Why I Now Hate Southern California Farmers’ Markets

Credit Joseph Lapin: LACMA
Credit Joseph Lapin: LACMA

Every Sunday (sometimes Saturday), my wife and I head down to the farmers’ market in Hillcrest — a neighborhood in San Diego northwest of Balboa Park (one of my favorite places in the world) where a rainbow flag waves at the corner of University Avenue and Normal Street — or in Little Italy — a section of downtown that was once the Italian fisherman’s neighborhood. These neighborhoods are some of my favorite places to visit in San Diego because of their restaurants and general vibrancy, but my wife and I also consider their farmers’ markets two of the best we’ve ever been to in Southern California, even though we love the L.A. markets, too.

(My brother in law always tells a funny story of seeing Lauren Conrad pretending to shop at the farmers’ market in LA for the paparazzi. He said her assistant was holding the bags from the farmers to show she was shopping organic, and as soon as the cameras started snapping, she took the bags out of her assistants hands and started to pretend that she was holding them.)

Honestly, my wife and I really enjoy our weekend trips to either Little Italy or Hillcrest. It’s become a routine for us. We walk in Balboa Park, and then we head to grab food for the week. Before we leave, we grab the reusable bags from underneath the counter, and we drive over to the Hillcrest Market, park a couple blocks away near our favorite breakfast place The Great Maple, and start walking down the the center of the white tents as if we were walking through a bazaar in Game of Thrones.

There really is something about the farmers’ markets that just gets you. I’m not sure if it’s the fresh air, or listening to the desperate food hockers who start yelling to sway you away from the other vendors. (I always go to the people who aren’t yelling at me to try their food.) That strange and exciting tone could also be due to the fact that the vendors all give you free food. Shit, by the time my wife and I go home to cook breakfast (usually a scramble made with some fresh eggs and mushrooms) we’re already full. We filled up on the free samples of the vegan hummus, or the organic guacamole, or the dates from the old red-headed lady who never talks to you just sits in front of her plate of fresh dates, which are precisely sliced, set with toothpicks, and arranged in a perfect circle as if her fruit was just too good not to be eaten (I love that lady, and her dates), or the granola from the grannie who sells her bars with more genuine spunk than Goldie Hawn’s character in Wildcats. (Literally, the other day she told me she would sell me a granola bar any time, any place — even before the market opens or anytime I catch her on the street.)

Goldie Hawn in Wildcats
Goldie Hawn in Wildcats

But even though I love the characters at the farmers’ market, and their delicious pierogis, gourmet local peanut butter, fresh kale and swiss chard, infused salts, goat’s milk gelato, and cold pressed juices, I have to admit something very difficult. I love feeling that I’m healthy, supporting local farmers, and eating organic. I love know that I’m eating straight from the farm to the table, as they say, but I’ve realized something: The farmers’ market is way over priced, and it needs to change in order to create a realistic alternative to the grocery store.

I’m all about buying straight my farmer, and I know that they’re some of the hardest working people in the country, and their hands know strength that my keyboard-striking fingers will never know, but you’re really going to charge me $8 for a dozen eggs? At any grocery store, I can buy a dozen eggs that are organic and cage free for around $4. Why is it double at the farmers’ market? Some of these vendors and business owners charge reasonable prices, but when you’re selling at the farmers’ market, you don’t need to give the grocery store a cut. Perhaps I’m wrong: maybe the farmers’ market takes a cut. But why are the prices higher when there is no middle man? Yes, I get that it’s hard to grow organic crops, but if we’re ever going to be a society that eats healthier and values the lives of animals, then shouldn’t our farmers’ markets be, at least, the same price as the grocery stores who sell organic foods?

Lacma stairs

In 2011, The Atlantic ran a story that seems to contradict my frustration with farmers’ markets:

“A report released earlier this year by Jake Robert Claro, a graduate student at Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy who did the study for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, found that prices at farmers’ markets for conventionally grown produce items were lower than they were at supermarkets.”

Clearly this study is old, but it helps contextualize that people have often thought that organic food was more expensive than the conventional farming produce found in many grocery stores. In 2011, The Atlantic said I would be wrong, but I just can’t imagine that same study working today. Perhaps there is just so much demand that farmers have to charge higher prices? Here is what I found: “A January report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that while more farmers are selling directly to consumers, local food sales at farmers markets, farm stands and through community supported agriculture have lost some momentum,” according to NPR.

So the expensive prices in the San Diego farmers’ markets can’t relate to the rising demand, unless San Diego does not correlate with the rest of the country. I still can’t figure it out, and I’m not the only one. Just look no further than celebrity chef Jay Rayner. As reported by the Daily Mail, “The MasterChef star, who also works as a critic for BBC One programme The One Show, said that the overpriced fare sold at local markets is nothing more than a ‘status symbol’ for wealthy shoppers.” The article shows that Rayner went on a tirade because he had to pay £15 for a chicken.

Star Wars Mural

What’s even more shocking is that Pacific Standard Magazine pointed me toward “a study of every farmers’ market in the Bronx [that] finds they are basically boutiques, offering produce that is more exotic, and more expensive, than the grocery stores located nearby. What’s more, their merchandise includes “many items not optimal for good health.” So, it’s more expensive and not even healthy. Okay, something is wrong.

