Monday, October 4, 2010

CSA v. Farmers' Market v. Supermarket: The Numbers

Cucumbers from Tipi Creek Farm and bell peppers from the Old Strathcona Farmers' MarketWe've finally crunched the numbers: we weighed every gram of food we received from our CSA share at Tipi Creek, then found prices for equivalent goods from a farmers' market and a grocery store.

The results surprised me. I expected that the grocery store would be by far the cheapest, and that the CSA would be only slightly cheaper than the farmers' market. In reality, the grocery store was marginally cheaper than the CSA, while the farmers' market was much, much more expensive. The final costs were:

  • CSA Cost: $600
  • Farmers' Market Cost: $1044.73
  • Grocery Store Cost: $510.76

I was shocked to see how close the CSA and grocery store prices ended up. Obviously I always knew the farmers' market was more expensive that the supermarket, but I didn't think it was twice the cost. Yikes. These numbers make me want to give Ron and Yolande at Tipi Creek a hug.

All the raw numbers are in the spreadsheet at the bottom of this post. Before looking at the spreadsheet, please read the information below on our collection process and some sources of error.

The Data Collection

When weighing vegetables from the CSA, only the weight of the commonly used part of the vegetable was measured. The weights listed for beets, for example, are the weights of the root portion only, without the greens, even though the greens are good eats. This was done for easy comparison to grocery store items, which are usually sold leafless (it's hard to keep the leaves looking fresh when they've travelled so far...) Other examples: kohlrabi leaves and carrot tops.

The grocery store prices were collected from the Garneau Safeway on Whyte Avenue in September.
We used this store as it is our main source of groceries outside the CSA and farmers' markets. From previous cost analysis projects, we know that this store is generally more expensive than others in the city (like the Sobey's down the street). Most produce is sold at a set price per kilogram, which made data collection easy. Exceptions are parsley and radishes, which are sold in bunches of unmarked weight. These items required visual estimation, and may be a small source of error. All grocery store prices are for conventional produce, ie. not the more-expensive "organic" produce.

Farmers' market prices
were collected at the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market from July through October. Because of the informal pricing scheme most vendors use, the farmers' market prices are by far the least reliable numbers in the study. Only a few vegetables are sold by weight, most being sold per "bunch" or "bag". To collect data we would find, for instance, a head of butter lettuce, and say, "That's about how much butterleaf we got from the CSA this week," and note the price. Not an exact science, clearly. Prices for given vegetables were fairly consistent among vendors. If there was a variance, we took the middle-of-the-road price.

Hidden Costs and Benefits of the CSA

There are some costs to the CSA outside the money paid at the beginning of the growing season: the gas used to drive to the farm and to the weekly pick-up location, and the time and resources spent processing the vegetables at home. Most of the vegetables have to be thoroughly washed. Freezing extra vegetables (a must when only two people are sharing the produce) requires blanching in boiling water, shocking in ice water, then plastic bags for storage. Items like leafy greens and herbs are loosely wrapped in paper towel and kept in an open plastic bag. We went through a lot of paper and plastic.

There is also the time spent working at the farm (four sessions lasting maybe three hours each). Of course, we think that time adds to the value of the CSA share. After all, you get to drive into the country, you can visit as you work, and some work days end in a potluck. I just thought I would mention the time for the sake of economic completeness.

Quality Factor

It should also be noted that the quality of produce received from the CSA and farmers' market was of superior quality to the grocery store. This was especially true of carrots and corn.

The Data

Okay. With the formalities out of the way, feel free to peruse the raw data by clicking on the image below. Please let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future data collection.

An image of the spreadsheet comparing CSA, farmers' market, and supermarket costs


  1. Fantastic write-up, and very eye-opening. Just one more reason to get involved with CSA programs.

  2. Holy crap that's thorough. WELL DONE. Meat butchering has slightly more drastic numbers, with broadly the same relationship overall - the big difference in my mind being food/ag ethics. But if compared to like-ethic'd meats, diy kills retail box-store. Gardening, however, kills them all...but that's a little uneven of a comparison, I suppose.

  3. All the raw numbers are in the spreadsheet at the bottom of this post...please read the information below on our collection process and some sources of error.

    This is what happens when you put an engineer in charge of the food. Well done. :)

    The straight-up price comparison is interesting. What I've always wondered is how well the food availability matches up against what you would have bought had you had the run of the grocery store each week. Do you end up being stuck with a bunch of stuff you wouldn't otherwise want, or missing out on things you'd really prefer?

  4. mykeg - Some staple crops were received almost every week. On the spreadsheet you can see that we got potatoes for nine of the twelve weeks. Others vegetables came in a fell swoop: we got about three kilos of beans in as many weeks. Windfalls like that are alleviated by freezing and pickling.

    Leafy greens and herbs are always the hardest to use up, because they grow abundantly but don't keep well.

    We occasionally supplemented our shipments with produce from the market (we go through a lot of onions...) Also, there is no greenhouse component to the CSA, so all our bell peppers and tomatoes came from the market. Otherwise I'd say we got a convenient variety of produce that we were able to cook our meals around.

  5. THIS - is a super fantastic data analysis !

    i applaud !!

  6. Like you, Allan, I am surprised. I would not have thought the farmer's market was double a CSA. I like that you used your closest grocery store to compare produce prices. It is definitely expensive, as are all Safeway Stores, but people love them. What an amazing project. I love self initiated projects like this. Thank you for sharing. I am blown away.

  7. This was a wonderful post to read and I just love the details.. thank you for sharing this.

    I live in ontario and have about the same percents, the store vs the CSA price is simular but that the farmer's market is way more money..

    I would have to do numbers to see if its double here as well or even a bit more. Its been something I have been tracking myself and was wondering if it was in part because of my area.. interesting to here that its the same in a different province.


  8. This is an amazing breakdown, thanks for the info!

    Val, this is purely based on memory, but when I lived in Guelph the Farmer's market vegetables were much much cheaper than those here in Edmonton. I felt like there were always potential deals at that market AND the base prices were reasonable (and sometime even cheaper than the grocery store). I moved away 5 years ago though, so perhaps prices have gone up?

  9. Farmer's markets are often quite expensive. I usually just buy things I can't find anywhere else (like blueberry pierogies). If they're selling BC produce, and so is the supermarket, what's the difference? Also, you can bet those peanuts and coffee beans aren't locally grown.

    Cheapest food by far: