Friday, September 18, 2009

Understanding Disagreement on Local Foods

Yesterday, I saw a bit of activity on Twitter about the brand spankin' new farmers' market located a block away from the White House. Some tweets had photos or URLs attached. (As two examples of online reports, see and The tweets generated some particularly negative responses from farmers that I follow. I'm trying to understand some of the issues. Below, I've thrown out some of my thoughts. However, I'd really like to hear from others on this. Those of you with more of a stake in the game would be great to hear from.

I saw one exchange in which one individual blasted the prices at the WH FM, saying that they reinforced negative stereotypes of local foods being for the "elite." One example cited was $11/lb pork chops. (I saw little discussion of quality-related issues.) Based on this, I wonder what prices the critics would say is fair. Is the $2.49 pork chops advertised in my local grocery store's circular too little? How about double or triple that number? It seems to me that a fair price is whatever the farmer selling it can get for the product. Who among that group wouldn't love to get $11.00? One of the sources listed above indicates that little product was moving. If true, seems like the items were indeed overpriced. In a competitive market, as this one's in, consumers, not bloggers and reporters, get to decide what is overpriced and what isn't.

I also don't understand the notion of this one market giving all others a black eye. This one has something that all others don't have... proximity to the White House. The story embodied in that fact has value to some target consumers. In addition, there's only one opening day. Some customers will tell the story for years about how they bought ag products on the opening day of the White House farmers' market. What's the value of that story? We won't know until Day 2. But this market is unique and has received so much publicity that it seems obvious to me that vendors are going to try to capitalize on that fact. Consumers also seem to understand that products cost more in some areas than in others. I suspect most won't hold it against vendors in other markets.

The other factor is that they aren't selling to the "everyperson" in this venue. Chefs from upscale restaurants nearby will buy products from this market if it's competitive. There's also a lot of people with a lot of money working in those big buildings in DC. Average income is probably higher than most other farmers' market locations. It's no surprise that prices are higher given that fact alone. So, more money is added to the price beyond what might be seen at a "typical" market.

Finally, is the notion that some hold of local foods being only for the "elite" an accurate one? In a June 24, 2009 post, I wrote about the need for a balanced approach to local foods if it is going to become more mainstream. To become mainstream, it's got to be able to compete on price, quality, and convenience with WalMart and other major food retailers. That's a tough battle if local food sellers want to reach the masses. But is there any other way to make it happen?

Response Questions

1. How should we determine "fair" prices for direct marketers?

2. Does the uniqueness of the setting have value separate from the products being sold?

3. Are local foods for the elite/wealthy? If so, can that be changed?

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