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A Shopping Odyssey

I started out early at the Sam Smith Park Farmer’s Market. I had been there on the first morning, but there were few stalls set up. I thought I would wait a couple weeks and check it out again. There were a dozen or more stalls now, a much more robust set-up, and there were some nice looking products available.

I bought a few things because I like the idea of having a local market, but I thought the prices were out of line, at least for me. The words GMO-free and gluten-free and organic and local were being tossed about, and maybe that’s code for super-expensive. My neighbour said these were farmers’ market prices and to be fair I don’t go to a lot of farmer’s markets so what do I know?

$3 for a cookie seems really expensive to me, though, even if it contains the best ingredients and even if it is a generous-sized cookie. I suppose they would charge that at a Starbucks but going into a Starbucks, you know everything is over-priced. 4 medium-sized tomatoes for $5 is expensive, even if they are GMO-free organic, and locally grown heirloom varieties. One stall had great-looking corn, but $5 for half a dozen cobs is extremely expensive. A local pie place had lemon squares that were more attractively priced, and I have no ability to resist lemon squares.

There were pies and there were soups and there was an artisan bakery there and everything looked great. It as just mostly all outside my snack bracket. I can see stopping by once in a while for a special treat (I just ate one of the lemon squares I bought and it was delicious) but I can’t bring myself to do any regular produce shopping there, though.

I guess I had a different idea about what a farmer’s market was all about. I kind of expected stalls set up in front of 5-ton trucks full of produce just driven down from the farm, with loads of produce and enough vendors to keep prices honest. The Sam Smith market is more of a niche shopping experience, a place that specializes in the highest-end items. If I had a family to feed and I wanted to be sure they ate produce that was chemical-free, I think having a vegetable garden or plot somewhere to grow my own would be the only way to go, short of a lotto win.

Next stop was Purrfect Pets at Lakeshore and Twenty Seventh to pick up some kibble (and more) for the partners. I enjoy the shopping experience at this store. Michelle and Rory are great to deal with and they go out of their way to make sure you’re a happy customer. They get my top recommendation for pet supplies.

I headed west to Curry’s on Queensway in Mississauga for some encaustic paint sticks. This is basically pigment mixed into melted wax medium then cooled in stick-shaped molds. I’ve started in on the new series of work, and wanted to stock up on more colours. My intention was to use oil paint with the wax medium (I’ve cooked up a batch of medium for this purpose, mixing beeswax and damar gum) and I may yet do that, but I’ve been enjoying the pre-made encaustic paint a lot. One of the qualities I like about it is that it is completely dry as soon as the wax cools. I don’t know if you’ve been into an art supply store recently, but it’s like hooking up your bank account to a giant vaccuum hose. Good thing I controlled my spending (somewhat) at the market.

After Curry’s I drove up to Starsky’s on Dundas, west of The West Mall. Starsky’s is a madhouse on Saturdays, but I like their meat, and their sausage is fantastic. The usual plan of attack shopping at Starsky’s is to walk right to the deli counter, where they sell the kielbasa, and get your number. Then go and do the rest of your shopping, keeping half an eye on what number is being called. Don’t miss your number being called out, though. They won’t wait and you will lose your spot. Today I was number 025 and they were “now serving” 61. By the time I finished the rest of my shopping, they werer only at 81. This was unusual because usually they are very fast at the sausage counter. I abandoned ship and headed home without kielbasa.

There were a few items I can’t get at Starsky’s which meant a quick stop at the No Frills on the way home. That was OK though, because it’s right next door to the liquor store, and I wanted to get a few beers. The guy who orders the beer for this store is crazy for craft beer and the selection is silly-wonderful.

I commented to the cashier that they carry more brands of craft beer than College St has restaurants. That’s a lot of selection. I can’t drink more than one or maybe two beers in a day, and I don’t stick to any one brand. Usually I’ll buy 4 or 5 cans, each of them a different crazy exotic brand. I suppose I should be as price-sensitive when buying beer as I am buying groceries, but I’m not. I like the brews from the various small breweries a lot, and I confess having a few in the house is an indulgence.

I got home and unloaded, to find I missed two or three things on my list. How could that have happened? I’m not going back for more shopping today though. No way. I have some work to do outside and I’m heading there now.


