Ask shoppers laden with cherries, bok choy and asparagus what compels them to visit farmers markets and most cite live music, flowers, the...

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Ask shoppers laden with cherries, bok choy and asparagus what compels them to visit farmers markets and most cite live music, flowers, the smell of good things pulled from the earth or out of the oven, and the chance to support local farmers.

Rarely does anyone mention the prices. Which got Stacey Jones to wondering why.

Last month, the economics professor and her business-statistics class at Seattle University compared prices for organic produce at the Broadway Farmers Market with that sold at the local QFC supermarket and Madison Market, one of several cooperatively owned grocery stores in the region.

To their surprise, the farmers market was slightly less expensive pound for pound, on average, for 15 items that included Fuji apples, red potatoes, baby carrots, spinach and salad mix.

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“There’s sort of a common perception that the farmers market is more expensive. A lot of people feel they’re doing the farmers a favor,” Jones said.

“I always assumed you pay a premium,” said Daniel Robins, one of Jones’ students, who regularly shops the West Seattle Farmers Market with his parents.

Such perceptions make it tough to attract customers whose chief concern is value, said Chris Curtis, who heads the group that organizes most of Seattle’s markets, the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance.

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For a list of farmers markets around the state, visit

www.wafarmersmarkets.com

Market prices are more consistent, she said, because farmers set them without having to split each dollar among distributors, packing houses and warehouses as conventional grocers do.

That lack of middlemen is why farmers markets are so competitive, agreed Kristin Maas, a QFC spokeswoman.

“They’re a great way to stay connected with the community, and pricewise, we’re not always going to be able to compete directly with them because their overhead is different. But we’re also able to offer a lot more variety, and we work with a lot of growers throughout the state and region,” Maas said.

Produce prices


Apples to apples: Seattle University economics professor Stacey Jones and her business-statistics class surveyed organic-produce prices May 13 to 20 at the Broadway Farmers Market, the Broadway QFC and the Madison Market cooperative, wanting to know whether farmers markets are more expensive. On average, the farmers markets’ prices were slightly lower than its competitors’. Here are several examples:

Organic Fuji apples, 1 lb. Broadway Farmers Market $1.99, Madison Market $1.99, Broadway QFC $2.49.

Organic salad mix, 1 lb. Broadway Farmers Market $7.50, Madison Market $7.49, Broadway QFC $6.99.

Organic asparagus, 1 lb. Broadway Farmers Market $3, Madison Market $5.29, Broadway QFC $8.99.

Organic baby bok choy, 1 lb. Broadway Farmers Market $1.33, Madison Market $3.49, Broadway QFC $1.99.

Organic red potatoes, 1 lb. Broadway Farmers Market $2.50, Madison Market $1.99, Broadway QFC $1.99.

Source: Seattle University

Jones plans to have her students broaden the price-comparison survey over the summer to potentially include more markets and other stores.

Farmers markets keep sprouting around the state, fertilized by increasing interest in foods that aren’t trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away, foodies seeking just-picked produce, and cities wanting ways to unite locals and lure tourists.

Thirty years ago, the Washington State Farmers Market Association counted fewer than 20 markets as members. Today, that number tops 100. A new Phinney Farmers Market opens June 15 in Seattle. Des Moines’ market has opened for its second season, and Bellevue’s for its third.

While pleasantly surprised by the survey results, many shoppers say cost is beside the point.

“I don’t pay attention to the prices,” said Andrew Whitver, of Seattle, who cooks weekly feasts with his friends, using their finds at the Broadway market. “It’s the sustainability. It’s fresh, in season. It’s a community thing.”

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com