Fort Mill Times

Food for thought: Local produce fresh and tasty, but not always a bargain

Lorraine Wallace of Fort Mill shops at Fort Mill Produce on Hwy. 21. Owner Johnny Gariulo has about 3,000 customers a week.
Lorraine Wallace of Fort Mill shops at Fort Mill Produce on Hwy. 21. Owner Johnny Gariulo has about 3,000 customers a week.

Buying produce at the local farmer's market may have benefits, but not necessarily for consumers' wallets.

Prices vary by farm stand and some customers visit them for price while others are looking for quality.

Jeanette Henson, owner of The Produce Barn in Indian Land, said customers typically visit farmer's markets and produce stands for inexpensive, local produce. But this year she expects produce costs, like the cost for most consumer goods, will rise.

"I don't think it will be cheaper this year," Henson said. "Like everything else, fuel costs affect everything from candy to nuts to produce. It affects everything."

District Conservationist Ann Christie, with the Lancaster County Soil and Water Conservation District, said most small farmers in Indian Land and Lancaster County don't have to travel far to sell their produce. They sell at their farms or at one of two farmer's markets in Lancaster. They also don't use large farming equipment for their small fields, so high fuel prices haven't hit them as hard as another rising cost: Fertilizer.

The rising cost of fertilizer trickles down to the consumer at farmer's markets, she adds.

"Most people look at the farm market as a place to get a bargain and hopefully fresher fruits and vegetables, and when they see prices go up they tend to buy less," Christie said.

At the Fruit and Vegetable Grower's Market in Lancaster, many of the shoppers are senior citizens on fixed incomes. When produce prices increase, they may decide to shop elsewhere, Christie said.

Elsewhere in the township, Johnny Gariulo, owner of Fort Mill Produce on Hwy. 21, said he is currently serving about 3,000 customers a week.

"We're just beginning to see the local stuff come in," he said. "We try to get as much local stuff as possible from the Carolinas during season."

Because small farmers deal with the produce stands, Gariulo said he can sell at lower prices than the supermarkets because "it doesn't have to go to the warehouse, plus the cost of shipping." Lorraine Wallace of Fort Mill, who was shopping at the stand last week, said she always tries to get her produce there.

"The quality is better," she explained, "and a lot of times the prices are better, too."

According to Henson, sweet corn and watermelons are the first items available at most produce stands in the summer. Those are also two of the biggest sellers, she said. Tomatoes and zucchini will also be available.

Henson said she isn't sure how much of a price increase customers can expect to see on each item compared to last summer.

Despite rising costs, both Christie and Henson are quick to point out the benefits of buying local produce.

"Things are fresher," Henson said. "They don't sit in a warehouse when you buy locally."

Henson said she hopes customers will continue to be drawn to The Produce Barn for its locally grown, mostly organic produce as well as its specialties: Elderberry jam, chilled watermelons, fresh boiled peanuts and a friendly open-air market atmosphere.

Reporter Karen Bair contributed to this story.