How Far Does $20 Go at the Farm Market?

It's National Farmers Market Week, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The big guy, Secretary Mike Johanns, even signed a proclamation for the occasion, giving an official high-five to farmers' markets all week long, through this Saturday, Aug. 11.

I wish there was a produce party or related festivities to point you to (although that's an idea worth mulling over for next year), but I suppose you could argue that farmers' markets already are a riot of colors, aromas and flavors, and there's a party going on every week in your neighborhood during growing season.

Last year, the USDA recorded 4,385 markets nationwide, an 18 percent increase since 2004. When it does a 2007 tally, it will be able to add three more locations to the growing list of Washington area markets, including Bloomingdale Market (Sundays, 10 am.-2 p.m, until mid-November), a producer-only market at First and R Streets, NW; a Saturday market at the Reeves Center at 14th and U Streets, NW (10 a.m. - 2 p.m.) and out in Fairfax, Va., a Sunday market (9 a.m. - 1p.m.) in the parking lot of the recently opened mega Whole Foods in Fair Lakes.

This week's federal hoorah for farm markets is a prime opportunity to revisit the topic of the price of food at farm markets versus that at the supermarket, back in May. It was hotly contested, for sure, prompting me to ask the question: How much food does $20 cover at your neighborhood farm market? I received e-mails both locally and from around the country, and finally I've gotten around to compiling reader's shopping lists. Below, a sampler of $20-dollar farm market larders, plus how I spent my money this past weekend.

One note: The inventory listed reflects late spring/early summer produce availability, and you may notice differences according to geographic region.

Here's what 20 bucks got me this Saturday at Arlington Courthouse market:

1 pint butter beans
1 pint sungold tomatoes
1 head garlic
2 yellow bell peppers
2 medium tomatoes (stellar quality)
4 Roma tomatoes (so-so quality)
1 jalapeno

An additional $20 yielded:
2 pints blackberries
1 pint blueberries
1 pint plums
6 Japanese eggplants
1 long red pepper
2 red bell peppers

Read on to see what readers found with their $20...

Betsy, 27, of Fairfax, Va., checked out the aforementioned Fair Lakes market at Whole Foods. With her 20 bucks, Betsy reaped:

1 pint strawberries
1 bag of lettuce mix
tomatoes (we don't know how many)
1 pound naturally raised beef, ground into hamburger

Jen L., who shops regularly at the Del Ray market in Alexandria on Saturdays (8 a.m.-noon), got the following with her money:

1 quart strawberries
1 pint strawberries
4 tomatoes (probably green house grown in June)
1 bunch asparagus
1 spearmint plant

Colette, married and a mom of a 6 year old, reports that she is a regular shopper at the Clarendon Market on Wednesdays (3-7p.m.). Her 20 bucks translated into:

½ box cucumbers and ½ box tomatoes (split with a friend, she says; I'm assuming quart-sized boxes)
1 head oak-leaf lettuce
2 bunches asparagus
1 quart strawberries
1 bunch pink radishes

In her e-mail, Elena, of Germantown, Md., writes that her recent shopping experience at the USDA's very own farmers' market (Fridays, 10 a.m.- 2 p.m.) was the first time she bought an entire week's supply of produce exclusively at a farmers' market. Elena spent only $13, but this is what she took home:

2 zucchinis
1 quart new potatoes
1 quart sugar snap peas
1 quart greenhouse tomatoes
maple sugar candy

Val, a 40-something single gal in Baltimore, Md., writes that she's a regular shopper at year-round Waverly Farmer's Market, a few blocks from home. With her 20 bucks, Val purchased:

1 Jamaican meat patty
1 pound hot sage sausage
1 head red-leaf lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
1 bunch leeks
1 bunch turnips
1 bunch icicle radishes
1 pound shelled fresh peas
1 quart strawberries
2 bunches asparagus
4 carrots

Further north, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, 28-year-old Mandy B., shops at the year-round Saturday Greenmarket in Grand Army Plaza. She filled her bag with:

