Sunday, May 03, 2009

Farmer's Market - Worth It?

I missed the first two Silver Spring Farmers Markets of the season due to being out of town, but was looking forward to going on Saturday to pick up a few things. Up to this point in the year, I had been patronizing the year-round Takoma Park Farmers Market. (Why isn’t ours open all year? It makes us look soft.) It's definitely nice to have our own market now, but to be honest, it still lags behind its longer-running Takoma counterpart, which seems to have a lot more selection.

(Unfortunately, the proprietors of the tomato stand at the Takoma Park market can't spell the name of their principal product.)

Anyway, after shopping for some selected items, I started to wonder - is it really worth it? Some of the stuff is significantly more expensive than other places nearby where I can buy near-identical products. And, while it's nice to support smaller farmers, some of these "local" vendors are actually from farms near the Mason-Dixon line.

The one thing I always like to buy from these markets are eggs, whose yolks have a satisfying dark-orange hue that for no particular reason make them seem more attractive than their store-bought counterparts. I’m not really much of an egg man (goo goo ga joob) myself, as I primarily use eggs as an emulsifier, so I likely wouldn’t notice any superior taste market eggs might have over store-bought. If someone has taken the Pepsi Challenge with standard eggs from Giant or Safeway, is the taste worth the price premium?

At the market yesterday morning I was surprised to see that the eggs at the market were priced at a whopping $5 per dozen. Nevertheless, suckers customers like me were lined up to purchase them. Even at the Takoma market a dozen can be bought for a still-pricey $4. The most expensive dozen eggs you can get at the famously-expensive "Whole Paycheck" are the extra-large organic cage-free Omega-3 eggs for $4.69/dozen (though they were on sale today for $3.99). I’m guessing that the farmers market eggs are not Omega-3, not that I even knew what Omega-3 was until I just looked it up. Ultimately, the line was moving so slowly that my low threshold of impatience was quickly reached and I was spared purchasing a dozen eggs for more than twice the national average.

I did end up purchasing a couple chocolate croissants at a nearby stand for $2.50 a pop, which also seemed awfully high. As an econ major, I started to break down in my head the economics of purchasing a croissant at the farmers market over one at the nearby Whole Foods. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that the size of the chocolate croissants at the farmer’s market is the same as that of the $1.89 ones available at Whole Foods and that the effort to get to WF is the same as it is to shop at the FM. In this case, any additional utility I may derive from the FM croissant relative to the WF croissant would have to come from superior taste and/or satisfaction I may get from buying it from a “local” (in this case Bethesda) source. Is any potential superiority in taste and sententiousness worth the 33% premium one pays? I suppose that depends on how much income you have to dispose of on food. Last time I checked, we were in the midst of a deep recession, so I’m not so sure if it's worth it for me. As far as the taste goes, it was a good enough chocolate croissant, but it wasn’t OMFG good. I've had the WF croissants in the past and I don't think they tasted noticeably worse. (As another point of comparison, the chocolate croissants at the TP market are $2.)

So, is it worth it to shop a the farmers market? I suppose that depends on the person and the particular products they are buying. I suppose I'll keep buying the eggs, since we're not such heavy egg eaters that we'd need more than a dozen every couple weeks. My wife loves the olive bread from the bread stand, so we'll keep buying that - when they don't sell out before we get there like they did this week. Don't think I'll be buying the croissants anymore, though.

As an aside, I really miss the Giant bakery that used to be next to Montgomery College in Silver Spring. It made the whole of what is now called South Silver Spring smell like pastries. If you want to get an idea of the scent I’m taking about, go stand by the back exit to Woodmoor Bakery in Four Corners.


Will said...

Get the chocolate croissants from Summer Delight, they are really good.

The only line for the eggs is usually for the one egg guy and I'm not especially a fan. Honestly, I don't know why people line up. Usually there are two (or possibly more) vendors with eggs which are not as expensive and just as good.

wombat said...

Yup, those croissants aren't worth it. You just leave them there, and I'll take care of them.

Silver Spring Penguin said...

There used to be some other dude who peddled croissants (not sure where he was from, but it wasn't Bethesda). His stuff was on par with Whole Foods, both in taste and price. Alas, that dude has moved on, and now we've got the frou-frou pain au chocolat from Bethesda.

Regarding farmers schlepping from around the Mason-Dixon line, Montgomery County doesn't have enough farms to fill the need. So we have to import our local farmers from elsewhere.

