Last fall we set out to answer the question, "How does local food compare on price?" The assumption among many people is that it is more expensive. Is it? We wanted to find out. The data some of you collected help us come up with our first take on a very complex question. Before I discuss the results, let's look at The Fine Print.

This project had some limitations that it's fair to name up front. First, timing. We launched it in early October, a time when many farmers markets are preparing to close for the season. Some participants told us that a number of vegetables on our list were no longer available, while others said the vegetables on our list were out of season in their enviably warm climates. Future surveys will need to include more types of vegetables, and should be conducted earlier in the growing season. Second, we required people to submit prices in price per pound, which may have led to numerical errors when converting items sold by the piece. Our third limitation was a poor assumption we made when designing the survey. We assumed that the produce available in the grocery store was not local. Now, mostly that's true, but there are exceptions which weren't accounted for in our data. Our essential comparison, then, was between farmers market produce (local) and store-bought (not). Finally, we had a relatively small number of participants. Of the approximately 300 people who entered some amount of data, we had 116 complete surveys containing valid data. We hope to have many more data points in our summer survey; the more data, the more valid the results. Here is a copy of our original survey.

All this said, our survey indicated that for both organic and conventional produce, the average price paid at the farmers market for all surveyed items was slightly higher than at a 'regular' grocery store, and slightly lower than at a 'upscale' grocery store like Whole Foods. We did not have enough data for discount grocery stores like Walmart, co-ops, or farm stands to include them. Combining all 16 items surveyed, the average price per pound paid for organic produce at a regular grocery store was $1.79 , compared to $1.87 at the farmers market, and $1.66 vs. $1.88 for conventional produce. (That's right – conventional produce came out a penny higher than organic produce at the farmers market!) The same price comparison at a premium grocery store showed organic produce at $2.14/pound, compared with the farmers markets' $1.87, and $1.95/pound for conventional produce, against the markets' $1.88.

The professor of any introduction to statistics class will tell you that averages hide a lot of things. Take organic apples, for example. On average, they were $1.70/pound at the farmers markets, compared to $2.13 at regular groceries and $2.09 at premium groceries. Organic leeks were less than half price at farmers markets, compared to regular grocery stores. The regular grocery stores had the best prices on organic celery, onions, sweet potatoes and turnips, compared to farmers market prices. One last surprising snippet from our data is that across venues, organically grown cauliflower, chard, cabbage and kale were less expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts.

When we introduced the idea of doing a price comparison, a handful of newsletter readers wrote to express their misgivings. They thought that by focusing on costs we were betraying the complexity of the equation: price is not, after all, the only value when making food choices. We couldn't agree more. Still, we were curious and we carried on, but with a promise to give voice to the reasons beyond price that buying food directly from farmers is a Very Good Idea. It bears remembering how much small businesses contribute to local economies, how much more secure a decentralized food system is, and how spiritually nurturing it is to eat food you are acquainted with, as it were.

One farmer who wrote to us noted the age difference between the food he sells at the farmers market and that found at a grocery store. "Many people try to compare our pricing with local markets, when they have priced an item that is about to perish, and is marked down," he said. "People looking for the very cheapest, will never be satisfied, as produce will never be cheap enough…." Another farmer talked about value, distinct from price. "You need to focus on value, price is only an issue for commodities. I don't view food as a commodity. Focus on the following values. Is the product being sold less than 3 days old? Ninety-nine percent of supermarket produce is much older. Is the product produced with the highest regard for food safety? Food produced in other countries may or may not, is it worth the few pennies less? Is the labor force treated well and justly compensated? Either organic or conventionally grown, is the pesticide program in full compliance with the law? How might it exceed it? It is all about Value!"

That's right. If the produce at the store is a little cheaper but goes bad in your crisper before you can eat it, it wasn't a very good bargain. If produce from the farmers market is fresh and flavorful and a joy both to buy and to eat, then that IS a good deal, even if you paid a few cents more for it. That's the bottom line as we understand it thus far.

For another investigation of this topic, we invite you to read an excellent article written by Emily Oakley and Michael Appel of Three Springs Farm in Oaks, OK and published in "Growing for Market." Emily and Michael compared the price of the produce they sold at the farmers market with that sold at an Albertson's, Wild Oats, and Walmart. Their produce was cheaper overall in both spring and summer. You may read it here.