If you’re a frequent farmers market shopper, you’ve probably noticed how a single item can vary in price among not only different vendors at the same market but also the same vendors at different markets.
Consider the tomato. We informally surveyed area market managers about what their vendors would be charging for the summertime staple and got answers that were, well, all over the map. The upshot: Vendors charge higher prices, for the most part, at urban markets.
Data collected by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services seems to bear that out.The department’s Virginia Market News Service publishes prices voluntarily submitted by farmers markets around the state. In the September 2015 publication, which included about a dozen market reports, the average per-pound price of tomatoes was $2.42, with a range of $1 to $3.50 per pound. You’re more likely to find tomatoes in the $1-to-$1.50-per-pound range in more rural areas, such as Danville, Amelia Courthouse and Roanoke, than you are in Northern Virginia, though the report does include prices as high as $3.50 in Lexington and as low as $1.50 in Fredericksburg.
Our informal survey around the region found prices predominantly in the $3-to-$4-per-pound range, though in locations such as Arlington, Bethesda and Frederick, they approached $5. (Meanwhile, Licking Creek Bend Farm expects to charge $1.69 for smaller tomatoes and $2.29 for beefsteaks and heirlooms — among the lowest prices we found — at markets including those in Adams Morgan, Brookland, Ward 8, Bethesda and Gaithersburg.)
“We don’t always have the same prices in all of our markets,” said Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm, which operates two markets in the District and participates in the longstanding Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market. Come August, he expects he’ll charge around $3.20 per pound for non-heirloom tomatoes and $4.20 for heirlooms, all of which are certified organic. Prices at his two markets, near Van Ness and Eastern Market, are usually a bit lower than at Dupont, which he said is more about not wanting to undercut his fellow vendors there than anything else.
Vendors at Dupont usually have similar, but not identical prices. “We definitely don’t collude on pricing,” Crawford said. His prices tend to be on the lower end of the spectrum, he said. In theory, his certified organic produce should command a premium, but he’s unwilling to further raise prices in an already pricey market. “It spoils the reputation of the market,” he says, and could drive customers away.
Why do prices vary so much from market to market? Crawford confirmed at least one factor that might play into higher prices: location. At Dupont, “that neighborhood is a lot more affluent, and the vendors there all know that,” he said.
Brad Miller of Miller Farms sells mostly in Prince George’s County, at his own farm stand as well as at several other markets. That’s an area where he said he’d never be able to sell tomatoes for $5, $3.50 or even $3 a pound. “If they can get that, more power to them, but I want to sell my tomatoes,” Miller said. “I’d rather see them go to a good home. I’d rather sell it than dump it.”
Miller said come peak season, he’ll probably sell tomatoes for $1.99 per pound. He also packages them by the quart to speed up transactions and bypass weighing; it can be time-consuming and costly to get scales checked.
Demographics play into another aspect of pricing, said Eli Cook of Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in Romney, W.Va. He estimates his field-grown tomatoes will range in price from $2.99 to $3.49 per pound this summer, depending partly on which items he sends to which markets. At his markets in the city, including Dupont and FreshFarm’s White House location, more customers may want heirloom varieties, which are harder to grow, leading to higher prices. (Cook said his yield on heirloom tomatoes is around 50 percent, while it’s 70 percent on more-standard varieties.)
Those urban customers are more likely to be single people, Cook said, which means he has to hire more people to work the stand to handle the greater volume of smaller transactions: $7 to $9 vs. the average $30 to $40 in more family-heavy Burke, where Spring Valley also sells. Those wage costs may be a driving factor in higher prices, as well.
Being in the city can affect prices in other ways. Miller said that, for example, when his team comes to sell at the Capital Harvest on the Plaza market at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, parking challenges mean they have to drive a smaller truck that carries less stock. It’s classic supply and demand: less supply, more demand and higher prices. “We want to take stuff that’s going to pay the bills,” Miller said.
Vendors may also vary their prices based on market fees. Fairfax County, for example, manages a dozen markets and charges a flat annual fee of $325 for a 10-by-10-foot tent, with $150 per additional tent.
Municipally managed markets tend to charge lower, one-time-only fees, Cook said. On the other hand, FreshFarm collects 6 percent of each farm’s weekly self-reported sales (rates are higher for prepared food and coffee vendors). Field to Table, which operates the Westover and Fairlington markets in Arlington, where Spring Valley also sells, employs a hybrid fee structure. Vendors pay either 5 percent of their sales or a fixed fee based on the size of their space, whichever is greater, each week.
Where the farmer pays higher fees, “we have to try to offset costs a little bit,” said Cook, who is quick to add that customers get what they pay for and that he appreciates the marketing and quality control that higher-fee organizations charge.
“If we have to pay rent somewhere, that’s kind of an extra person I have to pay,” Miller said. “I really don’t like to pay rent. I don’t know anyone that does,” though he also said he values the work that the management at the Capital Harvest market does.
While there are a variety of reasons for charging different prices depending on location, some farms choose a different strategy.
Kuhn Orchards, based in Cashtown, Pa., sells at a dozen markets throughout the District and Northern Virginia. Although it used to charge different prices depending on the location, they’re now consistent across the board. Part of that is to make it easier for employees, who now no longer have to remember more than one price per item, owner Sidney Kuhn said. Their heirloom tomatoes will retail for $3.49 per pound.
Similarly, Twin Springs Fruit Farm, out of Ortanna, Pa., keeps its prices the same at the 20 markets it participates in, which are a mix of its own and those managed by others. It helps make the farm’s weekly (very informative, by the way) newsletter easier, plus addresses the fact that the same customers might be shopping at multiple markets.
Regardless of the variations, or lack thereof, farmers want you to think about what goes into growing their produce and what’s involved in bringing them to market, not to mention how they taste. If you have a question about the price, they say, just ask.
“Most people don’t speak up about price at all,” Crawford said. “They just don’t think it’s polite.”
“We’d much rather hear people’s reactions to our prices,” he added. “We do tend to respond to the squeaky wheel.”