Farmers markets tend to be thought of as the province of the well-to-do, peddling things like $12 heads of organic lettuce and edible chrysanthemum leaves. But with more than 7,000 farmers markets across the country, according to the USDA, surely their appeal must extend beyond cost-blind locavores. Indeed, the few studies of farmers market prices we've found show that consumers on a budget can actually save on locally grown fruits and vegetables this time of year.
A 2011 survey by consulting firm SCALE Inc. found that farmers market prices were equal to or cheaper than supermarket prices about three-quarters of the time. The primary exceptions were free-range meat and eggs, which cost an average of 10% more than free-range products at grocery stores and 47% more than conventionally raised products. The items in the study included apples, bell peppers, zucchini, potatoes, butternut squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, chicken, eggs, ground beef, and other everyday foods.
SCALE surveyed prices last summer at two dozen farmers markets in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The study compared each farmers market to two nearby grocery stores and found that shopping at the farmers market yielded an average savings of 12% when comparing like items (i.e., organic apples to organic apples). However, when the study's author simply sought out the cheapest available item (paying no attention to whether poultry was free-range or conventionally raised, for example), slightly more than half the time he found it at the supermarket. This suggests that consumers who don't make a point to buy organic produce and grass-fed meat may not see the same savings at the farmers market as shoppers who do.
Of course, all this depends on where you live and what's available in your area. One of our editors has found higher prices at farmers markets than at grocery stores in New York. When we put the question to our Facebook followers, respondents from Ohio to Missouri to Arizona reported that farmers markets are cheaper than their local supermarkets; not a single one said the opposite.
At least two previous studies of farmers market prices conducted in other parts of the country have also found that consumers may get a better deal by buying local. With the exception of potatoes, every organic item in a study by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont cost less on average at the farmers market than at the supermarket. A few local organic foods cost less than their non-organic supermarket counterparts as well. On the other hand, nine out of 14 conventional items were cheaper at the grocery store. In a 2009 study, researchers at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that a basket of conventionally grown local vegetables cost an average of $1.25 per pound, compared with $1.39 per pound for the same vegetables at retailers such as Super Walmart.
A couple of caveats: All the studies cited here were conducted by supporters of local agriculture during the peak summer growing season, when prices are likely the lowest. We've also never been to a farmers market that lets you earn rewards points or use coupons. That said, farmers market prices have been shown to undercut grocery store prices this time of year on many items, particularly organic foods. Even in cases where prices are higher, many consumers consider the quality and variety of farmers market fare a better value.