Garden Variety: Is it really more expensive to shop at the farmers market?

Convenience, quality, selection and a multitude of other factors come into play when choosing where to shop for produce, but the biggest divider (or at least most discussed) seems to be price.

Throw farmers markets into the mix, and opinions get even more varied. I have been curious about the validity of produce price arguments in the Lawrence area for several years, so I decided to do a little comparison shopping.

To keep it simple, I visited one Lawrence Farmers’ Market and three popular retailers. I only priced fresh produce because I am interested in gardening and fruit/vegetable production. I primarily priced organic produce because there is little variation in price between organic and conventional produce at the farmers market. When pricing at stores, I priced conventional produce only when organic was unavailable.

There are a number of limitations to my survey. Most importantly, this is a snapshot of one day’s prices and choices. Like any market, produce prices are reliant on a number of factors. I chose to shop in July, when many items that can easily be grown in Kansas were in ample supply instead of shopping in early spring or right after a hail storm. Also, comparisons were in some cases more difficult than I expected, as noted below.

In summary, everyone I visited had something to offer in the way of money-saving produce, and you could lose a lot of savings in time and travel if you tried to get the best deal on everything always. But if you have been avoiding buying direct from farmers because you think they charge too much, I encourage you to do the math on sweet corn.

Additional limitations

Comparing apples to apples: All the carrots I saw at the market were sold by the bunch with their pretty, ferny, also edible tops still attached. There were traditional-looking orange carrots, multi-colored carrots that looked more like a centerpiece than a healthy snack, and dark purple carrots with more amazing health benefits than the orange ones. In stores, I only found orange carrots, almost all bagged with tops removed and sold by the pound.

Availability: Organic jalapenos and other small hot and sweet peppers were readily available at the market, but the retailers I visited only had conventional peppers. Are organic peppers hard to come by in the wholesale grocery industry or is the demand lacking? Perhaps some other factor affected availability only for a short time.

Organic vs. conventional: The survey would look a little different if comparing conventional to conventional. I stuck with organic because there is little variation between prices for the two at the market. Also, determining who is organic at the market would have required more conversations, as some smaller producer might practice organic methods without paying the price for the official certification.

Convenience, quality, and other factors: Price somehow seems unimportant when you need something and need it now. But I would also take a vine-ripened tomato in the few months I can get one over an artificially-ripened greenhouse one any day.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to