Is locally grown produce affordable? Year-long study shows average price comparable to supermarkets

The Recorder. April 3 2015. Richie Davis.

If the snow has melted from the fields, can the plowing, planting and produce be far behind?

As the growing season approaches, with the opening of the Greenfield Farmers Market less than a month away on May 2, a year-long project is about to wrap up, with an effort to promote local produce as a way to improve the market for area farmers.

The project plans to promote sale of local farm products, whether at farmers markets, supermarkets or farm stands, in the aftermath of a survey of 130 farmers that found many said they don’t have time to find new markets for their products in Franklin County, they can get better prices elsewhere or believe that “many people can’t afford to buy local produce in Franklin County.”

To test that truism, which Franklin Regional Council of Governments Planner Mary Praus said farmers have also heard from potential customers over the years, the project did a “market basket assessment” to compare prices of hundreds of local produce items at the Greenfield and Turners Falls farmers markets with supermarkets.

The survey, completed at the end of the last harvest season, included about 1,600 prices overall, but showed, for example, that conventional tomatoes averaged $2.43 a pound at the farmers market versus an average of $2.61 a pound at the supermarket, while organic tomatoes were selling at $3.50 at the farmers market versus $4.12 in the supermarket. Organic carrots, though, were 20 cents a pound cheaper at the supermarket and conventional lettuce was selling averaging $2.15 a head in the supermarket, compared to $2.50 a head at the farmers market. Corn was priced at about the same, while conventional onions were $1 a pound at the farmers market, compared with supermarket onions at $1.13. Organic onions were 77 cents a pound cheaper at the supermarket.

Overall, the results offered good news to farmers, said Praus, since their direct-sale prices are comparable to supermarket prices.

Using money from a $74,000 Henry P. Kendall Foundation grant, the food system project plans to distribute coupons through Community Action to low-income customers, who also get introduced to the Greenfield Farmers Market through double SNAP food stamps benefits provided by the market.

Although supermarket buyers didn’t respond to her invitation to become part of the discussions, Praus said, “It would be great if they were willing to be part of the discussion, because they’re really part of the solution,” and the coming promotion will be for local produce, regardless of where it’s sold.

“The farmers market is not the solution for everybody, and people still need to go to the grocery store for a lot of staples,” Praus said.

The Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s Greenfield Food Processing Center, which recently installed flash-freezing equipment at its Wells Street commercial kitchen, expects to be buying additional produce this season, so that may also help with some of the market saturation, Praus said.

The CDC, which sold 65,000 to 70,000 pounds of frozen vegetables last summer, recently met with 15 growers to plan what would be “a couple hundred thousand pounds of vegetables in the coming season, according to CDC Executive Director John Waite — potatoes and squash as well as broccoli, carrots, green peppers, green beans and possibly kale and onions.

Once the center installs its new freezer, expected in August, it will be able to handle roughly five times the number it pallets, with sales to schools, colleges and other institutions.