Sep 7, 2018
Farm markets report prices, strategy

For as long as growers have been selling their veggies at market, they’ve stretched their necks to look at what the other folks charge.

The biggest challenge of direct sales is the same as its biggest benefit: The ability to set one’s own price. Growers know how many pumpkins, ears of corn or pounds of strawberries they can supply, but the difficulty at market is setting a price point for optimal demand. Growers and direct farm marketers determine their prices through a variety of techniques, but most keep an eye on what other sellers are doing.

This year, for the first time, Vegetable Growers News is also watching the farm markets – or rather, surveying them. We conducted an electronic survey of farm markets, asking them about how they set their prices, as well as their specific prices for a wide variety of crops and food products common in markets.

A total 160 farm markets from 33 states responded to the survey questions.

Survey says …

Direct farm marketers are using a wide variety of techniques to determine their prices.

One New York state seller self-described the process of determining a price as “chaos” and “an expensive education.” But many growers take a methodical or practical approach.

“I look at similar items selling in our area from several different sources,” a survey respondent from Montana wrote. “I then determine if our crops have any extra value such as peak ripeness, freshness or blemish free.”

For one Michigan seller, last year’s price is the starting point, “then it depends on the quality of the crop,” and calls out to other markets to make sure the prices are competitive.

Other growers say they crunch the numbers.

“Try to figure cost of production plus 50 percent,” a Vermont grower wrote. “Compare other farm prices, and check Vermont market summaries.”

Brian Moyer, a Penn State Extension program assistant and a columnist for Vegetable Growers News, recommends growers calculate their costs before fixing prices.

“Producers need to know their cost of production,” he said. “I understand how difficult that can be given the variety of products put at the end of the season you should know your basic break-even points are for your crops so you can price accordingly.”

Markup matters

Markups over cost or expenses range from 25-30 percent, reported by an Ohio grower, to a “minimum of 70 percent,” reported by a Pennsylvania grower.

Another Pennsylvania grower had a more simplistic formula for calculating price: Four times the price of the seed.

“Prices are determined by calculating our cost of production along with researching retail pricing of comparable products in our area,” an Indiana grower wrote.

Location, location

Many survey respondents said they also considered the prices at the local supermarkets and big box stores.

“We don’t try to match grocery store pricing, but if we are cheaper than a store we will probably raise it,” a Wisconsin grower said. “We also won’t charge as high for donuts as our suburbs competitors because the prices they can command are higher than what is an acceptable price to the consumer in our area.”

Moyer said that location also matters in southeast Pennsylvania.

“The closer you get to a city like Philadelphia the more you can charge but your market costs will be higher as well in that location (parking, city licenses, etc.),” he said. “Market setting can impact what price you get but I’m not sure if it matters that it’s a public market, retail or roadside. I do see very experienced producers still basing their pricing on what their neighbor sells it for and what the grocery store sells it for.”

Money talks

Three out of four survey respondents are charging extra for premium crop varieties.

Premium vegetable varieties included Albion strawberries, day-neutral strawberries, miniature vegetable varieties, extra-large beefsteak tomatoes, early season hoop-house tomatoes, purple asparagus as opposed to green, exceptionally large or exotic pumpkins, heirloom varieties and Mirai white corn.

The range of added cost for premium products also varied. Sellers reported charging 20-50 percent more for premium varieties.

Moyer agrees that growers should charge a premium for products that are rare, of superior quality, or produced outside of the usual season.

Many growers sell a wide variety of crops, he said. “For all the things they grow, there might be three to four things that they excel at.”

– Stephen Kloosterman, VGN Associate Editor

Above: Photo: Holland Farmers’ Market

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