A Farmer's Perspective On Setting Farmers' Market Prices

2011_11_15-shallots.jpgA little while ago we noted a story about famers charging more for their produce at the farmer's market than what it can be purchased for in a grocery store. The article cited from Grub Street speculates that this is because restaurant demand is upping prices, but I'm more interested in finding out what the farmers themselves are thinking. Mike Madison, a long-term vendor at the Davis, CA Farmer's Market, has just written an excellent article on this very subject.

If you shop at a famers' market, you must read his thoughtful exploration into 'The Farmer's Dilemma.'

Mr. Madison's article, The Farmer's Dilemma: Setting a Price, was published in the Fall/Winter edition of Edible East Bay.

• Read the article online: The Farmer's Dilemma: Setting a Price

In it he explores the four ways a farmer can look at pricing his offerings at the market: The Just Price, The Business School Price, The Comparable-Income Price and The Fair-Trade Price. It's a fascinating look into the complex decisions and personal values a farmer must consider when setting their prices.

In reading this article, I starting to think about why I shop at farmers' markets. My reasons are fairly typical. I think. Like most people, I want to support my local economy and buy local food, and I find that for the most part the produce there is fresher and better tasting than most supermarket offerings. I also enjoy the experience of the market, the somewhat romantic notion of participating in a way of doing business that has been in place for millennia. I like to put my hard earned cash into the hands of someone directly involved in growing my food, from warm hand to warm hand. The way human beings have been buying food for the last 10,000 years or so.

To do this, I'm willing to pay a little more, although that's not always the case: sometimes the farmers' market is actually cheaper than the grocery store. What I don't want is to be ripped off, or have my 'romantic notions' of shopping at the farmers' market taken advantage of. If I wanted to participate in the Business School Price and Comparable Income Price kind of exchange, I would stay with the grocery store where I would be more likely to place my hard earned cash into a more distant corporate hand. I don't want that kind of exchange from my farmers' market experience.

That said, I guess I can't judge a farmer for wanting to make as much as a lawyer or a banker. They likely have kids to put through school and equipment loans to pay off and frankly, farming is just as risky as Wall Street, if not more so. (And it doesn't come with employer-paid health benefits or a pension plan either!) It's also important to note that sometimes prices are higher because the farmer is in start-up mode, paying off a land purchase, for example, or the enormous upfront cost of buying seed.

But given a choice, I would rather buy my farmers market goods from Mike Madison at The Fair Trade Price. Not because he's the cheapest, but because I get the impression he's at the market for some of the same reasons I am. And greed doesn't seem to be one of them.

Related: It's True! Farmers' Markets are Cheaper than Supermarkets

(Originally published November 2011)

(Image: Dana Velden)

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.

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