1 head red leaf lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
1 half-dozen eggs from pasture-raised hens
1 pound squid
1 bunch scallions
1 bunch asparagus
2 large New Jersey tomatoes

And reporting in from the southwest is Carissa, a 29-year-old administrative assistant, in Austin, Tex. She shops every Saturday at Sunset Valley Farmers Market. For her money, Carissa purchased:

2 bunches onions - red and yellow
1 bunch carrots
2 quarts strawberries
1 pint blackberries
1 pint cherry tomatoes

As I mentioned, this is just a sampler. If you've been to market recently and happened to notice how your 20 dollars translated into food, please share your reports in the comments area below. I'd love to hear from you, farm market and supermarket shoppers alike.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 6, 2007; 11:58 AM ET Farmers Markets
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The Fair Lakes farmer's market is way over priced compared to farmer's markets in Clifton, Burke and Centerville. The quality of the beef sold isnt up to Shopper's Standards. It is farmer's market for dumb yuppies who will overpay for organic foods. I cant sell my organic lamb there at a price I decide on and my other famer friends say Whole Foods doesnt like folks who undercut their prices in their store in the same parking lot.

Posted by: vaherder | August 6, 2007 12:50 PM

I went to the small farmers market in the Kentlands (gaithersburg) on Saturday. Only had $10 to spend but I purchased 1 qt plums, 1 large zucchini, 1 large eggplant, and approx. 8 roma tomatoes. Based on what others have spent with $20, I think I did pretty good. I do think that based on the amount of fruits and veggies that my family eats per week, my dollar doesn't go very far at the farmer's market. I was surprised at how little some of the folks Kim mentioned got with $20, and I expected to get a little more with my $10 than I actually did.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2007 12:53 PM

Went to the Dupont Market Sunday with $20 in my pocket - came back with
3 large (slicing) cucumbers
4 huge beefsteak tomatoes (~2 lbs)
3 yellow peaches
3 white peaches
2 yellow bell peppers
1 bunch mint
1 bunch dill
1 bunch rosemary.

The herbs may last more than 1 week if I keep them in water but the rest should be used up in tzatzki, tomato tart, pasta salad, and peach cobbler this week. Yum!

Posted by: JS | August 6, 2007 12:58 PM

I wondered how Whole Foods would allow a farmers' market to set up in their parking lot. Seems like it would really undercut their business. In light of that, the first comment really makes sense.

I also want to mention that I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver's popular new book on her and her family's year of eating locally (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). While it provides some food for thought (haha), there are some inaccuracies and over-generalizations. I also found an essay by her 18-year old daughter (several are sprinkled through the book) about why NOT to go vegetarian, to be simplistic and based on wrong assumptions (e.g., a reference to "vegan Hindus," when Hindus do eat dairy and many eat fish). OK for a teenager, but the editor or publisher should have done a better job on this book overall. I may skim some of the rest of the book, but I'm pretty disappointed in it, esp after all the hype.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2007 1:02 PM

We shop at the Takoma Park farmers market year round and regularly spend much more than $20 but it is so worth it. This week my table is bursting with fabulous peaches, nectarines, plums, and tomatoes as well as lettuce, cukes, many varieties of squash and eggplant. Yum, this is my favorite time of year and I am so happy that so many people are discovering the benefits of eating locally and supporting our local farmers.

Posted by: market lover | August 6, 2007 1:04 PM

We belong to a CSA that delivers a box of local, mostly organic veggies to our house every week. We paid at the beginning of the season but the cost of 1 box each week comes out to about $18 (we get a discount b/c we have more than one box delivered to our address). This week 1 box contained:

3 ears corn
4 medium tomatoes
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
4 banana peppers
1 pint green beans (approx)
8 peaches
1 small broccoli
1 small eggplant
potted thyme

This was definitely one of the better weeks in terms of quantity, but we've been happy enough with the quality of the produce to recommend them (Great Country Farms)!

Posted by: Arlington | August 6, 2007 1:32 PM

This weekend, driving through New Jersey farm land, I stopped at a stand (not a farmer's market, but a permanent establishment), and bought:

1 light purple eggplant
2 Jersey tomatoes
1 zucchini
1 yellow summer squash
3 ears of corn
box of peaches (5? 6?)

for $7. I don't even *like* South Jersey, and this almost makes me wish that I lived there.