But maybe I’m wrong. And I could be. I could be missing something about the industrial farming complex or something really elaborate behind the scenes, but I am committed to eating healthier and buying directly from farmers. I have bought into the farm-to-table movement, but I’m also done falling for a marketing scheme. I’m done falling for the idea that organic produce, meats, and eggs have to be double the price of grocery stores. In order for our world to be more sustainable and to create a community that supports farmers growing healthy products, there needs to be an economic shift in these white-tent bazaars that we flock to on the weekends.

I would love to hear your comments and insight. These are just observations I had from really looking at what I’m spending at the farmer’s market compared to the food I actually bring home, and I’m just not happy with my analysis. Let me know how you feel about farmers’ markets in the comment section. Also, hope you enjoyed the photos from my recent trip to LACMA. Please take the poll below.

4 thoughts on “Why I Now Hate Southern California Farmers’ Markets”

  1. I agree with you 100% – I love farmer’s markets for the unique offerings and small-vendor feel. But I, too, feel like it is price gorging (although that doesn’t stop me from buying that jalapeno relish currently residing in my fridge).

    After some pondering, here’s my thoughts – selling in the grocery stores is easy, requires less labor, and sells high quantities. Although the grocery store places a mark-up on the product that lowers the profit margin, the high volume makes it worthwhile and probably something required to continue to be a sustainable business.

    At the same time, selling at the farmer’s markets is labor intensive (someone, typically the owner/farmer has to be there to sell), the volume is not nearly as high (once-a-week, for only a few hours, with limited customers even stopping by), and the vendors are required to pay a fee to have a booth (not sure on the cost, but your bro-in-law and I are looking into a free booth for the YMCA at the OB one so I’ll let you know). I suspect (without any data to support my contention) that the profit margins on farmer’s market sales is quite low despite the increased prices. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the margin is lower than that at the grocery stores.

    So, the question is, why do vendors continue to show up week after week? Three not mutually exclusive theories: (1) cater to the Lapin family type people; (2) the vendor’s appearance at the market gives the buyer the sense that they are buying from a more responsible grower/farmer; and (3) pure marketing. The samples always lead me to believe they are just getting you in the door. It is worth it for the vendors if you come back week after week, or place an order online, or seek out the pierogies for an event down the road (because let’s be honest, they are 100x better than Mrs. T’s). It’s just a damn shame they have to price gouge in order to continue to staff the booths.

  2. Hi Mike, thanks so much for your careful analysis. Exactly the type of discussion I’m hoping for here. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who thinks the farmers’ market is overpriced here in SD, but what you bring up is also what I’m concerned with in regards to my post. Is the farmers’ market sustainable for the individual farmers? Are their hands tied as well?

    You’re right. The vendors at the market must work their ass off, and I’m also worried that they need to mark up the products in order to make it worth their while. If all that you say is true (I’m looking forward to your experience with the book for the YMCA), then should the city find a way to help the farmers to make organic foods more economical? Can the city provide tax relief? Can they help provide the trucks? Because it seems to be meet eating healthy and from the farmer will help everyone here in SD live a better life. Perhaps structurally something needs to shift.

    Thanks again for your response!

  3. I just saw this post and felt a need to respond because I feel that you and Mike may be, in some ways, missing the point of the Farmer’s Market. You mention things like eggs, vegan hummus, organic guacamole, pierogis, gourmet local peanut butter, fresh kale and swiss chard, infused salts, goat’s milk gelato, and cold pressed juices.

    To me, the point of shopping at the Farmer’s Market is to the opportunity to buy fresh, seasonal, locally grown produce. I notice that the only time you mention fresh produce is the kale and chard. I don’t shop in San Diego but I do go to the Vista Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning, year round, to stock up on a week’s worth of produce, and it’s probably very similar to the ones you go to. On a typical Saturday morning this time of year I’ll probably buy several kinds of lettuce, heirloom tomatoes (my own are almost ready to come in), romano or green beans, broccoli, radishes, avocados, beets, celery, cucumbers, brussels sprouts, kale, micro greens, sweet potatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches, pluots, oranges for juice, and/or any number of other fresh items.

    The produce may be somewhat more expensive than in grocery stores, but it’s also usually fresher, and locally and more sustainably grown. The other stuff, though enticing, is pretty expensive and I usually avoid that section of the market completely. I do buy some cheese fairly regularly and sometimes fresh bakery products, but you really need to get out of the prepared food section and into the fresh produce area.

    Fix your own food from raw ingredients. That’s where healthy “farm to table” eating works.

    1. Hi The Only Mike,

      Thanks so much for commenting. I always wants to hear other view points, especially since I knew my blog went against popular opinion.

      My whole argument is that if farmer’s markets are about local and sustainable foods, then they should be at least a competitive price with the organic foods found in grocery store. I’m 100% in support of farmer’s markets, just not at the very expensive prices, even for kale, chard, strawberries, apples, etc.

      Are you seeing good prices in Vista? How much are you paying for eggs, lettuce, etc? Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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