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Farmer’s Markets: Pricey or Budget-Friendly?

You know those crazy farmers market shoppers. They’re willing to pay absurd prices for everything from corn to turnips to broccoli, all because it’s local, organic, or both.

Or, wait, maybe it’s the other way around. The farmers market devotees are bargain hunters, looking to cut out the middleman and snap up a big sack of potatoes, dirt-cheap.

Peggy Mathison wasn’t sure what to think, because she’d never been to a farmers market. “Usually when things are local, I would imagine that they would be more expensive, but I really did not know,” said Mathison, a junior finance major at the Seattle University Albers School of Business.

Unlike the rest of us who like to sit around and argue about these things from our desk chairs, however, Mathison actually went and dug for answers. That’s thanks to Stacey Jones, a statistics and economics professor at Seattle U, who takes her classes out to the farmers markets every year to answer one question. Who has the cheapest produce: the farmers market, the regular supermarket, or the natural foods supermarket?

Jones has been conducting the study regularly since 2007, subject to the vagaries of the Northwest growing season. “The academic year and the farmers market year don’t mesh very well,” she said, “so when I teach in the spring, we get out there maybe late May, and it’s just barely getting going.” (Note to out-of-towners: come to a Seattle farmers market in April, and you’ll see the culinary equivalent of a beautiful person who just got out of bed.)

Comparing prices sounds like as straightforward a question as you’ll ever get in economics. And it is. Unfortunately, there are no straightforward questions in economics. At the supermarket, “do we use a card price or not?” asked Jones. “And then at the farmers market, you find something selling for $2 a pound but three pounds for $5. So do you go with the three pounds for $5 price? Or there are three different people selling the same thing at different prices. Do you take the lowest one? The average? The middle one? Do you choose randomly?”

The class settled on a “bargain price for normal quantities” approach. Yes, they would use the supermarket loyalty card price and the lowest-priced farmers market vendor. But no 20-pound potato sacks. And to make sure they were comparing (apologies in advance for the tired cliche) apples to apples, they set two other ground rules: all produce must be certified organic (because that’s what dominates at the farmers market), and they compare quantities by weight, not per piece or per bunch. Or, as Jones put it, “You have a bunch of beets? What’s a bunch of beets?”

Okay, enough teasing. Here’s what Mathison and the other students found: prices for organic produce at the farmers market are, on average, lower than regular supermarket prices and about the same as natural foods store prices. “Whole Foods, that surprised me,” said Jones. “Whole Foods ended up being quite comparable. It’s easy to spend a lot of money there, but it’s not because you’re spending a lot of money on broccoli.”

The study is in its fourth year now and the findings have been consistent. “If you thought the farmers market was cheaper, it’s not,” said Jones. “If you thought it was more expensive, it’s not.”

That kind of result can be spun in any number of ways. The farmers market association’s web site trumpets it as proof that farmers markets aren’t overpriced. (You can see some specific results from the study at that link.) Meanwhile, Madison Market, a natural foods coop included in the study, has also posted a sign calling attention to the findings. After all, the study showed that Madison Market is no more expensive than the farmers market.

For Jones, this is kind of the point. “Students realize, I’ve got this information and I can spin it this way and I can spin it that way. Hopefully that results in them being more critical when they’re presented with information like that.”

Some of the young spin doctors then return to the market with homemade posters to display their results. (The posters, I must say, have a charming science-fair aesthetic.) Mathison returned to the University District Farmers Market, where she’d spent a day pricing produce. “We just talked to the people around there and they really appreciated it,” she said. “The bottom line was, who was the cheapest? That was probably the number-one question.”

“My other ulterior motive is just to get students to a farmers market,” admitted Jones. Some of her students shop at the farmers market regularly. Others, like Mathison, had never been before and need help identifying some of the vegetables on the list. “Leeks, that was one,” said Jones. “What is that? What does that look like?”

A few other farmers market pricing studies have been done around the country, including Iowa and California, and they generally confirm Jones and her class’s conclusion.

I had one last question for Mathison. Now that she’s spent a couple of days at the farmers market and knows the prices are competitive and the turnips incomparably fresh, has she been back to shop for her own meals?

There was a silence on the line. “No, I have not,” she said. “I don’t live by campus, so there’s not really a farmers market. I still go back to QFC, even thought it was the most expensive one. Oh well, it’s convenient.”