BTW, is the Amish market still open in Burtonsville?

Sligo said...

Are they still "local" farmers then?

Vagrarian said...

About the only dealer I habitually buy from at the SS Market is the lettuce/salad mix guys; they have good stuff. They used to be at the Takoma market but changed over to SS but kept the same prices. I love their salad mix.

As for the rest...sometimes I find the prices too high for my blood. Sometimes I'll indulge, but lately, not often.

And yes, I do remember the bakery; I remember days when the whole area smelled of cinnamon buns. I miss that.

Clancy said...

Until the veggies start coming in later in the summer, the SS FM is a bit weak. One of the bakers does have the best snicker doodles I've had since moving to the east coast, but I was saddened to discover that over the winter they dropped the number of cookies per package to four (from six) and kept the same price ($4).

Sligo said...

I guess the grocery shrink ray is in use at farmers markets too.

dcgrrl said...

I confess, I'm from across the river, and I shop at the Clarendon Farmer's market in season.
We get some of those same Mason-Dixon line farmers, which are, BTW, on the MARYLAND-Pennsylvania line. So they're more local to you than me.
For me part of the point of buying farmer's market food is getting veggies that are from MD or PA rather than from Mexico or Ecuador.
I'd much rather have a more expensive pepper from Amish-vania that took a short truck ride rather than a cheap one with a sticker that says it's been places I can't afford to vacation. It probably has been places I might not want to know about via planes, trains, boats and trucks before it hits my local Harris Teeter.
I consider the extra price a delivery tip to my 'regional' farmer. And yes, it's worth it.

rb said...

Yes, the Amish market is still open in Burtonsville. There isn't a date for opening in Laurel yet.

When the farmers market was county sponsored, all the vendors were from Montgomery County and the market was more gritty than the current one, no big banners and tents. This market has more variety. I think there are also vendors from WV. Charlie Koiner is the only farmer from the county. Some of the prices are absurdly high. $3.50 for tomatoes last year makes you want to grow your own. And I can't buy meat off the back of a truck.

SS Penguin said MoCo doesn't have enough farms to fill the need. Actually MoCo has the largest Agricultural Preserve (as percent of land) in the country. We think we are urban, but most of the county is rural. That's Smart Growth. The county has plenty of farms. [ ]

And the brownies from that Bethesda bakery are really dense and good.

Pershing Drive said...

Growing your own IS the way to go. I buy seedlings and starters from the farmers who have them, bring them home, plop them in the dirt or a pot, and all summer long, I get to go to the farmers market just to see friends and socialize my dog, rather than buy things that we shouldn't be paying that much for.

I agree that paying the higher price is a tip for our local farmers, but why does it have to be SO MUCH higher??

Springvale Roader said...

I didn't know that Dan Quayle had gone into the tomato business.

About those eggs: the deep yellow-yolked ones you find at the Farmers' Market are produced by healthy hens raised humanely. The pale white yolks you find in grocery stores are the result of horrible factory farms.

Anyway, I too have been wondering about the prices at the Farmers' Market, since a block away at Whole Foods I can get equal amounts of organic, high quality produce for the same or even less money. And I agree with Pershing Road: grow you own is the best, at least for expensive stuff like basil and heirloom tomatoes (or is that tomatos?).

Sligo said...

I assumed the darker color was "healthier", but what I mean is what is the scientific explanation?

ForestGlen said...

I've always thought the Silver Spring
Farmers Market was a huge rip off...haven't had much convincing my wife of that however.

rb said...

Have you seen this about our local farmers market vendor Charlie Koiner? You can buy the fruits of his garden at his house also.
(posted on Sunday May 3)

laura said...

the darker color is caused by diet - my sister has chickens that scratch around in the yard, eating bugs, etc. their eggs have that same rich farmers market color, as opposed to the anemic pale yellow factory farm cannibal chickens eggs.

Sligo said...

Here's the scientific explanation of egg yolk color variations.

Alfredo E. said...

If you want to learn more about omega 3 eggs, please go to


Silver Spring Penguin said...

RB wrote: "MoCo has the largest Agricultural Preserve (as percent of land) in the country. We think we are urban, but most of the county is rural. That's Smart Growth. The county has plenty of farms."

Sure, MoCo has plenty of farms, but they have plenty more mouths to feed in this area. And with the average farmer's age in the late 50s, their numbers are shrinking.


socoblogboy said...

