How many times have you stood in the produce department or in a farmer’s market and wondered why fruits and vegetables are so expensive? At the same time, you may have pondered how you could stretch your produce buying dollars.
According to Rich Donsky, co-owner of Mister Produce, a fresh produce distributor in Ontario, Canada, “supply and demand is the number one reason why” the prices of fruits and vegetables can be high. Two other critical factors that are closely related are weather conditions and season. “Fresh produce has a cycle,” explained Donsky, “and like the stock market, it depends on the seasons.”
Factors that influence fruit and vegetable cost
For example, right now in North America four of the main growing areas on which produce distributors depend are Florida, California, Mexico, and South America. Donsky noted that fruits and/or vegetables are coming from one or more of these areas. If any one area falls on hard times due to adverse weather conditions, produce yields can decline significantly and hike up prices. For people who live on the West Coast and who may want Florida crops that did not fare well, for example, prices can be especially high not only because of supply and demand but shipping and handling costs as well.
When I asked Donsky about whether organic produce was more expensive to grow-which is an argument sometimes given when people talk about the high price of organics-he said this was not necessarily true. Both conventional and organic farmers have significant expenses. For example, conventional farmers have to lay out lots of money for pesticides, while organic growers depend on more labor-intensive management of pests.
It’s also important to point out that organic produce actually makes up less than half (42% as of 2014) of the organic farm products in the United States. In fact, the top three organic products in terms of sales-milk, eggs, and broiler chickens-are not produce at all, so the playing field when it comes to explaining costs of production are not equal. The number four and five positions are held by lettuce and apples.
Let’s get back to supply and demand. Overall, the organic food sector increased from $3.2 billion in 2008 to $5.5 billion in 2014, so demand appears to be growing. To meet that demand, you need a sufficient supply, and that brings up the question of yield.
One argument against organic produce is that yields per acre are less than those of conventional farms which in turn hikes up prices. While there is some truth to this argument, there are some critical issues to consider.
For example, a 2014 report from Washington State University talked about the yield gap between organic and conventional farming. The author stated that his “best guess” was that about one third of this discrepancy is caused by a late season arrival of adult insects or other crop pathogens, which conventional farmers can attack with chemicals but that can largely elude the efforts of organic farmers. The good news, however, is that “this gap is highly amendable to incremental improvement if appropriate R&D [research and development] investments are made.”
Another look at yield comes from a 66-study meta-analysis by McGill University researchers. Although they found that organic techniques produce one quarter less food than conventional farming on the same amount of land area, some fruits and vegetables yield nearly the same amounts. For example, organic fruit farms “finished in a statistical dead heat” compared with conventional fruit farms, as did tomatoes and sunflower and canola oil seeds. Organic beans and peas also did well.
On the negative side, organic vegetable farmers had a 33 percent less yield per acre than their conventional peers, while organic corn, wheat, and other cereals came in at 26 percent less yield. One major reason for this gap, according to the authors, is nitrogen. Because organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, crops that use nitrogen more efficiently produce better yields than those that need lots of nitrogen. But the news isn’t all bad.
Overall, the authors concluded that “under certain conditions-that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions-organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields,” which would have a significant impact on the cost of fruits and vegetables.
How to save money on fruits and vegetables
To help you keep the cost of your fruits and vegetables within your budget, here are a few tips:
- Buy frozen. Donsky noted that “there’s nothing wrong with buying frozen organic produce. Prices are not as affected as fresh because producers do it in bulk several times a year so they keep the price point the same.”Also read about fresh versus frozen
- Follow the Environmental Working Group. The EWG publishes lists of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen fruits and vegetables every year, and the candidates are chosen based on the presence of pesticides. Basically, produce with a thick skin doesn’t need to be organic, said Donsky, which can save you some money, while soft produce, including leafy varieties, should be organic.
- Buy in season. When you eat what’s in season, you can save money. If you would like to enjoy your seasonal produce out of season, buy in bulk and freeze it!
- Grow your own. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can grow many veggies in containers on a balcony, patio, or porch. Keep prices down by repurposing containers (including old dresser drawers, buckets, wagons…be creative!) and making your own compost.
- Buddy up. Buying in bulk can save you money, but only if you can use all the produce. Ask a family member, friend, neighbor, or coworker to split one or more bulk purchases or the cost of weekly produce delivery.
Organic Farming Research Foundation. Organic FAQs
Seufert V et al. Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 2012 May 10; 485:229-32
Washington State University. Center for Sustaining and Agriculture and Natural Resources. Narrowing the Conventional versus organic farming system yield gap