May 2, 2016

Study finds farmers markets competitive

Vermont consumers under the impression that farmers markets are too expensive may want to think again.

A recently released Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets pilot study concluded that the state’s farmers markets are often price-competitive with supermarkets, especially when it comes to organic produce.

“There’s always been that stigma around the farmers markets pricing,” said Hailee May, the agency’s local foods tracking administrative coordinator.

“A Comparison Study of Product Pricing at Vermont Farmers’ Markets and Retail Establishments” concluded that, “commonly purchased food items can be affordably priced at farmers’ markets.”

In particular, the survey found that farmers markets were price-competitive when it came to organic fruits and vegetables, and especially locally grown organic produce.

The pilot study also found that locally produced meats and eggs are competitive with supermarkets more than 50 percent of the time.

The study defines competitive as being within a 10 percent price range.

But for a shopper who buys solely based on price, farmers markets may not be the best choice.

“If price is the only factor driving consumer purchasing, farmers markets are generally not the most affordable option. Farmers markets are a good option for consumers whose purchasing decisions are driven by price as well as local and/or organic attributes,” the study said.

“There’s always been that stigma around the farmers markets pricing,” said Hailee May, the agency’s local foods tracking administrative coordinator.

It found that when it comes to general produce found in the supermarket, farmers markets are only competitive a third of the time.

Last August, the agency conducted a price survey on more than 50 products at 13 farmers markets, including local and non-locally grown products, organic and non-organic produce, meat, poultry and eggs. Prices were compared to similar products at five retail establishments in central Vermont, including grocery and convenience stores.

Local farmer Greg Cox said the study just confirms what he has known all along.

“For years now, I’ve been very well aware that people can actually shop at the farmers market for less money than they can at supermarkets,” said Cox, who serves on the board of the Vermont Farmers Market. “The catch is that you have to shop the farmers market as if it’s a supermarket.”

By that, Cox said, a savvy shopper will go around and compare prices from different vendors at the market to get the best deal.

Cox said several years ago a Green Mountain College student wrote a paper comparing supermarket and the local farmers market prices. The result was that a family could save quite a bit of money shopping at the local farmers market and even more shopping for organic produce, Cox said.

Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont spokeswoman Maddie Monty said consumers often can get a better deal on “certain items at farmers markets when they’re in season.”

“When things are in season (and) a farmer has a booming crop of a particular item then you might be able to get that actually cheaper than at a grocery store,” said Monty, NOFA-Vt’s policy and office manager.

She said that locally grown produce is often less expensive because of the shipping costs supermarkets pay to source products from long distances, like California.

According to the August 2015 price survey comparing local, certified organic produce, broccoli averaged $3.38 a pound at farmers markets compared to $3.59 in stores. Lettuce was a penny cheaper at farmers markets at $1.99 a pound.

Tomatoes at $4.38 a pound were quite a bit cheaper at farmers markets than tomatoes sold in stores priced at $5.98 a pound.

Blueberries, on the other hand, were more expensive at the state’s farmers’ markets at $5.25 a pound compared to $4.01 in stores.

For consumers buying strictly non-organic produce, stores are often less expensive. The average price of a pound of broccoli at the state’s farmers markets was $3.49 a pound compared to $1.69 in stores. Green beans were $4.75 a pound versus $2.32 in stores. Lettuce was $2.50 a pound while the average store price was $2.16. Strawberries were less expensive at $4.50 a pound compared to $5.99 in stores.

Cox said supermarket advertising can be very effective in convincing consumers chain stores are the cheapest place to shop. “Corporate food controls the message,” he said.

Cox said someone in the 3SquaresVt (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can save even more by taking advantage of Crop Cash coupons. He said for every $10 purchase using 3SquaresVt at checkout, farmers markets around the state that accept the EBT benefits card will double the value so $10 becomes $20 in purchasing power.

While shoppers may save money on general produce at the supermarket, Monty said there are other reasons for shopping at farmers markets, “including the freshness of the produce.”

She also said buying locally grown produce reduces the carbon footprint compared to supermarkets which have to haul products long distances.

Farmers markets also give consumers an opportunity to talk directly to the farmer who’s growing the fruits and vegetables they’re buying, Monty said.

Key findings of the pilot study included that for certified organic produce, 92 percent of the items surveyed at farmers markets were competitively priced with the same items found at stores.

Of the locally grown, certified-organic items surveyed, 89 percent were almost always competitively priced with products sold at stores. The price comparison also found that 66 percent of the items were actually less expensive than the same items sold in stores.

For locally produced meats and eggs, 57 percent of the items surveyed were competitively priced with retail stores.

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