By Tom Cherveny, West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.
Ask people why they shop at farmers markets and they will answer one, two and three: They like the freshness and quality of the produce, supporting the local economy, and the social interaction they find.
"If you ask, price doesn't enter. It isn't in the top three,'' said Ryan Pesch, a market coordinator with the University of Minnesota Extension.
And yet, Pesch and University of Minnesota undergraduate student Maria Keeler found that price represents one of the best reasons to shop the local farmers market.
On average, they found that the prices for traditional produce such as tomatoes and onions were lower when purchased at farmers markets in west central Minnesota as compared to prices at big box supermarkets, traditional grocery stores, and specialized local food stores.
They found that a mixed basket of produce including nine different vegetables, from cabbage to zucchini, cost an average of $12.85 at farmers markets and $14.33 at grocery stores. They published their price study in February.
While farmers markets offered the lower price on average, they also had the greatest variation in prices. Prices could vary from vendor to vendor and market to market, Pesch said. The variations could often be explained by differences in how producers raised their vegetables and the varieties. All tomatoes are not created equal.
Along with a better price on average, Pesch, himself a local foods producer and vendor, argues that shoppers at farmers markets enjoy higher-quality produce as well, certainly in terms of freshness. The lion's share of produce sold at traditional grocery stores is trucked long distances, he said.
He and Keeler undertook the pricing study to find the answers that a lot of vendors at farmers markets have been seeking. While farmers market consumers may not always be price-sensitive, the vendors are, Pesch said. They are constantly looking over their shoulders at what prices the grocery stores and others are asking.
The Thursday afternoon Becker Market in Willmar was among the farmers markets selected for the analysis. Market director Nancy Johnson said she was not surprised by the findings. Johnson said she has always felt that consumers enjoy "extra good value'' not only because of price, but because of the freshness and nutritional value of the local goods.
She noted that Willmar is fortunate in that it also has Wednesday and Saturday farmers markets that join large numbers of producers and consumers. "We're trying to grow the local economy,'' she said.
The desire to support the local foods economy and to enjoy fresh, healthy foods are the big motivations for consumers at farmers markets whether they live in the metropolitan area or greater Minnesota, according to Pesch. Previously, he studied consumer attitudes at farmers markets in Renville County and found that they matched exactly with their urban counterparts.
But until now, he said there has often been a "mixed message'' when it came to pricing at farmers markets. Some view them as "overpriced meat boutiques,'' and others as "end-of-season bargains.'' In truth, shoppers can both pay a premium or find a bargain at farmers market, but on average, they get very good value on their dollar, the analysis showed.
About the study:
The price study is based on shopping trips conducted during July and August of last year to farmers markets in Willmar, Alexandria, Benson, Fergus Falls, Lowry, Morris and Sauk Centre. They also shopped major discount and traditional chain stores in the same towns, except for Lowry. They also shopped the Kadejan Market in Glenwood and the Pomme-de-Terre Co-op in Morris.
Prices were analyzed through the season on cabbage, cucumbers, green peppers, onions, string beans, summer squash, sweet corn, tomatoes and zucchini.