Hey - lay off the food posts; that's my jurisdiction. Just kidding.

And while we all do pay an obvious premium for shopping at the Farmers Mkt, we all also pay a less obvious premium through farm subsidies when we buy from Safeway, Giant, WF, etc. And I am with Pershing Drive, if you have the room, grow it yourself. My greens have been kicking ass already this year. On at least 2 nights a wk I can cut what amounts to be a $3-4 bag of greens straight from my backyard. Don't get much more convenient that that. And the cost, forget about it!

Springvale Roader said...


What kinds of greens are you growing, and when did you plant them?

I've been so leery of the previous cold weather that I didn't plant anything until 2 weeks ago. Now my mustard greens are doing well...for sprouts. :)

socoblogboy said...

At the end of March I started a couple varieties of arugula, spinach and one kind of lettuce. I had to be careful at the start and covered the beds on a couple nights, but man, greens are hearty. They can take a lot. I had one batch of arugula make it through the winter and actually come back and give me a good bowlful this spring.

Tina & Drew said...

I went for the Square Foot Garden - and for me things never grow but damn this little plot has been growing :) Still not big enough to harvest but the sugar snap peas, basil, radishes and lettuce are growing!

I will probably end up grabbing a tomato (tomatoe >:) ) plant or two... The seedlings inside have yet to do anything! :p

stickymcbiscuit said...

About those prices:

These farmers operate on a much smaller scale than the Organic Valleys of the world who sell to Whole Foods and Giant, so they need a larger margin to make ends meet.

Industrial farming yields cheap food, but as dcgrrl pointed out, it comes from far away, stops over in mysterious places, and periodically yields salmonella and other delights. (Isn't that a Herb Alpert album?)

I'll pay the extra buck to buy my lettuce, spinach and bok choy from the person who grows it, thanks.

If you want to cut out the farmers' market middleman, stop over and see Charlie Koyner at his place during the week. His prices are quite reasonable.

lmgregory said...

I thought it was "coo koo ka choo". Maybe I missed the reference though . . .

Enjoy reading the blog, by the way.

Thayer Ave., too said...

I really don't think these local/regional farmers are exactly gouging market patrons so they can buy a new Lexus. As long as the freshness and quality are as good or better than what I can buy at Whole Foods, as long as my budget can handle it I'll buy from local farmers who practice sustainable agriculture.

(Having a brown thumb myself, though, I'm always impressed by anyone who can keep plants alive long enough to harvest anything for themselves!)

And I don't care what anyone says--those chocolate croissants ROCK! Take them home and warm them up in the toaster oven a bit, and they take on a whole new aspect.

patrick said...

I must admit, farmer's markets in a place like the DC Metro are a bit of luxury. But it's one that I don't mind paying for. The produce is much fresher, and (perhaps it's all in my mind, but) tastier.

When I was on a tighter budget, I didn't go to the market ofthen, and I also bought cheaper beer, bought shoes at Payless, and hit the racks at Burlington Coat Factory.

The farmer's market's not about economics, but it is about values, i guess.

And thanks for the link on egg-yolk color!

WashingtonGardener said...

Most of the "farms" in MC's ag reserve are for horses and dairy and such -- they are not growing veggie plots he economics and long hours are just not worth it.

Why don't we have year-round? If we want it, we have to SUPPORT it like they do in TP and Dupont Circle with significant amounts of foot traffic and yes, buy something on in a while. It takes decades to build up markets like that -- they don't just spring up overnight.

"Local" is relative -- I define it as the Mid-Atlantic area -- whereas WF seems to define it as anything on the East Coast from Florida to Maine and as far out as th Mississispi. :-(

Grow your own is the best option as stated by others here. I buy all my tomato plant starts and herb plants at farmer's markets -- and the prices for these seedlings is usually half of what I see at local nurseries and big box stores! For $2 (at most) per pant that gives 20 pds of tomatoes in its growing season = a pretty darn good investment.

Elizabeth said...

I always just chalk up the mark-up on shopping at the farmers market as a donation that helps support farms so that they don't sell out and turn into more McMansions.

But I, too, have noticed the SS market is both smaller and more expensive than TP. Seems to me like a classic chicken-and-egg problem: people don't go because TP is better, so farmers don't think it's worth their while to send a truck to SS without a huge markup, so people keep going to TP instead.

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