Prices at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market have long caused shoppers to go into sticker shock when reaching for a bouquet of sunflowers or a bushel of local fingerling potatoes. Bargains have always been few and far between, yet customers continued to arrive before the gates open at nine to snatch up the best of the Vineyard’s hand-picked local produce.
But as Vineyard farmers mark up their prices this season in the face of a sluggish economy and record high fuel prices, some market mainstays are reporting profits down from last year and market days where produce and flowers go unsold.
“Our prices are up because all our expenses are up,” said Debbie Athearn of Morning Glory Farm. “Our philosophy has always been we’re about making things fair, but if there are certain crops that are costing us more to produce, we have to mark things up.” She continued: “Labor costs and insurances are both up and of course when it’s dry like it has been, we have to pump all of our irrigation. The pump runs on diesel fuel and we all know that is up.”
So at both the Edgartown farm stand she owns and operates with her husband, Jim, and at the farmers’ market, prices are up a bit. A bunch of Morning Glory beets is 10 cents more this summer than last. The price of peas and beans is up and the first round of corn, picked last week, cost 80 cents an ear. Last year it cost 70 cents.
At booth after booth on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, farmers arrange baskets of shelling peas, heads of lettuce and cartons of eggs at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. Almost every item costs more than last year. “Everything went up a quarter,” said Rebecca Miller of North Tabor Farm in Chilmark who brings her salad greens, flowers, eggs and — as of this week — blueberries to sell. Ms. Miller runs the farm with her husband, Matthew Dix, and has been a part of the market for 17 years. “We used to never bring flowers back from the farmers’ market and now we do,” she said.
Overall though, she reports a good start to the season. “I’m actually selling more because it’s just a great growing season,” she said. “We’re not feeling it, but the word at the farmers’ market is really mixed. I’m seeing it and hearing it.” Ms. Miller said demand from the local restaurants and food markets (she sells to them wholesale) is going strong. “I’m selling more to Cronig’s, so maybe people are eating in more,” she speculated.
“The number of people seems to be as high as it ever was, but the amount of money, it seems to be they’re spending less. I think probably flowers are going to be affected more than food,” said Glen Hearn who, along with his wife Linda, began selling vegetables, flowers and herbs at the market in the early 1990s. A slowdown in flower sales may indicate shoppers are cutting back on more frivolous expenses. “Our business doesn’t change much from one year to the next, but we probably are down a bit this year,” Mr. Hearn continued. “A lot of times we sell everything, but we don’t pick a whole heck of a lot.”
Matthew Goldfarb, executive director of the Farm Institute at Katama, confirmed that profits in the Work, Income Sharing Project, a program for middle and high school students who farm a three-acre garden and then sell the produce at the farmers’ market and to local restaurants, are also down. “On the one hand, the program is growing. Our enrollment is up, but the [market] crowds have seemed a little bit smaller, not as thick and steady,” he said.
To offset rising production costs, the students raised the price of salad mix, cucumbers and peas this summer. Head lettuce, herbs and beans are the same price as last year. Mr. Goldfarb suspects the tomatoes and peppers coming in now will not be marked up either. “We’re probably 20 per cent off of what we were last year. Some of that is due to the fact that we scaled back what we’re growing to meet our education goals,” he said.
The dip in spending at the farmers’ market does not appear to be happening elsewhere in the state. David Webber, farmers’ market coordinator for the state department of agriculture, said: “We’ve been doing visits to farmers’ markets across the state and what we’ve been hearing is that the markets have started very strong this year. We haven’t seen any evidence that the economy is impacting the markets.” Unlike the Vineyard market, mainland markets attract visitors from surrounding areas and do not depend as heavily on the influx of seasonal visitors, many of whom may be cutting back on vacation expenses this summer.
Reached at his Aquinnah home, nationally acclaimed food writer Michael Pollan said the economy and the rising cost of food brings both good and bad news for farmers’ markets. “The prices [at farmers’ markets] have always been higher. Local agricultural costs have always been more than commercial agriculture costs. But the high food prices everywhere mean the price premium is shrinking. This presents an opportunity for local food to close the gap with industrial food, so that’s a positive thing,” he said.
And while transportation costs are taking an extra toll on Island farmers who depend on trucks and boats for all their farming needs, the growing popularity of locally-grown food will boost farmers’ markets both here and on the mainland, he predicted. “Farmers’ markets have become the new public square. You have people going there who aren’t even hungry or looking for food. There is conversation, politics, music. There are people going, tourists who don’t have kitchens, and you don’t want to repel them. They’re learning something valuable and hopefully, they’ll go back home and visit their farmers’ markets.”
In other farm news, Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm on North Road in Chilmark reports that she now has two batches of piglets, three kinds of ducklings and a growing herd of Pygmy goats, all of whom love visitors. The farm is open Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, please call 508-645-3304.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.