Garden strawberries are a tempting item to add to the urban garden, but may not be worth it. I was thinking of putting some in myself. But then I visited farmer and strawberry grower Debra Stoneham. And I interviewed California strawberry farmers for a Washington Post story (excerpted below). I decided not to grow garden strawberries, mostly because they take up so much space in the urban garden. But I learned a lot about why farmer’s market berries are so pricey:
You can grow your own garden strawberries, but they won’t cost less than those at the grocery. In our market, grocery strawberries are half the price of those at the farmer’s market. I learned why when I visited farmer and strawberry planter Debra Stoneman.
Strawberry farmers do most of the work by hand, no matter what size farm. Field workers for large growers are “guaranteed minimum,” a pay rate that is monitored by various government and advocacy groups, says Oleg Daugovish, farm adviser at the University of California’s cooperative extension. California’s minimum wage is slightly higher than Virginia’s, so labor costs are not the deciding factor for strawberry prices.
It is important to know that for many small growers, farming is more a lifestyle than a business. They aren’t as ruthless about profit margins as their larger competitors. Debra Stoneman runs the 16.5 organic acres of Byrd Farm in Columbia, Virginia, with her husband Philip, their high-school-aged daughter and two longtime employees.
“We don’t take any money out of this farm,” Stoneman says. She and her husband work long farmer’s hours for free. They pay their bills with retirement income. At age 63, Stoneman can still harvest a row of garden strawberries at blinding speed. But these days she spends more time doing administrative work. She can rattle off most of her expenses with the accuracy of a chief financial officer on an earnings call.
Not that she’s concerned about big profits. “I’m here because I love it,” Stoneman says, “I know I’m fighting the good fight, and I’ll die up there on that hill.”
Stoneman’s prices aren’t always an accurate reflection of her product’s true cost. Pricing is a black art that every small business struggles with – trying to find a sweet profitable spot in between what it costs to produce something and what price the market will pay for that item. Businesses tend to price lower for a high volume of steady sales, and price higher for seasonal and specialty items. Fiddling with that equation is so complex that business school professors make careers out of teaching it. And it’s even harder if, like many small farmers, you don’t track your numbers.
“I set my prices around where the grocery stores are, the higher end,” says Crumptown farmer Brad Constable. “Sometimes I track costs, but there are so many that they get away from you quickly.” In California’s Central Valley, the small growers I checked were charging from $2.50 to $5.00 a pound for local strawberries.
Small farmers in both California and Virginia explained that they often set prices to account for their lower yields and better quality. They grow short-season summer varieties that prioritize flavor instead of hardiness, beauty and productivity.
Stoneman has only about three-quarters of an acre in organic strawberries. With such small acreage she is more susceptible to losses due to Virginia’s unpredictable climate. For example, she estimates that 50% of this year’s berry harvest molded in unusually heavy spring rains. Byrd Farm can’t supplement with fields in drier parts of the Southeast, or even Mexico, as many large California berry suppliers like Driscoll’s can. For small farms, profits spike and dip, so profitable crops need to offset money-losing crops or an entire bad year.
Ultimately, farmer’s market shoppers, farm-to-table chefs and gourmet grocery stores simply don’t care about complex pricing details. They are often happy to spend more money to support small local farmers rather than finance big industry. But they would throw all those “support local farms” arguments out the window if the produce didn’t taste great. And flavor is where local and garden strawberries have California’s shipped fruit beat.
“The strawberries from California have a hollow heart, they’re not dense inside. We call them Styrofoam berries,” Stoneman says. That extra density is why her quarts weigh more. The California berries look terrific, and they’re available nearly year round, so you can serve strawberry shortcake at your Labor Day picnic. But they simply don’t have much flavor.
This story was originally written for the Washington Post Food section.