I used to work in a small South American country for Peace Corps. I worked with a group of rural farmers who worked together to raise tomatoes commercially.
Their carefully picked tomatoes were loaded onto a big market truck that they waved down as it went by on the road. The driver would pay them 2,000 guaranies and sell the tomatoes for 3,000 in the capital. Customers in the city would pay 4,000. Some entrepreneurs would then load up leftover tomatoes and drive them out to little stores in the countryside.
Before they were growing their own, my farmers were buying tomatoes at the neighborhood store for 5,000. When they told me they didn’t want to sell to the market truck anymore, they wanted to sell to neighborhood stores, I told them it would be great to sell tomatoes locally for 5,000.
They looked at me like I had grown horns.
No, Kyra, we have to sell to our neighbors for 2,000, they said.
At the time I thought it was odd, but now I get it. Consumer perception is part of pricing. Back in Alaska, I see how our industrial food system produces cheap food stuffs with the aid of the economy of scale. This leaves consumers expecting cheap food.
So while a local tomato tastes great, is full of nutrition and is in good shape, many don’t want to pay more for it. We should value the handpicked, hand watered and nurtured from seed tomato instead of one grown factory-style with machines, automation, and so many chemicals that workers wear hazmat suits.
But until then, our farmers charge what they know the neighborhood customers expect. I am often amazed to see how low the prices can be at the Homer Farmers Market, often cheaper than the store. Our local farmers are producing gourmet quality while trying to meet the expectations of a culture where food needs to be cheap.
And, by the way, I saw tomatoes at the Market last week. And huge broccoli. And more, so head on down to Ocean Drive from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday to appreciate what veggies your local farmers grew for you.
Kyra Wagner is the coordinator of Sustainable Homer and the Homer Farmers Market’s biggest fan.