Posted by: Karen | August 6, 2007 1:34 PM

At this weekends Del Ray Farmer's Market I spent $16 and got:

$4 pint cremini mushrooms
$7 2 pints fresh tomatoes (two different kinds)
$5 quart of "doughnut" peaches

I made pasta sauce out of the tomatoes and mushrooms (and lots of basil growing in a pot in my back yard). It was a great summer dinner. And while a jar of Ragu costs only $2 or so, you can't believe the difference in freshly made sauce. Nor do I have to worry about chemials, botulism
or other unhealthy things in my food.

Posted by: Del Ray Farmer's market | August 6, 2007 1:40 PM

This weekend at a farmers market in Baton Rouge for $17 I bought

a tomato
a yellow bell pepper
oak-leaf lettuce
2lbs brown rice
8 green japanese eggplants
a babysweet melon
a bag of stiff-neck garlic (about 3lbs)

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2007 2:13 PM

CSA must be the way to go. Ours comes out to about $22 a week. Every week is very good and different. Enough for 2 to eat all week. Little meat eaters, we are able to add a small amount of carbs, fruit and yogurt and are set for the week. We use Fresh and Local. This week we received:

Bag of purslane
Bag of spinach
Large bunch of basil
1 eggplant
1 squash
Bunch of rosemary
2 cucumbers
Bunch of cooking greens
3 onions
4 heads of garlic

Posted by: CSA | August 6, 2007 2:23 PM

My $20 booty at the Burke farmer's market on Saturday:

3 lbs. heirloom tomatoes from Glascock Farm (WV) - simply AWESOME
6 ears of sweet white corn
1 pint green beans
2 yellow squash
2 zucchini
1 bunch of radishes

For an extra $10 I purchased two containers of whole milk honey-flavored yogurt and a container of fresh mozzarella.

FWIW, the heirloom tomatoes from Glascock's are the highlight of my summer and it was worth waiting nearly 30 minutes in #*!$? traffic to get them.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | August 6, 2007 2:38 PM

To the person who shopped at the Kentlands, Gaithersburg farmer's market: Try shopping at Magruders, on Quince Orchard Road, about 5 minutes from your farmer's market. Their produce prices are very reasonable.

Posted by: J | August 6, 2007 4:10 PM

$19 at the Amish market in Charlotte Hall (St. Mary's County, MD) this week got me:

2 pints of blackberries
1 medium watermelon
6 tomatoes
2 onions
1 quart of peaches
1 quart of cherry tomatoes

Another $8.50 at Shlagel's farm in Waldorf (Charles County, MD) bought:

6 ears of corn
Pint-size box of misc hot peppers
A couple of pounds of green beans
Quart-size box of potatoes

Add to that the squash and green peppers from my garden, and the only reason I had to stop in the produce department at the store was to get mushrooms!

Posted by: Troylet | August 6, 2007 4:38 PM

For $20 at the Courthouse market:

4 yellow peaches
4 white peaches
1 head garlic
1 bag of purslane
1 bunch of radishes
1 large red bell pepper
1 medium cantaloupe

An extra $20 or so bought six pints of mixed berries from Westmoreland and they are worth every penny.

Posted by: Allison | August 6, 2007 4:59 PM

I love the Silver Spring farmer's market - I used to live in Dupont, and it reminds me of the market there only with more reasonable prices.

My favorite vendor isn't a farmer, though - it's the bread vendor, who has the most incredible fresh bread I've ever had. We go through at least a couple of loaves a week, and it's incredible just sliced thick with butter.

I haven't been as impressed with the veggies and fruit - I've often found better prices and quality at the Whole Foods up the street for stuff like berries. The peaches and squash are great, though, and very reasonable.

