Should you pay $10 a pint for blueberries? Maybe

August 23, 2013

(WBEZ/Monica Eng)
Blueberries on the bush at Mike’s Blueberry Farm in New Buffalo Michigan.

I love blueberries.

And I love sustainable food. But I also love to pay my mortgage.

So I’ve puzzled over the vastly different prices I’ve seen in recent weeks for, what taste like, similar blueberries.   

From Aldi and Garden Centers to farmers markets and Whole Foods,  I’ve recorded blueberry prices that range from $1.60 to $10 a pint.

Why the huge disparity? And is it wrong to go for the lowest possible price?  

I recently went in search of answers and started with the the Michigan Farm Bureau, which represents the state’s farmers – among them blueberry growers. The Bureau’s Craig Anderson explained that sometimes when you see super cheap berries they don’t represent the true cost of the product.

“Many stores during harvest will run specials that will put blueberries at or below the actual cost just to get people in the store,” he said.

But, more influential, Anderson says, is grower size.  Although it might seem logical that blueberries from around the lake should be cheaper than those from Canada, Washington, Georgia and even California, Anderson notes that this won’t be the case if the farflung grower has a big, efficient growing and shipping operation. While mileage can factor into the final price, it’s not as influential, experts say, as the actual farm cost of the produce and the size and efficiency of the shipment.

As our food systems have become increasingly globalized (rather than regional), some of the routes connecting huge growers in, say, California, Mexico, Canada or Washington to Chicago have become more efficient than local ones.  Jim Slama president of FamilyFarmed.Org has been working to remedy this situation by recreating Midwest distribution hubs that can aggregate the products of several smaller growers and ship them all together.

Plus, Illinois’ crops are generally not the kind you can pick and put on your plate. Most of our fertile flat land is devoted to field corn and soybeans destined for animal feed or processed food ingredients.

“The trend in agriculture after WWII was to get big or get out,” Slama said. “So farms in Illinois did that and there was a lot of consolidation. Farms became 2000, 3000 even 5,000 acres and they primarily did commodity crops that there were still ready markets for and it was easy….Farmers can grow commodities on 1,000 acres and employ just themselves and a couple of children and then part-timers at harvest and planting...On a 100-acre vegetable farm you need 25 people. It’s much more complicated to grow fruits or vegetables. You have to pay a lot more attention to pest pressures and all sorts of things.”

Still, Slama notes, those who want to put in that hard work can make a lot more money per acre than they would planting corn and soy, and they’d keep more agricultural money in the state. According to a 2010 study, Illinois imports 94 percent of all of its food from out of state. That same Iowa State study suggests that if local food production were increased in the seven counties of metropolitan Chicago, it could create over 5,000 jobs and generate $6.5 billion of economic activity per year.

But back to the blueberries: So the higher prices for the local and organic berries may reflect special sales and economies of scale from big growing and shipping operations. I get that.

But if a farmer can cut out the middleman and sell his produce right at the market, shouldn’t that product cost less? Dennis Ryan, who served as market manager for Green City Market and 61st Street Farmers Market in Chicago for six years, explained that participating in farmers markets comes with costs for farmers. These include market fees, labor to staff the stalls and transportation. He also notes that markets with a convenient location and big selection – like Green City – can cost more because they offer a lot. Plus, he says farmers markets are more fun than supermarkets.

“You have the community aspect, you have music, you can get your lunch, you can watch a chef demo,” he says. “You can get an education. You can bring your kids. It’s like an event. Not only are you  getting your food but you can have a lovely afternoon out with your family and that should all be factored in when you are talking about the price….It’s not like walking down the aisle of a supermarket.”

OK, so farmers markets can offer a richer experience than a visit to the supermarket, for some, but then why so much variation between a pint of blueberries in a Michigan City, Indiana farmers market ($3) versus Chicago’s Lincoln Park ($6), just one hour away?

I was told by one Michigan produce watcher that folks who live in the heart of Michigan blueberry country simply won’t pay more than $3 a pint for berries. But if you are a fancy Lincoln Park shopper, you probably will.  

“You try to figure out what the market will bear,” says Brian Bocock of Naturipe Farms which distributes blueberries from all over the world. “That’s a very difficult thing to do. In fact, very few people, including yours truly, get it right.”

While Ryan agrees that “what the market will bear” plays a factor, he says it’s “not a major one.”

And finally, the most expensive blueberries I found cost about $4.99 for 6 ounces at Whole Foods. They were organic blueberries from Washington State.

Bocock notes that organic berries are a special case. Because they require better land stewardship and fewer pesticides and fertilizers, they can cost more to grow. “But the biggest thing...is that your yield per acres is reduced versus conventional. So, by definition, you have to get more money for that product in order to stay in business year after year.”

While some people buy local or organic berries for higher nutrient levels, those levels are actually determined by other agricultural factors like variety, soil health and ripeness at picking.  But, with blueberries especially, says University of California food science professor Christine Bruhn, one of the biggest factors in determining nutrients is proper cool storage. This can give chilly supermarkets an advantage over sultry summer farmers markets--unless farmers take care to keep the berries cool during shipping and handling.

So should I actually feel good about buying that $6 or $10 pint of blueberries? Ryan says that even if farmers may alter prices for particular markets, consumers can feel good about supporting those who work to preserve soil health and maintain sustainable agriculture in our region—often without getting a lot back in return.

“The small family farmer is definitely not getting rich off of these prices,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and, even when you factor in the prices they may get at farmers markets, based on all of their expenses and labor, one farmer told me, they are still making less than $2 an hour.”

What do you think?

A selection of recent blueberry prices for a pint:

  • Sawyer Garden Center (Sawyer, MI,): 10 pounds for $20 ($1.60 a pint)

  • Aldi in Chicago: $1.69 a pint (for Canadian blueberries)

  • Big Apple Finer Foods, Lincoln Park: Two pints for $4 (from Michigan and Georgia)

  • Union Pier, MI farmers market: $3.50 a pint

  • Michigan City, IN farmers market: $3 a pint

  • Mike’s Blueberry Farm in New Buffalo MI: $1.75 a pound (for U-Pick) and $3 a pound picked (a pint is about two thirds of a pound).

  • Green City Farmers Market: $6 a pint (or 2 for $10)

  • Whole Foods: Organic Washington/Michigan blueberries: $4.99 6 oz