Kristen Seibert steps up to the Crumptown Farms table one Saturday morning in late May and works her way down the artfully arranged piles of bok choy, chard and salad greens. She pauses in front of a stack of green garlic and chats with suntanned and smiling farmer Brad Constable about how to cook it.
“I talk to Brad every week,” says Seibert, an energetic small-business owner who shops at the Richmond market year-round. Sold, she tucks the bunch of garlic into her linen-lined shopping basket along with farm-fresh eggs, strawberries and the weekly produce that is part of her community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription. Siebert, who cooks for one, says she spends about $44 each week at the St. Stephen’s farmers market. She says she started shopping at the market to eat less processed food and improve her health.
“I know it costs more” than the grocery store, she admits. “But I sort of don’t care. I’m not counting my pennies like that.”
Visiting a farmers market involves discovering new vegetables, swapping recipes and feeling good about consuming healthful foods while supporting small, local farms. But that feel-good experience comes at a price.
In fact, farmers market prices average about twice those at my grocery, as I found when I comparison-shopped at the St. Stephen’s market and a nearby Kroger on the same May morning. I priced 10 produce and dairy items, including cage-free eggs, cheese, mushrooms, salad mix and both organic and conventional strawberries. I could have bought them all from Kroger for $31.37, but at the market I would have paid $64.62. (I didn’t compare meats, deciding that ranching is a whole other set of issues.)
Some studies suggest that farmers market pricing elsewhere can be closer to supermarket. But in Richmond, eating local simply isn’t budget-friendly.
For example, organic strawberries cost $6.50 per quart this summer at the local markets, while organic berries from the largest berry supplier in the United States, Driscoll’s, cost $3.59 a quart at my nearby Kroger. Granted, local growers pack quarts that weigh 1.5 pounds, while the Driscoll’s plastic clamshells hold only one pound. That brings the per-pound price difference down to 74 cents more for local berries, a smaller amount but still surprising given that Driscoll’s pays salaries of more than 40,000 employees, and all those berries travel thousands of miles under constant refrigeration. (Driscoll’s representatives declined to comment for this story.)
Those higher prices make strawberry farming in the Southeast quite profitable, according to a cost study from North Carolina State University. At first glance, it may look like small farms are simply price gouging, but the realities are far more complicated.
Because cost factors can often be idiosyncratic for each type of produce, I decided to focus on strawberries as a case study for price differences. The first factor I checked was economy of scale.
Both big and small farms have certain fixed expenses, such as installing a well, fixing a piece of equipment or paying interest on a loan. Those expenses are the same whether you’re farming one acre or 100. Spreading those fixed costs over a bigger farm means the cost per acre to run that farm is lower.
And yet, that’s not the main reason local produce costs more. Economy of scale helps, but in analyzing the costs, I found there just aren’t enough of those expenses to drive up local prices that much.
What I discovered instead is this critical factor: Strawberries absolutely love California. In fact, the Golden State produces 91 percent of the nation’s strawberry crop, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“We have a saying, ‘strawberry ground,’ ” says Oleg Daugovish, farm adviser at the University of California’s cooperative extension. “It’s expensive, valuable land, and the climate is the top thing. Orange County, the coastal plain is ideal. There’s no better place to grow strawberries.”
California farmers can cram in more plants per acre and produce far more pounds of berries each year than anyone else. For example, Virginia strawberry growers plant anywhere from 12,000 to 17,000 plants per acre. They are spaced 12 inches apart in two tidy rows per bed, snuggled under plastic mulch. California growers plant triple rows, squeezing in nearly 22,000 plants per acre.
In addition, California has a longer growing season. Ever-bearing plants there produce a steady supply of berries for seven months, while Virginia’s seasonal varieties shut down after about six weeks. Farmers in both states harvest berries daily, rotating their time across the fields so that each plant gets plucked every two to three days. But California has much more growing time.
“This is really the crux of the story,” says Barclay Poling, a retired strawberry horticulturist at N.C. State who now works directly with Virginia farmers. “The length of the picking season has a profound effect on yield per acre. The weekly yield levels on a per-acre basis in Virginia are as high as anywhere, but it’s the growing time that makes the difference.”
