Farmers Market Update: Cheapest Produce Ever

by | May 24, 2009


And now for something completely different.

In a break from my usual elitist glory San Francisco farmers market adventure, I took a field trip this weekend to sunny Southern California where I discovered the cheapest produce I have ever seen in this state. Seriously, it was crazy.

Normally I prefer to hit up either the Irvine or Santa Monica markets when I’m in the OC. But this Saturday wasn’t amenable to a drive across town so instead I visited the Orange County Marketplace at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa on Sunday. It is open 7am to 4pm Saturdays and Sundays, admission $2.

The OC Marketplace is really more of a swap meet than a farmers market, but there is a whole section for fresh produce. At the vegetable stands I found what I consider typical Southern California fare–tomatoes, avocados, citrus, squash and peppers–with a few seasonal items mixed in. I saw nothing particularly exotic, and the quality of produce ranged from not-so-hot to pretty good.

What is truly remarkable about this place is the prices.

Cheap Berries

Cheap Berries

Cheap Asparagus

Cheap Asparagus

Asparagus is typically $3-7 dollars per bunch at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. At the OC Marketplace it was $0.99. Berries, typically $3-6 per basket (even at the supermarket), dropped in price while we waited in line from (I kid you not) a ridiculously cheap 3 baskets for $2, to a mind-bogglingly cheap 4 baskets for $2. And from what I could tell they were perfectly ripe and in excellent condition.

Have you ever seen 7 white peaches for $1? I have.

Cheap Apricots

Cheap Apricots

Cheap Peaches

Cheap Peaches

Honestly, I don’t get it. If any of you can explain to me how this market can practically give away groceries I would love to know the reason.

My best guess is these are simply whole sale prices. In other words, these are the same goods grocery stores buy and sell to you for a higher price. The quality of produce was certainly more on par with grocery stores than what I have seen at other Southern California markets. And I doubt much of it was organic, though few items were clearly marked.

Alternatively these vendors could be offering a mix of whole sale and local fare. It wasn’t clear to me if/how any of the offerings were locally grown. This being California, however, it seems logical that at least some of the goods come from the area. When I asked someone where the food was from the answer I got was “the L.A. market,” which obviously is not a farm.

My worst fear is that much of this produce comes from the horrible slave farms that are starting to be exposed. Hopefully that isn’t true.

The source of this produce may be a little dubious, but I cannot imagine you finding a better deal anywhere in Orange County. If organic and local are less important to you than simply affording fresh healthy food, a trip to the OC Marketplace is easily worth the price of admission.

For you Bay Area readers, I’ve seen similar deals at the Ashby market in Berkeley (no admission fee).

Do you know anything about these swap meet style produce vendors?

Note: Since it is Memorial Day there will not be a new post on Monday. We’ll be back Wednesday–same Tomato time, same Tomato channel.

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10 Responses to “Farmers Market Update: Cheapest Produce Ever”

  1. Lizzie says:

    I can’t believe you called it the OC.

  2. jeff Clark says:

    I have been to the produce area at the swap meet a few times over the last several years, but other than the low prices, nothing drew me back on a regular basis. Between the entrance fee, lots of people leading to parking issues and a hit and miss on the quality of the produce, I saw no reason to make a regular visit. Like your experience, I had a hard time validating the source, although one market indicated some of his came from China (I found that hard to believe, but who knows, this was a few years ago).
    Thanks to your suggestion, I will stay with the Irvine Farmer’s market. I have started to get to know some of the vendors and getting their insight on good and not so good buys. It helps to no the vendor.

  3. I have not been to a farmer’s market here in a long time, although we do occasionally stop at roadside stands. Of course, we grow a considerable amount of vegetables ourselves. Nonetheless, I have never seen prices this cheap.

  4. You raise a great point about the ethics of buying super cheap food. I mean, MAYBE this is surplus from an organic farmer who treats his land and employees well… Maybe.

  5. elizabeth says:

    First of all, it is a “swap meet” not a certified farmers market which means that the produce for sale is probably coming from outside of the country and/or is being sold by re-sellers and not actual farmers. Certified farmers markets in California are regulated to only sell product grown and harvested within the state and each seller must have a producers certificate from the counties in which they farm stating exactly what they grow, quantities, etc. Also putting up a sign that says “organic” with no state issued organic growers certification and third party certifier certificate is against CDFA and NOP rules. This is regulated highly at the certified market level, but unfortunately not at re-seller swap meets as you described.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Whoa, thanks for the info. I don’t think I saw any organic signs up. There were stickers on some of the fruit indicating it was not organic. I appreciate your insight!

  6. Emily L. says:

    I grew up in Palo Alto and Ann Arbor became addicted to their (small but) beautiful farmer’s markets. Now I live in Miami and I can’t find good local produce for sale anywhere! It kills me. Luckily all the psychologists in my department just bring us mangoes fresh from their trees. but a girl needs variety. (I know, I never thought I’d say that about mangoes either. But try eating one every day for a month)

  7. julie says:

    I went to that flea market when I was down there about a year ago, produce seemed similar quality to Grocery Outlet.

    Ashby Market in Berkeley? I’ve never heard of it. Do you mean the Berkeley Bowl? The only grocery store within a mile of my house? Lucky me.

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