Job Available: Economist that can explain farmers markets

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I don’t for a minute think that the Oregon farmers are raking it in. I don’t believe that the farmers at the NYC Greenmarket drive their shabby trucks around the corner and get into a limo.
One peach I don’t get it. I’ve tried, but obviously I need a professional who can explain why farmer’s markets in Italy are so dirt cheap and so prohibitively expensive in the USA.

This morning at the market, my first stop was at the Sicilian boys and I bought 6 or 7 peaches, 3 peppers, 7 or 8 plum tomatoes, and a bunch of red Tropea onions: 2.60 euro.
Then over to the other guys that are totally local: 20 friggere peppers, a fistful of broad beans, a cantaloupe: 1.30. Monseur the Crook was 2 euros for 10 zucchini flowers and 6 figs. It was 2,10, but he gave me 10 cents as a ‘regalo’ or gift.

On the way home I turned to Jeff and said we have to live here forever because we can’t afford to live anywhere else. 

In the back of my brain was this article from the Oregon News about comparing costs of shopping at stores or farmer’s markets, and if this is what they are paying for vegetables in Oregon, I’m canceling my flight back to NY because we will starve. Tropea onions

I don’t for a minute think that the Oregon farmers are raking it in. I don’t believe that the farmers at the NYC Greenmarket drive their shabby trucks around the corner and get into a limo.

So, what’s up with the price differences? Why is a NYC Greenmarket experience something that is confined to the wealthy? Why does some asparagus and rhubarb cost $7.50 in Portland?

Farmer’s markets are incredibly inefficient ways to deliver food to the masses, but they seem to work in Europe but not in the States. Why?

I’m truly looking for insight here, so please post your comments and let’s figure this thing out.

5 Responses to "Job Available: Economist that can explain farmers markets"
  1. It would have been nice to know what, exactly, they bought and compared from the different places. I feel pretty confidant saying that New Seasons is wayyyy more expensive than the Portland Farmers Market; I shop at both places almost weekly, and I’m always comparing prices. The Rainier cherries I bought at the PFM were barely $2.00/lb, while those at New Seasons that same day were $4.00/lb! And the quality is better–even though New Seasons does source local products, they’re still buying in mass quantities. I think you have to be a smart shopper. I always tour the farmers market when I get there to find the best price on the best-looking produce, and I don’t worry about organic. Farmers who can’t afford the organic certification will usually have a sign that says “pesticide-free,” and honestly, I don’t have much faith in an organic label.
    Another point is that the article compared prices at the Portland Farmers Market, the largest, most expensive market in Portland. At the Lents International Farmers Market, which is five blocks from my house, the prices are much, much lower, because 1. they don’t have to pay insane prices to rent the space (I have no idea how much PFM pays for space on the downtown Park Blocks, but I’m thinking it’s not cheap); 2. the farmers generally only grow a few items, rather than trying to provide all your produce needs (that’s another thing–at PFM, the farmers who specialize in just a few vegetables/fruits are generally cheaper); and 3. the market is in a non-gentrified (read: poor) area of Portland, and as such tries to serve the local (non-rich) community. There are many other examples of these smaller markets all around Portland. I almost view PFM as the tourist trap, with locals in the know going elsewhere for their food.
    These are just my own ideas, though, and I could be way off the mark. I am most certainly not an economist!

  2. Well, I think one reason why our US farmer’s markets tend to be more expensive is economies of scale. Most, if not all, of the farmers at farmer’s markets are small. Their overhead is high and the amount of labor they expend is tremendous. Growing an acre of lettuce is a lot more costly than growing 10,000 acres of lettuce.

    But in NYC, as you know Jude, the differential between farmer’s markets and “supermarkets” is not that great. Good farmer’s market tomatoes at $3.50 a pound are worth it; crappy supermarket tomatoes at $3 a pound are not.

    If you’re a smart and savvy shopper in NYC you can get deals. Even Whole Foods has things on sale every once in a while.

    The multitude of street corner vendors (I wrote about my guy here…http://tiny.cc/OsXuQ) often have the best prices – perhaps they can be seen as the equivalent of the little farmer’s markets in Italy. I’ve been getting wonderful peaches and apricots and cherries; pineapple, canteloupe and more, all at prices well below that of the farmer’s market, Whole Foods and, gasp, Fine Fare (our local grocery).

    There are great prices to be had at “farm” stands in the wilds of Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx. That’s where the larger ethnic groups shop. Real estate is a heckuva lot cheaper in the outlying boroughs than in Manhattan…that’s just the cost of doing biz.

    And I think the bottom line is that the farmers charge what the market will bear. If no one buys the tomatoes at $3.50 a pound, the price will come down; or, the farmer will stop growing them.

  3. I think you may have hit on
    an interesting point: ethnic neighborhoods have cheaper vegetables and
    meats.  Look at the prices at the Essex St. Market, good produce,
    reasonably priced. But those markets are using commercially grown
    produce, not small farmer produced. So, I can understand the economies
    of scale in the US where efficiency leads to lower costs, but how do
    the small Italian farmers do it? I still don’t have a handle on that.
    J.

  4. I think it might be as simple as Italy being one big ethnic market. After all, when you go to the weekly market in Citta di Castello, I’d venture a guess that 80 – 90% of the shoppers are Italians.

    And economies of scale are of a different paradigm in Italy, I would imagine, since the country is so much smaller geographically.

    Of course, these are all just guesses on my part. My final guess is that Italians simply wont pay more than they think the product is worth, whereas at the Union Square greenmarket,. people are so blown away by the quanlity and variety of produce that they don’t even think about the price.

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