Given the same acreage, California produces about double what the rest of the country does, says Daugovish. “In fact, we are victims of our own success,” he says. “We have saturated the market to the point where people can’t eat them fast enough.” This increased volume among big growers is an additional pressure to keep prices competitively low.
Strawberry farming is done primarily by hand, no matter where the berries are planted or on what size farm. Field workers for large growers earn a “guaranteed minimum,” a pay rate that is monitored by various government and advocacy groups, says Daugovish. California’s minimum wage is slightly higher than Virginia’s, so labor costs are a bit of a differentiator but not the deciding factor.
For many small growers, farming is more a lifestyle than a business. They aren’t as ruthless about profit margins as their larger competitors. For example, Debra Stoneman farms 16.5 organic acres on the Byrd Farm in Columbia, Va., with her husband, Philip, their high-school-age daughter and two longtime employees.
“We don’t take any money out of this farm,” Stoneman says. She and her husband work long farmer’s hours for free and pay their bills using retirement income. At age 63, Stoneman can harvest a row of strawberries at blinding speed. But these days she spends more time doing administrative work and can rattle off most of her expenses with the accuracy of a chief financial officer on an earnings call.
Not that she’s concerned about big profits. “I’m here because I love it,” Stoneman says, “I know I’m fighting the good fight, and I’ll die up there on that hill.”
Stoneman’s prices aren’t always an accurate reflection of her product’s true cost. Pricing is an art that every small business struggles with, trying to find a sweet, profitable spot between what it costs to produce something and what price the market will pay for that item. Businesses tend to price lower for a high volume of steady sales and price higher for seasonal and specialty items. Fiddling with that equation is so complex that business school professors make careers out of teaching it. And it’s even harder if, like many small farmers, you don’t track your numbers.
“I set my prices around where the grocery stores are, the higher end,” says Crumptown farmer Brad Constable. “Sometimes I track costs, but there are so many that they get away from you quickly.” In California’s Central Valley, the small growers I checked were charging from $2.50 to $5 a pound for local strawberries.
Small farmers in both California and Virginia explained that they often set prices to account for their lower yields and better quality. They grow short-season summer varieties that prioritize flavor instead of hardiness, beauty and productivity.
Stoneman has only about three-quarters of an acre in organic strawberries, and with such small acreage she is more susceptible to losses due to Virginia’s unpredictable climate.
For example, she estimates that 50 percent of this year’s berry harvest molded in unusually heavy spring rains. The Byrd Farm can’t supplement with fields in drier parts of the Southeast, or even Mexico, as many large California berry suppliers like Driscoll’s can. On small farms, profits spike and dip, so profitable crops need to offset money-losing crops or an entire bad year.
Ultimately, shoppers like Kristen Seibert, farm-to-table chefs and gourmet grocery stores simply don’t care about complex pricing details. They are often happy to spend more money to support small local farmers rather than finance big industry. But they would throw all those “support local farms” arguments out the window if the produce didn’t taste great. And flavor is where local strawberry farms have California’s shipped fruit beat.
“The strawberries from California have a hollow heart, they’re not dense inside. We call them Styrofoam berries,” Stoneman says. That extra density is why her quarts weigh more. The California berries look terrific, and they’re available nearly year-round, so you can serve strawberry shortcake at your Labor Day picnic. But they don’t usually have much flavor, something Daugovish admits.
“We can’t ship ripe. We have to pick at 75 percent color,” he says. “Local ripe berries are really more like a specialty product.”
Obviously, buying local isn’t sustainable for everyone living in cities such as Richmond, or for any number of the diverse gardening climates around the country. We need California (and Mexico, Chile and other miracle climates) to keep growing things, and lots of them, if we are to feed ourselves. But when it comes to flavor, the well-heeled and the food professionals will continue to pay for the best they can get. And this summer, that’s going to be what’s at the farmers markets or, even better, growing in our own back yards.
Hise is the food editor for Virginia Living and writes frequently about the intersection of food and business. Her most recent book is “The Secret Lives of Hoarders.”