For some farmers, distant markets offer the best prices
In “Dispatches from the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.
I don’t know how many different farmers markets readers have the opportunity to attend within one area. As a consumer, it seems reasonable to pick one and stick with it. But as a farmer, it’s a good idea to sell at multiple markets; it offers the opportunity to sell products at different times during the week as produce becomes available and also increases sales, since the farmer can reach that many more customers at each market.
Here in southwest Colorado, the farmer for whom I work attends no fewer than four markets per week. Two of them are fewer than 10 miles from the farm, and the other two are much further afield, requiring drives of 45 and 75 miles to reach. Interestingly, the market that is farthest away is also the most lucrative, and this got me thinking about farm location versus consumer location, a dynamic that makes the buy-local trend a little challenging.
Dragonfly Farm, the farm where I work, is located in Montezuma County, Colo. This is an economically depressed part of the state, where per capita income hovers around $17,000 and median income is right around $32,000. A well-paying job for someone with a bachelor’s degree would net about $35,000.
But Montezuma County’s surroundings vary wildly in terms of economic status. Just 75 miles up the road sits the hamlet and ski resort of Telluride, one of the few places in the United States where, as my friend Paul says, “you can buy a $3 million house at the end of a dirt road.” And the town of Durango, an up-and-coming Colorado resort location with rapidly-escalating home and land prices, lies just 45 miles to the east.
For farmers trying to make a living by growing and selling food in the area, it’s a constant challenge to balance selling to such widely disparate markets. Of course we want to sell locally and support our home markets. I work one of our local markets, in Cortez, Colo. I love working there because I see people I know, since I live there, and there’s a down-to-earth clientele. But this local clientele doesn’t necessarily fit the typical farmers market demographic of educated consumers. They still don’t know much about “exotic” vegetables like kale and broccoli raab, and they complain when a fresh, homemade cinnamon roll (size large) costs $3. Teresa, my employer, recently recounted to me a story of what happened to her at our other local market.
At this market, a man came up to her and discovered she was charging $3 for bagged spinach, grown organically. This man informed her that he could buy spinach for cheaper than that at Wal-Mart. Obviously he can, and he didn’t understand that produce at a farmers market has any number of advantages to produce purchased at Wal-Mart. At the local markets, this sort of price shock is not uncommon.
Often the local old-timers come to market expecting that buying at a farmers market means everything costs half of the grocery store price, which is an interesting comment on what farmers markets used to mean versus what they mean now. Of course, there are probably people like this at every market in the country. But it’s the contrast between our local markets and those further away that I find so interesting.
See, on Fridays, when Teresa makes the 90-minute drive up to Telluride to work the market there, growers charge $6 per bag of spinach, and cups of cold lemonade fly off the tables at $4 a glass. The people she sells to there are mostly vacationers or second, third, or fourth home owners who spend a couple weeks from in Telluride from time to time. But they’re willing to pay a high price for quality goods, and farmers can certainly appreciate customers like that. On the other hand, it’s not as if, by selling at Telluride, we’re really encouraging local people to eat healthy, fresh food close to home. I would venture to say that most of the farmers who sell in Telluride live at least as far away from there as we do, possibly farther. (The market limits itself to vendors up to 200 miles from Telluride; in contrast, the Boulder Farmers Market limits itself to farmers in Boulder County, Colo., with a few exceptions.)
It’s a paradox that many small farms face; the markets most local to them are either unable or unwilling to support the prices farmers need to charge in order to remain viable. So, like Teresa, farmers travel longer distances to sell to the wealthy, who are willing to pay and keep the small farms in business. It makes me a little sad that farmers like my friend Mary, who grow great food and are committed to selling purely locally, struggle; those who are willing to sell extra-locally in places like Telluride and Durango are the ones who are really making it.
This phenomenon probably has a lot to do with land prices. There are more small farmers in Montezuma County than in other parts of southwest Colorado like nearby Durango, because land prices in Montezuma County are cheaper. But land prices are cheaper because the economy is poor, and so farmers grow amazing vegetables and other food on their (relatively) cheap land and then travel elsewhere to sell it.
Unfortunately, land prices in Montezuma County are also skyrocketing as retirees and second homeowners move in to what has been marketed as a relatively mild climate in a beautiful setting, “where the desert meets the mountains,” as the tourism brochure claims.
This trend could end up changing the landscape over time, as young farmers won’t be able to purchase agricultural land at affordable prices.
There’s a lot of room for the situation to change, though, even in poor places like Montezuma County. The total estimated food expenditures in Montezuma County for 2003, according to a report compiled by the Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado, was over $54 million [PDF]. The total expenditures for farmers market-type goods like eggs, dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables ran to just over $13 million.
So yes, we’re a poor county, but we still eat. The challenge for those who are committed to selling only locally seems to be figuring out a way to tap into that market and change purchasing habits so that more locals believe paying $3 for a bag of spinach is a solid investment in both their health and in local farm businesses. While it’s the old-timers at market that do a lot of the complaining about prices, I see the real potential for change in reaching those younger, mid- to lower-income customers who don’t even make it to the market right now. As the Cortez Farmers Market gains in popularity, I think this may be happening, but it’s a slow shift.
Get Grist in your inbox