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A new report explains why a crop grown down the road costs more than one flown in from afar.

Gillie Houston
June 22, 2016

In most parts of the country, produce at the local farmers' market has a reputation for quality, freshness and a hefty price tag. For many consumers, locally grown fruits and vegetables can be a serious splurge in comparison to their grocery store counterparts. But why is it that a crop grown down the road costs more than one flown in from afar?

A recent article from The Washington Post takes an in-depth look at this issue, and the complicated cost chain associated with locally produced food. When comparing the cost of common groceries from a local store versus the farmer's market, the difference in price is staggering. For a haul including "cage-free eggs, cheese, mushrooms, salad mix, and both organic and conventional strawberries," the Kroger grocery store cost came in at $31.37, compared to $64.62 at the local market in Richmond, Virginia.

In Richmond, a quart of organic strawberries at the market costs an average of $6.50, whereas organic berries distributed by Driscoll's—the United State's largest supplier of berries, with more than 40,000 employees—costs around $3.59 a quart in-store. While the Driscoll's berries had to be picked, packaged, and kept constantly refrigerated while being transported thousands of miles, their cost was still significantly less than the berries grown near-by. In order to uncover the reason behind this price divide, the Washington Post article zeroes in on the growth and distribution of one kind of produce in particular: strawberries.

One reason for the cost difference is that larger farms have "economy of scale" on their side. No matter the size of the farm, certain costs are fixed—including installation, equipment, financial interest—so, the larger the farm the lower the cost-per-acre to simply run that farm.

However, the bigger reason local producers have to charge more for their goods is sheer quantity of crops. In California, which is considered a prime Strawberry-growing destination and produces 91 percent of the nation's crop, large companies like Driscoll's are not only able to harvest more quality crops on every plot of land, but also have a much longer growing season than the strawberry farms of the east. In Virginia, fruit farmers plant between 12,000-17,000 strawberry plants per acre, whereas in California the fertile ground and ideal coastal climate allows farmers to grow around 22,000 plants per acre.

On top of this fruitful yield, California's growing season stretches on for 7 months; in more seasonal climates—like Virginia—strawberries can grow for about six weeks before shutting down. According to Barclay Poling, a strawberry horticulturist who works with farmers in Virginia, "the length of the picking season has a profound effect on yield per acre. The weekly yield levels on a per-acre basis in Virginia are as high as anywhere, but it's the growing time that makes the difference."

Compared to the rest of the country, California produces about double the amount of strawberries as its competitors. In fact, the state has "saturated the market to the point where people can't eat them fast enough," according to Oleg Daugovish, a farm adviser at the University of California. This surplus of produce means lower prices—prices smaller operations can't reasonably compete with.

However, there is a downside to California's cheap, plentiful produce: the taste. Because the Golden State's berries can't be shipped ripe and are picked at 75 percent color, Daugovish admits that flavor-wise, local berries are superior. So, for those who take taste and locality into serious consideration when purchasing their produce, a few extra bucks at the farmers' market will go a long way.