The sounds of people's chatter and the vibrant colors of veggies and flowers make up my first memories of farmers markets trips this summer. My senses were awakened by the sweet aromas of baked goods and fresh produce as I weaved in and out of the crowds to see all the tables. I remember my excitement the first time I tried microgreens and the bursting flavors of green smoothie mix and wasabi. I recall thinking that these tastes, smells and sounds were all there was to know about farmers' markets, but I was really just taking my first bite.
My mindset has changed tremendously since I started my incredible summer project as a Farmer Support Networks Intern with UNH Cooperative Extension. This summer, I've had the pleasure to work with Jesse Wright, an Extension Field Specialist in Agricultural Business Management. Together, Jesse and I visited many New Hampshire farms to learn about inflation's impacts on their businesses. We investigated how expenses have changed on farms over the past two years and what changes they subsequently made to the price of their goods.
Jesse pushed me out of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to interview New Hampshire farmers one-on-one. These conversations opened me up to so much going on behind the scenes at NH farms. It was only then I realized I did not really see all there was to see at NH farmers markets. I needed to look beyond the displays of wild mushrooms, ripened fruits and glorious bouquets to behind the tables, and get to know more about what it takes to create these products.
As I traveled around the Granite State, I was humbled by how many farmers took the time to chat, sharing their struggles of what inflation has realistically meant for them. The stories they shared gave me a great sense of what is really happening in New Hampshire. I learned that farmers are forced to charge prices to consumers depending on their own costs to grow their products.
As I digested more and more stories, I saw where the impact of inflation has hurt the most. The farmers I spoke with described their biggest challenges as soaring input prices, wage increases and supply chain issues. Many stressed that the most significant increases in production cost were seeds, animal feed and electricity, though those weren't the only factors. Many farmers described various price changes in soil, fertilizer, growing materials, packaging and equipment. USDA certified butchers and slaughterhouses are required for farmers who sell certain cuts of meat in New Hampshire, but like everything else those processing costs have also increased. Not to mention the fuel costs of driving multiple hours to get to those few and far-between facilities. As a result of these price changes farmers were put in a hard position to raise their prices.
But local farms aren’t the only food businesses who have felt the impact of inflated input costs this year. Restaurants and grocery stores both make up important parts of the NH food system. To get a deeper understanding of food pricing, I also collected data from NH eateries and supermarkets. I focused on five products that were available to consumers from both local farms and nonlocal sources: cherry tomatoes, mixed greens, bacon, eggs and chicken breast. While not an economic research study, this data added an interesting layer to the story I was learning.
Several restaurants were able to share pricing information from the last two years. Some prices—like chicken and eggs—went up in 2022, but have come back down in 2023. In comparison, average prices from local farms hadn’t changed in 2022, but did go up in 2023. This may indicate that national wholesale distributors are able (and willing) to change prices, both up and down, more quickly than local farms.
Comparing 2023 prices for these five products across all three sources (grocery stores, restaurants and local farms) was also interesting. Generally, we found that restaurants who buy in bulk from wholesale distributors are offered the best prices after equalizing units. Also across all five categories, consumers paid lower prices at grocery stores than at farmers markets. While neither of those outcomes struck us as surprising, they did beg us to ask more questions.
- What would adding data on wholesale prices offered from local farms to these restaurants add to the story?
- How would the story change if we clearly separated certified organic from conventionally grown products?
- Which products have the lowest difference in price between the grocery stores and farmers markets? Could those be products that get price sensitive consumers to purchase locally?
- And perhaps most profoundly, is a grocery store or national food distributor’s tomato even comparable to a locally grown one?
Jesse will attempt to gather more data and tackle these questions this winter. We knew going into this project that the summer season was not the best time to ask NH farmers to chat about their cost of production. As the harvest season slows down and winter comes, farmers will have a better picture of annual costs, and Jesse will be able to collect more data via surveys and conversations.
Though there is still much work to do to bring clarity to the information we gathered, one thing that is clear to me is how resilient our New Hampshire farmers are. Their stories of adapting and persevering through tough times will stick with me. It was reassuring to see bustling farmers markets and farm stands across the state, and to know that our farmers are surrounded by communities who know the value of a strong local food system.
Thank you to all the farmers who supported this work by taking the time to chat during such a busy season! Now when I go to farmers markets, I still see the vibrant colors of flowers, veggies and fruits. I still smell the fresh-baked bread and pastries. But now I am more aware of the people behind the booths, and what it took to get them there. I am better able to understand the prices that come with the products, and the farmers who make them. In addition to providing a great variety of local products, farmers markets are also an important opportunity to support our local community. Though prices may be lower for similar products at chain grocery stores, shopping at farmers markets or farm stands means more of our money is going back into the community and providing direct benefits to those who live there.
Inclusion or exclusion of commercial names, logos, products or services does not equate or imply endorsement by UNH Cooperative Extension or the University of New Hampshire.