"Bring your checkbook," my neighbor joked from across the street as he watched my husband and I, reusable bags purposefully slung over our shoulders, leaving for our local farmers market one Sunday morning.
We waved and shrugged, feeling just a little bit like suckers. I live in the Studio City section of Los Angeles — a few hours car ride from California's Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. Straight up, some things at the farmers market — like grass-fed beef driven down from a ranch in Northern California — are much more expensive. But was I really paying more for the everyday produce I bought there?
One glorious Sunday in April I browsed the stands, price-checking items I regularly bring home, and then went directly to my local Ralph's, a popular Southern California chain owned by Kroger, and crunched the numbers.
First, as far as freshness and taste goes — sorry, Ralph's, you're good, but there's just no comparing you to the freshness of a farmers market. Price-wise, here's what I found.
Farmers Market Winners
Overall if you like to opt for organic, can eat large quantities of vegetables, and shop the bargains, the farmers market beat the pants off the supermarket. Several stands were offering "three things for $5" deals — which break down to $1.66 per item. Veggies that could be included in this deal were bunches of carrots ($1.99 at Ralph's), luxuriously leafy bunches of celery ($2.29 for a pale bunch of celery hearts at Ralph's), any kind of kale you could think of ($1.99 at Ralph's,) leafy red and green lettuce, and assorted herbs.
Beyond that fiver bargain, here's what else I found.
- Organic snap peas were $5 per pound but priced at $6.39 a pound at the grocer (and only available in pre-packaged 10-ounce containers for $3.99).
- Beautiful organic fennel was $3 a head versus $3.99 for a very anemic-looking head at Ralph's.
- Huge artichokes were exactly the same ($3 each), but the farmers market offered them at two for $5 for bulk shoppers.
- Cauliflower was huge winner. Whole cauliflower at the farmers market was $4 (smaller heads were $2) and weighing in at two pounds, 5 ounces, it was a better deal than either the organic or regular whole cauliflowers at Ralph's, which were priced per pound and would have been at least 50 cents more.
- Organic parsley could be had for $1 a bunch versus Ralph's $1.49.
- Beets were in abundance and a steal at the farmers market, coming in at $2 a bunch versus $3.39 at Ralph's.
- Prewashed, mixed salad greens were $8 a pound at both places, but I would still go with one of my favorite vendors at my market, whose selection allows me to mix and match a huge variety of both greens and mixes including sweet mix, spicy mix, mesclun, and wild arugula. I can also buy the amount I want and, I know from experience, the greens last 10 days easy.
- Asparagus was another tie, $3 at both places, but two bunches could be snagged at the farmers market for $5.
Farmers Market Losers
- Apples are going out of season and the farmers market had a small, expensive selection, while the supermarket's imports were plentiful and ran from $3 to $1 per pound.
- Driscoll brand strawberries at Ralph's were nearly half the price per pound as the farmers market, but did not look as good and there were no organic to chose from on my visit. Ralph's was selling two pounds of conventional strawberries (packed in one-pound plastic clamshells) for $5. At the market, a flat of three one-pint berry boxes, typically weighing about 2.25 pounds, ranged from $10 (conventional) to $13 (organic.) Honestly, though, I might still go for the farmers market. I'll quote my mom who, once on a visit from suburban Boston, said "I can't tell your father about these. He'll feel bad. We don't get strawberries that taste like this."
- Garlic was twice as much at the market (two for $1 at Ralph's, $1 each at the market).
- Most conventional (non-organic regular produce) — like celery, carrots, lemons, and potatoes — were all less expensive, from 25 to 50 cents per pound at Ralph's.
The additional farmers market pros are obvious: Supporting local farmers, buying the amount you want, and knowing where your food comes from. Talking to the vendors at my market, I found out much of the produce is grown without using chemical pesticides even if it is not certified organic.
Over the years, I've also been scolded to smell (not press on) peaches to test ripeness, delved into the dating of eggs (the Julian date is when they were gathered; the packing date used by many stores can be much later), and had the meat vendor actually be interested in how I had prepared the previous week's purchases.
My takeaway: Farmers market prices are not necessarily higher than supermarket prices — especially if you look for deals.
Have you found your local farmers market to have better prices than your town's grocery store? Tell us about your findings in the comments below!