As a vegetable producer I can tell you that it is hard work. Also, as someone who raises pastured livestock, I can also say that it is a slow process. I run Brandywine Creek Farms, a nonprofit, transitional produce farm that produces locally grown food for the hungry and food insecure. Prior to putting all my efforts into this endeavor, I ran a for profit organic and conventional farm and worked in the transportation industry, even owning my own trucking company. So yes, I understand the work it takes to produce great,
produce and meat. Unlike a lot of people I also understand food miles, right down to every penny it takes to turn those 18 wheels delivering far away and imported food.
So I have this crazy idea that a locally grown, organic tomato should be the same price, if not cheaper than a grocery stores tasteless excuse for a tomato, organic or not. So why is it that when you go to any box grocer you see tomatoes in season around $1.99lbs. and almost every farmer's market is priced between $2.50 and $3.00 lbs.? There are a lot of answers to that question. The simple answer is supply and demand. There are not enough farmers growing real produce, bringing enough product into the market. Now, I know a lot of people are going to say that organically grown local produce is much more labor intensive. That is true for some crops, but remember not all crops are created equal. Organic Sweet Corn in my opinion should cost a dollar an ear, because it is so hard to grow and still maintain an edible product. On the other hand, tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, cantaloupe, and watermelon are no more difficult to grow organically than conventionally. 20 years ago, this might not have been the case, but now there is a huge industry that caters to the large scale organic producer all the way down to the backyard gardener. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are actually slightly more expensive, at least in my experience.
If you get most of your fresh produce from a farmer's market, you will not hear any of the above, on the contrary you will hear the exact opposite from the vendors who are literally selling the fruit of their labors. They talk about pulling weeds and picking tobacco worms by hand from the plants. If you have a back yard garden you know exactly what they are talking about. As much as I hate to say it, they are part of the problem of the high cost of produce. They do not produce enough product to justify competing with the grocery stores. While a farm like ours would actually pay pickers by the pound to go out into the fields and field pack, most vendors at farmer's markets are doing most of the work themselves. Often their farm is a side job and they have few or no employees. They buy plants near retail price, as they do not buy enough to get bulk discounts. The same goes for all inputs they use. The University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences did a very unique study on farms who market on the local level. According to them and the USDA there are 3 types of vegetable farms. Market Gardens are farms that are fewer than 3 acres and average between .05 and 2.5 acres in production. Market Farms are farms that average between 3 and 12 acres in size and average 6.7 acres in production. Vegetable Farms are anything above 12 acres and average 15 acres in production. Now I am sure many are thinking about an uncles or grandparents farm here in Indiana or somewhere in the Midwest and how that is hundreds of acres. Those are commodity farms and they grow three crops... Corn, Soybean, and Wheat. You don't need those large expanses to have high yielding vegetable production. In the above mentioned study, both the Market Farms and Vegetable Farms yielded more per acre, had a higher net income per acre, than the Market Garden growers. For the most part both of those operations were also the primary employment of the growers. At most farmer's markets 75% of the growers are made up of Market Gardens. That means that when they are selling to the public they are looking to get the highest retail dollar out of their crop because they cannot make a profit with volume sales. Also unlike the Market Farm and the Vegetable Farm, they are 100% labor intensive, almost never utilizing any type of machinery, mulching supplies, or modern irrigation innovations. Am I saying that we need to run Market Gardens out of business? Absolutely not. I am simply saying we need more of the larger scale growers to make produce more affordable to those who can't spend $6.00 on 2 lbs of tomatoes. I foresee a day when farmer's markets are made up 100% by Market Gardeners who sell heirloom vegetables on Saturday mornings while the Market Farms and Vegetable Farms sell direct from the farm to retail outlets such as grocers and restaurants. A grocer who could set up shop in one of the many food deserts in Indianapolis and buy wholesale from these farms. Food mile costs would be greatly reduced, averaging 50 miles instead 750 miles. It allows the grocer and the farmer to cut out middlemen and both can make money while providing consumers with affordable, nutritious, locally grown produce.
Now that I have given you my opinion on why the cost is so high, there is another factor and this is, unfortunately one that has to do with people losing touch with where their food comes from and those who take advantage of that fact. There are some people who want these high prices and continue the myths of locally grown equals higher costs. There are a couple of well known producers who take this to a whole new level. They are dishonest with the consumers and outright lie about origins and inputs. They claim they are farmers when in all reality they are just really good at marketing and their target audience is you. They know what buzz words work for you to believe that what they are peddling is better than what a grocery store offers. So how do you avoid these local food vampires? Ask questions, educate yourself, get to know your local farmer. Tour the farm, ask if volunteering opportunities are available. Taste the difference.