BC Farmers Markets See Buyers, Sales Grow Amid Price Inflation

Although not immune to inflation, prices tend to be more consistent at farmers markets, according to food pricing expert Sylvain Charlebois: “They are more relevant than ever.”

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As food costs rise in British Columbia, more people are shopping at farmers markets, where prices have remained more consistent, experts say.

An economic impact study released Wednesday shows the value of direct sales at British Columbia farmers markets increased 28 per cent over the past decade, from $121 million in 2012 to $155 million in 2023 (with 2012 data adjusted to inflation).

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More shoppers, more markets and more sellers led to a record year by several measures, said Heather O’Hara, executive director of the BC Farmers Market Association.

While not the only reason for the increase, “prices have been very consistent and even lower on many items” at farmers markets, he said.

This is because local farmers often set their prices at the beginning of the season based on the costs of inputs, such as seeds or fuel. Transportation costs are minimal, while global market conditions play a more limited role. When drought or flooding affects British Columbia crops, customers can understand how that affects prices.

“When people buy from a farmer in their community, they are more likely to respect the challenges they face,” O’Hara said.

That understanding goes both ways: farmers try to supply healthy food at a fair price to the communities in which they have an interest.

“They’re not necessarily interested in volume and better margins,” he said. “The goal of a conventional grocery store is different than the goal of a farmers market.”

Scenes at a BC farmers market.
Brett Lawton serves fresh green beans at the Yaletown Farmers Market in Vancouver in a file photo. Photo by Mark van Manen /PROVINCE
Scenes at a BC farmers market.
A file photo shows scenes from the Trout Lake Farmers Market in Vancouver. Photo by Ward Perrin Ward Perrin /PROVINCE PNG

While there is less transparency around food prices from supermarket chains, companies often look to high-volume producers to lower prices. But both food prices and retail profits have increased in recent years, and retail profits have more than doubled from pre-COVID-19 norms, according to a report by the Center for Future Work.

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Food prices in BC, including groceries and restaurants, rose 4.4 per cent between January 2023 and 2024, according to BC Statistics’ recent Consumer Price Index. report. The year before, food prices rose nearly 10 percent.

While food price inflation is starting to stabilize, we are not “out of the woods” yet, said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Laboratory at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

“Farmers’ markets are not immune to food price inflation, but they are not as affected as traditional distribution channels,” he said. “I think they are more relevant than ever.”

Chilliwack organic farmer Lindsey Forstbauer said she felt the pain of inflation on her farm. Egg and beef production has been hardest hit as feed, labor and processing costs have risen. Vegetables and fruits have fared better.

“Our agricultural production does not depend so much on external influences, since we do not need to buy fertilizers or herbicides,” he said.

Forstbauer Farm, which makes most of its sales at farmers markets in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities, has tried not to pass costs on to consumers.

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“We no longer make any profit from our eggs.”

The farm prides itself on organic vegetable prices that are “on par” with imported organic produce on grocery store shelves.

“There’s still a perception that farmers markets are more expensive or more of a niche market, and that may be true… but I think the cost at the market reflects the true cost of production,” Forstbauer said.

O’Hara said interest in farmers markets has grown over the past decade as British Columbians have become more interested in buying local, sustainable foods and knowing where they come from. The pandemic strengthened support for local markets, while introducing some people to it for the first time.

He would like to see local and regional governments recognize the enormous benefits that farmers’ markets bring to people and communities. Many are run by volunteers and nonprofit groups.

“Going to a farmers market is joyful, fun, community-based and neighborhood-based,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

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