Posted by: Kate | August 6, 2007 5:16 PM

For $20:

1 quart enormous blackberries
2 beefsteak red tomatoes
2 yellow tomatoes
2 purple heirloom tomatoes
2 hot peppers
2 red bell peppers
1 boule rosemary bread
1 head garlic

Posted by: Arlington Cthouse Mkt | August 6, 2007 5:33 PM

Montezuma County, Colorado has a farmers' market Saturday mornings and Thursday at a local greenhouse.

$10.00 bought large bunch of basil, large clove garlic and 8 or 9 small carrots. She threw in a bunch of basil free--I got there pretty late so now I have to make pesto.

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | August 6, 2007 5:43 PM

$18 at my farmer's market this weekend:
* Head of red leaf lettuce
* Half a HUGE head of cabbage
* 3 small eggplants
* 6-7 zucchini
* 6-7 cucumbers
* 5-6 carrots
* 2 pounds green beans
* bunch of parsley
* 1 muskmelon

From other vendors at the market, I spend another $5 on local raw feta cheese, $5 on amazing bread. At the grocery store, I got some pasta, rice, tofu, and dressings for about $15.

Total bill for dinner and lunch for two people for seven days: $43. Not bad, I think.

Posted by: Portland, Ore. | August 7, 2007 2:54 AM

I shop at the Williamsburg Farmers Market in Williamsburg, VA after the wonderful variety of produce in DC it was at first I disappointment. I loved the Dupont Circle and Stadium markets. They are now very vital, up and running with a great organic selection.

My twenty dollars buys:

1 bunch Carrots
1 bunch Basil (cant get enough this yr!)
2 lbs tomatoes
2 cukes
1 lb Japanese eggplant
1 lb blueberries

I still miss foreign films -- but I can cook as well as I did in DC now.

Posted by: Ellen Manning | August 7, 2007 10:11 AM

My favorite way to find value at the Farmer's Markets is to ask if there are any "seconds" available at a reduced price. Last weekend I bought about 6 lbs of tomatoes for less than $1/pd. Yes, they were oddly marked and needed to be used quickly, but for about $5 I made salsa and an amazing tomato sauce that afternoon. Some stands have seconds bins, but the product can be really on the edge then (and super picked over). A better strategy is to get to know one stand well and ask about seconds.

Posted by: Heather | August 7, 2007 10:29 AM

Yay, I'm in the column!

Those zucchini were really good too. I made them into little pancake things like latkes and served them with tomato sauce. I've been trying to hit farmers' markets more and more. The produce just tastes better, and I think it is roughly the same price. Unless I was counting pennies, I wouldn't notice the difference. I think next year I'll try a CSA if I can find one with really small shares. It's just me and my husband, and he doesn't eat vegetables.

Posted by: Elena | August 7, 2007 10:39 AM

because I'm so embarrassed about what I learned this weekend at my local farmer's market.

It is a highly educated area I live in. The Farmer's Market is a highlight of the week for many residents.

However, it was discovered by a local newspaper reporter, that at least one of the stands was actually operated by a major grocery store here - the produce was the exact same stuff they were selling at their stores - 1 mile away.

Apparently this isn't uncommon? sigh.

Just renewed by subscription to the CSA for next year. At least I SEE the farm it came from.

Posted by: Have to hide my location | August 7, 2007 11:49 AM

At the College Park farmers market on Saturday, we spent about $11 and got:

2 red and 2 yellow tomatoes (large)
1/2 large watermelon
2 yellow peppers
4 nectarines

Posted by: Hyattsville, MD | August 7, 2007 12:15 PM

I go to the Waverly Market as well and here is what we got with our $40:
-one box peaches
-one box nectarines
-one half-gallon milk (with return of last week's bottle)
-a HUGE bag of pole beans
-four skinny Japanese eggplants
-sm. box of mixed squash (2 sm pattypan, 2 yellow/green)
-1 pound of hot sage sausage
-1 lamb breast

