As the person responsible for produce pricing at the Co-op, one of the questions I get most often is: Why is organic produce so expensive, and how can I eat organic fruits and veggies on a budget?
Why is organic produce sometimes so expensive?
Let’s take the first part of that question first. Why is organic produce sometimes so expensive? In order to understand the answer, you first have to understand more about the organic produce industry and where our produce comes from. We rely on two very different supply chains: distribution warehouses that source nationally and internationally, and direct purchases from local farmers.
The first supply chain is, understandably, the most complex. Because we live in a temperate climate, it’s inevitable that we sell produce from warmer places such as California and Mexico. Tree fruits such as apples and pears have a distinct seasonality in the Northern Hemisphere. In order to keep top quality product on our shelves we have to look to the Southern Hemisphere for these items in our off-season. Since it’s not feasible for us to work directly with farmers, packing companies, and importers around the world, we’ve partnered with distributors who we trust to do that work for us.
The Co-op has been selling organically grown produce for 40 years. Recently the rest of the world has caught on. In the last ten years, the market for organic produce has skyrocketed. In fact it’s risen so quickly that farmers who grow certain crops can’t keep up. It takes three years to transition land to organic production. If you are growing a perennial crop like fruit trees, the farmer has to wait an additional few years for the trees to reach maturity before reaping an organic harvest. As with any supply chain, when demand outsteps supply, prices rise. So it is with organic produce, at least some items at some times.
Perhaps the best example of how this international supply chain affects the price you pay is organic apples. This is a crop that many of us grew up thinking of as a year-round affordable staple. Not anymore. In the last few years, organic apple prices have risen dramatically, especially during our off season (spring and summer). Why? Organic apples are a commodity that is increasingly sought after not only in the US, but also in Europe, China, and other international markets. It takes a significant amount of time to transition orchards to organic production. Add to that a bit of bad weather in New Zealand and you have the perfect storm that results in extremely high prices on our shelves.
Now let’s shift our focus from the global marketplace to our own local economy. More than any other retailer in our area, the Co-op sources fresh produce direct from Wisconsin farmers—about 35 of them throughout the growing season. By doing this we are able to avoid the international supply chain, the whims of the global market, and your money is not diverted to a middleman distributor. When you buy local produce, what you pay is a direct reflection of the time, labor, and investment the farmer had to put into the product.
Tips for saving money
So, with that background, here are some tips to help you save money and still eat the absolute best organic produce. It’s easier than you might think!
- Buy what’s on sale: Every week, we pick six organic produce items that we are able to get at a very good price, we drop our margins, and offer them to Owners as Owner Rewards sales.
The items we put on sale, both local and non-local, represent a farmer’s bountiful harvest—whether that be a Dane County farmer’s zucchini or a Mexican farmer’s mangoes. When supply is up, prices go down, it’s really that simple. The great thing about this is that when harvests are good and we are able to put something on sale, quality is also usually very good. Not only are you getting the best price of the season on a sale item, but nine times out of ten you are getting the best quality as well.
- Buy what’s in season (or rather avoid what isn’t in season): Let’s go back to the apple example. How do you avoid paying an arm and a leg for apples? The answer is simple: don’t buy them in the spring or summer when they’re not in season. Instead, choose one of the delicious fruits that is in season like berries, peaches, grapes, or plums, and hold your apple purchases for the fall when the domestic crop comes in.
The same principle holds true throughout the produce department. Things get pricey when supply is low and demand is high, and often that means a product is simply not in its peak season. Luckily, from citrus in the winter to peaches in the summer, there’s always something available that’s delicious and seasonal (and usually inexpensive.) If you need help figuring out what that is, just ask a produce clerk. We’re always happy to point you in the right direction and give you a sample.
- Buy local: By far, purchasing local fruits and veggies is the best way to stretch your dollar on organic produce. As I mentioned earlier, the Co-op purchases more local produce direct from farmers than any other retailer in town. When you buy local, not only are you helping support your local economy and a Wisconsin farming family, but you are also divorcing yourself from the global supply chain that allows the weather in New Zealand and consumer trends in China to affect the price you pay for an apple in Wisconsin. You are also bypassing the middleman, which gives you a better price and also puts more money in your farmer’s pocket.
There are some exceptions to this rule for things that may require a lot of labor to produce, or when local farmers are not able to capture the economies of scale that large organic agribusiness can. Strawberries and bagged salad mix are examples of this, although I would argue that the quality and integrity of the local product is good enough to make the slight cost premium worth it.