Stretching your dollar at the farmers’ market

May. 24, 2014 @ 04:48 PM

We often get asked at the Durham Farmers’ Market if our prices are comparable to the grocery store. The answer is both yes and no.

Last month, in honor of Earth Day, we set up an information booth at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). As part of our demonstration we brought lettuce, spinach and asparagus from Food Lion, Whole Foods and the Durham Farmers’ Market. We tried to buy the same quantity of each item - -one head of lettuce, a bag of spinach and a pound of asparagus from each of the respective stores. We also tried to buy organic when possible. We let students taste each veggie and see if they could taste a difference. We also took note of visual differences.

I was generally surprised how similar the prices were. The spinach from Food Lion was more expensive than the spinach from Whole Foods, which was cheaper than the spinach from the farmers’ market. The asparagus from the farmers’ market was about $1.50 more than the asparagus from both Whole Foods and Food Lion. That said, the students noted that you could use more of the asparagus from the market as the stalks looked much better.

The head of lettuce at the Farmers’ Market was the same price as the lettuce from Whole Foods, but twice as expensive as the lettuce from Food Lion. However, the head from the market was nearly twice the size. The produce from Whole Foods and Food Lion was coming thousands of miles, from places like California and Mexico. The produce from the Durham Farmers’ Market had been harvested the day before and was coming from a farmer in Pittsboro, about 30 miles away.

It’s also difficult to make generalizations about prices at the entire market, as they differ among vendors. We have dozens of farmers selling fruits and vegetables and often their growing practices dictate the cost. At the Durham Farmer’s Market, there are organic and non-organic vendors and everything in between.

Here are a few tips to help you stretch your dollar at your local farmers’ market:

-- Do a couple laps before you start buying. Check out all that’s available and take note of price differences at different farms. If you’re curious about the difference in price, ask! Generally farmers are happy to share with you their growing practices and why their product might be more valuable than the next.

-- Buy in bulk. Vendors sometimes give discounts when you purchase in multiples. For example, many farmers sell strawberries for about $3 a pint or 4 for $10. Learn how to can or freeze and you’ll have local strawberries all winter long.

-- Buy in the peak of the season. Prices can be higher before a product is in abundance. For example, the first strawberries at the market are usually the most expensive ones.

Emily-Kate Hannapel is assistant market manager of the Durham Farmers Market, open 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays and 3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays at 501 Foster St. in downtown Durham.