Posted by: Melissa | August 7, 2007 4:24 PM

Posted by: | August 7, 2007 4:33 PM

I live in Austin, Texas, and shop regularly at the Sunset Valley Farmer's Market on Saturdays.
The last weekend in July, I spent $18 and got:
one eggplant ($2)
1/2 lb. spinach linguine from a local pasta company (and the nice lady also threw in a free bag of Guinness ravioli filled with purple potatoes and vintage Irish cheddar) ($5)
1/2 lb of locally produced honey ($5)
one loaf multigrain bread from a local bakery ($4)
tickets to the bouncy house (I have a 2-year-old son) ($2)

This past weekend, we spent $20 and got:
2 grassfed pork chops: +/- $9
1 pint figs: $2
1/2 lb three-pepper spaghetti and 1/2 lb. spinach linguine: $9

That doesn't seem like much. I reckon if we'd gotten produce, our $20 would have gone farther, but we're not big squash/eggplant people. I imagine we'll take away more produce in the winter.

We also shop at the Triangle Farmer's Market on Wednesdays (which used to be held in the flagship Whole Foods' parking lot downtown), where I usually get our eggs for about $4/dozen.

Posted by: Melanie | August 7, 2007 7:58 PM

Having personally raised the pasture-raised beef sold at the Fair Lakes market, I'm completely relieved that it doesn't compare to conventional super market, confinement-raised, corn-fatty, medicated beef. Whew.

Good luck with your lambs, and keep the compliments coming!

-Forrest Pritchard, farmer, Berryville Va.

Posted by: Forrest | August 9, 2007 8:26 PM

As to the Whole Foods question, Whole Foods commonly invites farmers to organize farmers markets in their parking lots. It's excellent positive press for them, and frankly attracts new customers to their store. In addition, for example, our family farm offers a unique experience otherwise unavailable at Whole Foods (for example, being able to actually speak with the farmer who personally raised, trucked and processed the meat you are eating!).

It's a win-win situation, or why would Whole Foods arrange it, and why would we farmers attend?

In the meantime, instead of griping about prices, here's what $20 will buy you at our stand:

1 dozen eggs $4 (enough for 6 nutritious breakfasts to start your day)

1 box of fresh handmade pasta $5 (two servings for dinner, with olive oil and some fresh chunky tomatoes... try finding a decent dinner for two for $2.50!)

1 lb of organically raised grass fed beef $5 (enough for two huge juicy burgers... again, this is beef where the person selling it can tell you which pasture that steer was grazing last week... or alternatively, at local supermarket all over the country, the animal came out of a confinement feed lot, and the meat has been sitting in a cardboard box for 3 weeks... yummy!)

1 pack of thin-sliced beef stir-fry strips $4.50, good for two servings, sizzled with fresh onions and green peppers. Again, dinner for two for under $5

And I left you $1.50 for a half a gallon of gas to get you home. Now THAT'S what I call service.


Posted by: Forrest | August 9, 2007 8:55 PM

It's a weekend later, but here's what I bought for $17 at the Bowie farmer's market:

3 cucumbers
3 bell peppers
4 ears of corn
4 tomatoes
2 eggplant
6 chocolate habaneros
7 peaches
1 onion

Posted by: odkaty | August 12, 2007 12:05 PM

I just ran across this query via Slashfood. I posted last weekend about my amazing $5 haul at the the Sunday farmers market on Denver's Old South Pearl Street.

I got two red peppers, two red onions, a yellow onion, three tomatoes, a big handful of green beens and another of yellow, a pile o' potatoes, a handful of carrots, a yellow squash, an acorn squash and a cantaloupe.

Here's the post:

I think this was an anomaly -- most stands do charge more -- but the prices are generally still pretty good. Cheaper than most supermarkets.

Posted by: Kitt | August 14, 2007 1:28 AM

I'd like to comment on the 1/2 box of tomatoes and cucumbers - this isn't a quart container - if you buy by the bushel things are way cheaper! I paid $12 for a 1/2 bushel of tomatoes vs. buying by the pound. The tomatoes are great for canning, but also for eating right out of the box. $8 will get you a half bushel of cucumbers. Burke & Wakefield Farmer's markets. You can also get corn cheaper too buying by the 1/2 bushel vs. by the ear or dozen.

Posted by: Cheryl | August 15, 2007 7:39 AM

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