—and committed to sustainability—there is a better solution: Grow your own food.

A few months ago I bought a packet of lettuce seeds for $1.99. It contained hundreds of seeds. I’ve already harvested eight heads of lettuce from them in a six-square-foot window box. Let’s say, to estimate conservatively, that the packet ends up yielding 25 heads of lettuce that weigh 1/3 pound each. Factoring in about $4.50 extra for fertilizer and water, the salad greens will have cost me around $0.78 a pound.

That’s a better deal by far than I’ll find at any farmers’ market. And perhaps the best value of all is that when I’m picking the greens for my lunch, I won’t have to listen to an Earth Mother with a handcrafted Celtic harp jamming to “Purple Haze.”—Rob Baedeker

model of sustainability
Let’s get this straight: Farmers’ markets are cheaper­ than supermarkets—by 7 to 35 percent, according to a 2010 study in Seattle. On a recent Saturday morning at California’s Alemany Farmers’ Market (which has sustained San Franciscans since 1943), organic Yukon gold potatoes went for $1 a pound, versus $1.25 at a nearby grocer; persimmons were $1.50 (versus $1.75); celery cost a buck (versus $1.95).

I saved enough that morning to sustain the purchase of a ticket to my favorite comedy group, Kasper Hauser (starring the hilarious, if occasionally wrongheaded, Rob Baedeker), but I wasn’t the only one appreciating the prices. Alemany managers confirm that more and more customers are paying with food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says food stamp redemption at farmers’ markets nationwide—while still just 0.01 percent of all redemptions—doubled in 2009, to $4 million.

Farmers’ market produce is also (news flash) fresher, tastier, and more varied. That $1 celery? Welcome to an earthy, artichokelike paradise you never knew could be celery. Elsewhere at Alemany, a Japanese-American farmer sells myoga (miso soup suffers without shreds of this gingery flower bud), and an Italian-American family sometimes has cardoons. I trust these people not to lie to my face about using harmful pesticides or soil additives, partly because, unlike corporate growers, they actually see my face.

Also, I sustain them: A 2008 survey by the journal Farmers’ Markets Today determined that 57 percent of vendors make the majority of their revenue at farmers’ markets.

Finally, these markets sustain diversity. Last weekend at Alemany, a burly male customer disparaged a batch of wilty greens—“In France, we fed those to cows”—until a Filipina vendor convinced him to try sautéing some. Rose De Santis (aka the Italian Citrus Lady) encouraged passersby to sample tiny, tart calamondins, while a middle-aged man nearby raved about the turnips: “Like the ones my mother used to boil in Iran!”

Soon everyone was buying turnips to boil, including me. Who knew they could taste so . . . sustaining?—Andy Raskin 

Photography by Aleksander Mijatovic/Shutterstock



This article was first published in August 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.