  1. Salvelinas Fontinalis

    Farmer’s markets aint what they used to be. And the whole produce business cost structure aint what it used to be. Here is an example of the way things work. Lets look at a farmer who grows say carrots. He is in the business of growing carrots and not in the business of packaging, storing, and marketing carrots so quite often he will harvest his crop and sell it to a packing house. For simplicity sake lets say the price he gets is 1. The packing house will pressure wash the carrots, run them along a conveyor belt where a bunch of people will examine them and remove from the belt any carrots that fail to meet grade standards. Then he will pack them into those 2 or 3 pound bags that you find at the supermarket and put them into cold storage while he sells them to lets say a chain grocery store. The packing house makes a living doing this. They have to cover their costs in equipment, labor and buildings and transportation plus make a profit and to do this they will apply a markup to what they paid for the carrots when they sell them. Lets take a guess that they add 40% to their cost so now our running cost total becomes 1 + 40% or 1.40. The grocery chain now owns the carrots and they need to get them sold so for now lets assume that they sell the carrots to one of their franchisee owned stores. They arent going function as a middle man for free so lets say they add 30% at this stage to cover their costs and give themselves some profit bringing our running cost to 1.40 + 30% = 1.82. Ok now your corner grocery store owns the carrots and they need to come up with a selling price that is in keeping with their promise of low low prices so they simply double their cost bring us to 3.64. The point to all this is that the original farmer actually receives 1/3.64 of the selling price of the carrots which is a little better than 27% of the selling price. The actual number will of course depend on whether or not a packing house was used, the chain store involved, whether the final store was a franchise store or corporately owned and some market conditions but the final estimate should be somewhere in the ball park. So when you see say a 3 pound bag of carrots in the store with a price of say $1.49 then you can sort of calculate that the farmer might have received 27% x $1.49 or about 40 cents for the actual carrots.

    Once upon a time many years ago a farmer could look at those numbers and say hey I bet I could do better by a bit if I sold some of my carrots directly to the consumer. In fact I bet I could double my income if I took some of my crop to the local farmers market and sold them for 79 cents a bag. Customers would line up by the hundreds to buy my carrots at what is almost half price and I will make out like a bandit and I might or might not pay income tax on my farmers market income. Many of us older folks remember the days when we could go to a farmers market and buy farm fresh produce at prices that were significantly lower than those at a grocery store sold by a smiling farmer who was smiling because he was making out like a bandit. What happened to those days? Well, as I see it the issue is huge corporations, marketing inefficiencies and just plain corporate greed. The original farmer made money with his 40 cent carrots because they probably cost him 30 cents to grow. So the final selling price was 5 times the original cost of the product. 5 times. Think about that. No real value added to the carrots, the price was just cranked up by 500%. The thing is that when the farmer gets his crop sold and needs to buy a new truck he finds that the truck has also had its cost cranked up by some enormous percent and he cant afford to buy it. But wait he can maybe get even a bit if he is clever. Instead of selling his carrots at the farmers market for 79 cents he can raise his price. How about $1.49 like the grocery store. Why stop there? He can spout words like GMO free and organic and locally grown and fair market and all natural and charge $2.49 for the carrots. wow now he truly is making out like a bandit especially since these are the very same carrots that you find in the bags at the grocery store. They pretty much have to be if the guy is an actual farmer. These high prices scare away most of the customers and the farmer cant pay his time if he only sells 50 pounds a day so he mostly quits selling at farmers markets. The thing is that at $2.49 the guy with the big back yard looks at the deal and thinks geez I can make some spare cash at those prices and I might or might not pay income tax on my profits. And I can spout words like GMO and organic and local and all natural even though I have no clue at all what any of that actually means. Another sort of perspective is to look at carrot yields per acre. These days a decent crop produces in the order of 50,000 pounds per acre. I seriously doubt that a carrot farmer can fund the specialized equipment he needs to grow and harvest carrots if his crop is anything less than 20 acres and that might be a number that is ridiculously low. The guy with 20 acres of carrots will be producing 1 million pounds of carrots. Yes 1,000,000 pounds. Next time you are at one of these small farmers markets and you see a vendor with his entire inventory to be sold spread out on 2 or 3 card tables with a total value of about 60 bucks ask yourself why a carrot farmer who produces 1,000,000 pounds of carrots would bring 60 bucks worth of produce to a small farmers market. Then ask yourself if the guy is an actual farmer or just some guy with a big backyard having you on and making some beer money and charging wild and outrageous prices. There might be some legitimate farmers at these tiny farmers markets but there wont be many. There are some bigger farmers markets around and in general the bigger the market the more likely it is that you will be dealing with a real farmer who makes his living farming.

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