A Dollar Well-Spent

June 14, 2010

“Our never-ending quest for cheap food is the root cause of the transformation of American Agriculture from a system of small, diversified, independently operated family farms into a system of large-scale, industrialized, corporately controlled agribusinesses.” – John Ikerd, in “The High Cost of Cheap Food,” published in Small Farm Today, July/Aug 2001.

Are farmers’ market prices really too high? A dollar spent on food from a local farm buys more than just groceries. In addition to sustenance, real nutrition and good flavor, it also buys vibrant rural communities, food security, and confidence in your food supply.
Nobody likes to pay high prices for food, and few people can afford to. But good food is not cheap, and price is a complex issue that can only be discussed in conjunction with other factors like flavor, quality, sustainability, and nutrition. Farmers charge what they believe is a fair price, and a growing number of loyal farmers’ market shoppers agree.  When people are willing to spend money on good local food, it benefits the farmer, the local economy, the consumer, and the environment.

When you shop at the farmers’ market, here’s what you get for your money:

Food grown by hand
Labor is generally the largest expense for farmers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.* Sustainable and diverse farms often use labor-intensive practices, such as hand-weeding, as an alternative to spraying herbicides or other conventional techniques. Small farms (and those that offer better wages or benefits) have higher labor costs than more mechanized large farms,  and the average size of Ferry Plaza Farmers Market farms, excluding ranchlands, is only 79 acres (1).  When people object to her prices, Jill Kayne of Four Sisters Farm takes the opportunity to educate. “On a small farm like ours, everything must be done by hand and there are very high labor costs,” she tells customers. “I wish you could watch the guys hand-pick each stem of kale.”

High quality produce
Unlike fruit in supermarkets that’s often picked green to prevent damage during long-distance transit, food at the farmers’ market is sold at its freshest. “I bring my produce so ripe that I end up losing some of what I don’t sell,” says Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun. “It gets bruised from customer handling. I dehydrate it when I can, or donate it to Food Runners. But I have to factor these losses into my prices.”

Excellent value
When thrifty shoppers buy an appliance or a pair of shoes, they don’t necessarily choose the cheapest product. They also look at quality and value. Food here is some of the freshest and best available.  Better farming practices result in better tasting food, and the flavor of the food at Ferry Plaza speaks for itself. Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm says of his popular eggs from pasture-raised hens, “If you don’t want to pay this price for eggs, don’t ever try them–because once you taste these, you won’t ever want to buy anything else.”

Farmland stewardship
Many of the farmers that sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market care deeply about their land and are willing to spend a little more on high quality soil amendments and other inputs for their crops. Half of the farms are certified organic; many more use environmentally sustainable practices. The materials that are better for people and the planet often cost more. Michele Ross of Ella Bella Farm says, “Our ability to charge retail prices at the farmers’ market allows us to take care of the land the way we want and to do more long term planning. When farmers are at the mercy of wholesale prices, they often cut corners. A lot of farmers have to take out loans just to get their crops in the ground.”

Unique fruits and vegetables
Many of the produce varieties sold at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market are selected for flavor and may have lower yields than the varieties you see in the supermarket. This makes them more expensive for farmers to grow. In addition, some farmers use methods that result in better taste, nutrition, and/or sustainability, but produce a smaller harvest. For example, the dry-farmed tomato plants of Dirty Girl Produce generate only about ⅓ the yield of irrigated tomatoes. 

Local farms stay in business
Farming is financially risky and not very lucrative. Excluding the largest 7% of farms (those with annual sales greater than $250,000), U.S. farm households have, on average, negative farm operating profits. Most farmers must seek other income in order to stay in business. (2)  If consumers don’t pay enough to make farming profitable, we run the risk of losing our region’s farmers, our local food security and our agricultural landscape.


Even with these many benefits, produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is not much more expensive, and frequently costs less, than that at nearby supermarkets (for detailed data, see CUESA’s price comparison handout).

No matter where you buy them, though, fresh vegetables and fruits are far more expensive per calorie than fats, sugars, and cereals. According to one recent study, a day’s worth of calories from oil or sugar could be purchased for under $1, whereas the same amount of calories from strawberries or lettuce was several hundred times that. (3) Though vegetables and fruits are pricier than more filling foods like grains and legumes, they are a crucial component of human nutrition. When the USDA recommends 5-9 servings per day of fruits and vegetables, we can’t afford not to eat them.

So why does produce cost more than dry goods? In part, because it is perishable and harder to transport, but the low prices of processed foods are even more a result of subsidies. The main building blocks of processed food, such as the corn from which high fructose corn syrup is made, are heavily funded by the U.S. government. While these products may seem cheap at the cash register, we pay for them again through our taxes. Until America restructures our food policies and ensures that all residents have access to nutritious food, those who want a healthy diet must be willing to spend more.

To put it all into perspective: America has some of the most affordable food in the world. Though food here may not seem cheap, Americans spend only about 10% of their household budget on food–less than most other countries in the world (4). In addition, the percentage of our income spent on food has been decreasing over time and is half what it was in 1950 (5). Spending is a value decision, and our culture encourages us to spend more on amenities like cable television and designer clothing and less on nutritious food.  As managers of a farmers’ market, our bias is obvious, but we think that good food is worth paying for.

* Market sellers vary in their sustainability practices. For example, 50% are certified organic, 67% use cover crops, and 57% actively create habitat for beneficial organisms (1).

Photo by Kyle McDonald

1. Self-reported data from CUESA survey of farmers, December 2007
2. USDA ERS: Economic Well-Being of Farm Households, March 2006
3. Drewnowski A. Obesity and the food environment: dietary energy density and diet costs.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2004; 27(3S):154-162
4. UN FAO: Share of Food to Total Consumption, May 2006
5. USDA ERS: Food CPI, Prices and expenditures: Food Expenditures By Families and Individuals as a Share of Disposable Personal Income, July 2007